When I think of non-conformity, I see this as an absolute strength within autistic culture.

It is not a learned trait or nurtured within early childhood experiences but something that is somehow inherited within the neurological differences as compared to non-autistic people.

Disclaimer – This may not be your experience of being autistic and does not diminish your experiences in anyway.This is one specific trait or representation of being autistic that I have noticed as a neurodiversity-affirming LMFT.

In my experiences, this nonconformity can feel problematic for other people and causes great difficulty for autistic people and their families. It is often articulated as behavioral problems, interpreted as  argumentative or demand aversive. This is not true in my experience of non-conformity. It sounds really patterned when these problems are conveyed in intake phone calls within my therapy practice.

With great concern a parent may share a story that their kindergartener “refuses” to sit on the carpet during circle time and has asserted that he sits in his care. This also might also include words that are often used, like “transition issues,” “task avoidance,” “rigidity,” “non-compliance” or “difficulty with non-preferred.” So often the next part is wanting to plan, fix or change the behavior so as to conform to the expectation. It is often such a point of distress that it precipitates the call to therapy. These concerns for “behavioral excesses” might even be the impetus for a referral to receive in-school supports, or even worse have punishments such as detention or suspension.

What if I told you that this “behavior problem” was not any of these things. That autistic people cannot be reduced to these behavioral issues.

What if I told you that the same assumptions that were being placed on the autistic person such as fidgeting, not listening, and inflexibility may also be happening within the interaction, but by the non-autistic person who believes that they are not the problem.

Rigid thinking might have occurred when the teacher assumed that the only place to sit during circle time was on the carpet as directed. This was the initial thought and perhaps something that has occurred for years. Likely the autistic person wasn’t asked “why” for wanting to remain in the chair or elsewhere in the classroom. Very likely the teacher has never considered the carpet has remained very important to her in this moment or for years. Even more likely, the teacher values conformity so as to make her and others more comfortable. Almost with certainty, his teacher has not considered the value of non-conformity and this trait alone is something wildly powerful for humanity.

To me, nonconformity pushes the needle of change.

To me, the non-conformists are often first to challenge the status quo. They notice, analyze and then do the thing that most of us herd-like people don’t do…they demand change. It’s pretty amazing. I have only adopted non-conformity toward social change when the tension was too great, when the damages of the dominant discourse about what it means to be autistic started showing up in my therapy room as suicidality, trauma, self-loathing.

When I discovered my own social justice lens, I noticed it everywhere in autistic culture. When I took action towards shifting the status quo, I noticed that I had to unpack years of just staying quiet and staying in my place. When I started getting more bold, it wasn’t the autistic people who told me to quiet down or not make waves or worry about the repercussions of speaking loudly against ableism; it was the sheep.

When I reflect about my own non-conformity, it leads to many parts of my life in ways that aren’t all that important to how the world works. Yet, these are the parts where we can all see our own sheep-like behavior fairly easily. It’s in the Stanley cup and Lulu lemon leggings that I wear. It’s in the iPhone that I carry. It’s everywhere in my life and it has been for its entirety. In fact, we are often bothered by people who don’t conform in the most basic ways.

It’s common for people to have issues with an autistic person for dressing in a chosen style, like say sweatpants and a graphic tee (real example, not a stereotype), but no problem with the possibility that we all choose our clothing based on our own style and that we also chose the frequency how often we wear certain clothes.

The value of non-conformity can be seen in historical events where it took that resistance to save lives, with the most prevalent example being the Holocaust. Many lives were saved by those who resisted. Millions of lives were lost because of conformity without question. Much could have been different if people would have questioned the why. It doesn’t just stop with the holocaust, we can see non-conformist in the women’s suffrage movement. The civil rights movement didn’t occur without the intense commitment to challenging the status quo, even when danger persisted. We have non-conformists in the underlying human rights issues of the 1970s where burning bras was more of a symbol than the why.

Non-conformists are needed for social change.

Non-conformists’ analysis and action should be a valued part of being human and looked at with awe when we see it in early childhood. Autistic culture doesn’t need to become non-conformist based on an observation of reduction of rights for others; it’s part of who many autistic people enter this world. And to me that is absolutely remarkable.

If you are finding yourself fighting this concept in your mind, run through an experience where you wanted to speak out and didn’t. Find moments where you question why you just naturally do what others do without thinking. Discover moments within your own lives where non-conformity changed your life or someone else’s in a positive way. Consider what being a sheep has done to you and where you would like to adopt non-conformity. I’m not talking about the simple things like not wanting the newest skin product at Sephora. What if you learned to adopt non-conformity values and value it in others.

If You Want To Sheep With Me and Learn Non-Conformity, Here are 5 Ways

  1. Celebrate non-conformity – Validate non-conformity action when you notice it in others. Love this part of yourself if you are a natural or learned non-conformist.
  2. Choose to release expectations of conformity where it is not problematic to anyone. Another person judging your child or you for wearing sweatpants is not your problem and is more on the judgmental person to sort through why they are in that space.
  3. Filter experiences where people demand a certain set of behaviors whether in the classroom or anywhere through the lens of non-conformity/conformity mismatch.
  4. Learn to lean in to understanding others’ actions without defining them as negative. Even if everyone else easily complies, that may not be enough to determine that compliance is the only option or the non-conformist is bad. This starts with something as simple as, “I notice that you have a different opinion than mine, I am thinking about where my opinion comes from. Can you help me understand your opinion?”
  5. In situations where the issue at hand really lends itself towards following the status quo, then get to why it matters. Answering why is a powerful shift for many people, not just autistic people. Some of us just don’t ask why. “Why” should not be a threatening conversation, “Why” doesn’t challenge authority unless authority wants blind submission. That is dangerous.

Non-Conformity Breaks Down Barriers

Because if we value the non-conformist and then see that we can learn non-conformity; we break down barriers. If we see this trait in autistic people within the context of an amazing strength to humanity, we get access to it. If we shut down this trait and choose to see it as all the negative behaviors; I can tell you with certainty that we lose out on that trait and its development, we damage others by asserting near-normative values on others, and we generally do wrong to another person’s heart.

If you are a natural non-conformist and these internalized messages have created negative self-worth, see yourself through my eyes. See yourself through the eyes of this therapist that knows wholeheartedly that your non-conformist values are the thing that will change the world. You have certainly changed the way I show up in spaces that demand change.

I don’t do conformity….but I’ll ask you to conform this one time. Conform with me and become a non-conformist!

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