What is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’ and when should we just listen by Yenn Purkis

I used to be friends with a narcissist (as I imagine most people have at some point). This person had to be right and they loved to argue. I deliberately stopped being offended when she repeatedly said something rude. This resulted in her stopping talking about that thing and moving on to another topic which bothered me! I remember having an argument when she was clearly in the wrong. There were witnesses who told me this as well but this woman couldn’t let it go. She HAD to be right.

Thankfully, most of us don’t have that almost pathological need to be in the right, but wanting to ‘win’ an argument is something that is quite common.

When I was younger I was a socialist. This involved a lot of disagreement and I wanted to prove I was ‘right’. However, as I got older I realised that often there is more than one correct — or incorrect — view. There is often not just the one answer and I discovered that people who hold views I disagree with can actually be good friends.

In terms of autism advocacy this is a very important set of considerations. What is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’? Are there absolutes? Are there things which will always be unacceptable and require argument and are there things which are OK to remain as grey areas? What do you say to someone in the community who disagrees with you? When is it OK to ‘go in hard’ and when it is OK to agree to disagree?

I spend a lot of my time talking to neurotypical parents of autistic kids. Some of these parents are very new to autism and only know what they have been told by the person who diagnosed their child and maybe their child’s teacher at school. When I turn up with my fairly nuanced understanding of autism and my almost fifteen years of experience as an advocate, there tends to be a mismatch. Parents might be using things I strongly disagree with.  In the past I have gone in hard and told parents in no uncertain terms what is right and wrong and in doing so I have lost them. In fact, I suspect I may have lost them for me and any other autistic advocate they encounter from now until the end of time!

In order to avoid losing people that I want to listen to my views, such as neurotypical parents (who are probably the biggest influence on their autistic kids) I have developed a strategy. I think of autism knowledge as a journey. Everyone is somewhere along their journey. There’s autistic advocates who have a great deal of experience and knowledge up one end and parents of newly-diagnosed kids at the other end, desperate for things to help their child but lacking a deep understanding of the issues.

When I recognise this concept of a journey, I realise that my words and actions can help that parent to  move along their journey to a place of greater understanding, meaning whatever they are doing for their kids is likely to be helpful and supportive. If I yell at them and tell them they are wrong the day we meet, it might be great for expressing my opinion, but it doesn’t help in influencing or changing others’ thinking or behaviour.

Also this doesn’t mean I agree with any of the unhelpful views people may hold or that I think they are OK. I don’t. It is just that I want to enter an ongoing dialogue with people and inform their views where they are receptive rather than jumping in too early and scaring them off. Of course if a child is at risk that is a totally different scenario requiring prompt action. I have developed a range of conversations to have with parents of newly diagnosed kids. I explain what I think autism means and then get talking about concepts around respecting neurodiversity. And it usually works. So while there are some definite cringe-worthy moments, there is also an ongoing dialogue which I hope will make a difference for parents and, most importantly, their child.

There are times when this more gentle approach is needed but on other occasions being ‘right’ and making the arguments is essential. Last year I was featured on news.com.au refuting claims by a ‘researcher’ who basically proposed eugenics for autistic people. There were no grey areas in that. It was necessary to publicly disagree with that person and get as many people reading it as possible.

So needing to be ‘right’ can be seen as being relative to the situation. Sometimes maintaining a relationship with a person who has influence over autistic kids — or adults — means there will be some times of ‘biting my tongue’ or expressing a temporarily toned down version of what I want to say with a view to picking it up at a later date. On other occasions there is no room for discussion and there is an imperative for strong counter-arguments, when to employ these different tactics is a judgement call. I have found I get better at this as time goes by.

About Yenn Purkis

Yenn Purkis (formally Jeanette) is an author, presenter, autism advocate and community leader. Yenn is the author of six published books on elements of autism and has contributed to a large number of journals, books and websites. Yenn is a presenter and facilitator and regularly gives keynote presentations including at the 2013 TEDx Canberra conference. Yenn is a member of a number of committees and reference groups and is has a number of awards for leadership in the community, including the 2016 ACT Volunteer of the Year.