Autism Asperger’s Digest February-April 2015
If you ask most adults why one “s” word is acceptable, while another one is crass, rude, and inappropriate, odds are that you’ll get an answer something like: “I don’t know. It just is.” This is pretty much the world’s reasoning for a lot of things.
Yeah, that’s not really an explanation that’s ever worked for me. Any kid can annoy their parents with an unending assault of “Why? Why? Why?” But no kid can keep it up like a spectrum kid. Our brains crave logic. We relish cause and effect. We hoard information like other people gather collectible spoons (STILL awaiting any good reason for THAT).
So let me—a self-confessed word nerd and history geek—share a little bit of “curse word” background. “Profanity” itself comes from a Latin phrase that meant “outside the temple,” which is to say, offensive to the gods’ ears. From country to country, from one century to the next, the specifics of what’s actually considered to be vulgar differs. But, there is a common theme: power.
Whenever two groups conflict, the winner’s rules, clothing, opinions, and even language win out, too. That’s true for nations, religions, even cafeteria cliques.
During the Revolutionary era in the United States, for example, colonists chose to wear drab, rough cloth called “homespun” instead of the softer, prettier fabrics carried by local merchants. Why? The “nice” cloth came from England and English equaled “bad.” So patriots, who did everything and anything they could to show their determined “American-ness,” wore homespun. It might’ve been itchy and plain, but at least the stuff was not English.
Word choice, like wardrobe picks, are about power, too. Just ask William the Conqueror. In 1066, his folks, the Normans (from modern-day France) took over England. Following the defeat, the Brits, called Anglo-Saxons, were suddenly outcasts in their own land. From the throne to local churches, the language of the kingdom changed—officially—to Picard (a kind of French). And as you might expect, the Anglo-Saxon farm folk did not exactly have a Rosetta Stone translator at their fingertips.
There you have the perfect backdrop for how many of our words got their “reputations.” Even today, though you may not realize it, we curse and sound generally “un-posh” in Anglo-Saxon English. On the other hand, we order fancy food in French. For example, after William did his conquering, the upper classes ate “boef” (beef) for supper. The common folk had “cu” (cow). Oh, and along with dinner, the fancy folks had “beverages.” But those vulgar Anglo-Saxons? They just had “drinks.”
And curse words? Well, our “s” word was the polite phrase used by Anglo-Saxon mothers, fathers, and grandmothers to describe what happened in the outhouse. Then, Norman courtiers introduced the word “defecate.” Suddenly, because one group came to power and another lost it, this simple word (and a lot of others like it) went from earthy-but-innocent to cover-your-ears vulgarity.
On its own, no word is inherently good or bad. That judgment is entirely in the mind of the listener, which is why sometimes a word may really upset or offend one person, even though it isn’t considered profane in general. And that is actually what inspired this entire monologue.
There is so very much that’s good about having a spectrum mind: the ability to focus like a laser on something we find fascinating, the catalogue of information we can hold ready, the insatiable drive to learn more. Alongside those gifts, and maybe even partially because of them, many of us struggle with one, serious conundrum: How can I be so smart (or good at this or that), and yet still be so stupid?
Well, let me stop you right there. “Stupid” in my mind, is the real “s” word. And though I understand the frustration and pain behind that question (I really do), I need to tell you why “stupid” is a bad word. For real.
“Stupid” actually has nothing to do with smarts—or lack of them. In fact, it comes from the same root word as the word “stupor,” and originally meant stunned—the way someone who’s been hit over the head might stumble around. Think of the “stupefy” spell from Harry Potter: it doesn’t sap someone of their intelligence. It makes them unconscious—without awareness. Incapable of thinking or acting. And it’s the most basic attack spell a wizard learns.
Here’s the truth: the word “stupid” is a weapon—a real assault on real people in real life … a real drain on the possible. A real surrender. When we say that we “feel stupid,” we’re not actually saying that we are not smart. A bad day didn’t just knock your IQ down fifty points, after all. No, “I feel stupid” means “I feel unable … impotent …without choice … paralyzed.”
Well, guess what? You’re not paralyzed. Ever. Right now—and whatever it contains—may be tough. It may be awkward. It may be unpleasant, and your pride may get in the way…but you always, always, always have some choice about something. You always have power. After all, even choosing to give up is a choice.
You are not a born winner or loser. You are a born chooser—which means that you are never, ever without options; however scary, intimidating, or unfamiliar. You are never without the chance to DO. So, by definition, you are never, ever “stupid.”
Let me be really honest. Whether you yell, whisper, or cry it, “I’m so stupid!” is not about asking for help or guidance. It’s asking to be rescued. It’s not saying, “I can’t.” It’s saying, “I won’t.” I won’t believe that there are solutions other than what I’ve imagined. I’m through trying. I won’t listen any more. I won’t face any more risks. I’m too worn out to reconsider. I’m just not gonna do the hard stuff. It’s too … hard.
My heart goes out to anyone who hurts. However, I don’t have any sympathy for anyone who chooses to suffer needlessly. Who wouldn’t rather just be stupefied or give up? I, too, have been heartbroken and bullied and alone. On the worst days, it’s okay if all you manage to do is breathe…just don’t quit on yourself.
Please believe me. I get it. When someone says, “I’m so stupid!,” she’s feeling pain, frustration, or confusion. He’s at the end of his rope. You’re just plain out of ideas. I understand being too weary or too lonely or too lost to know which end is up. We can all be held prisoner by our own stubbornness, perfectionism, pride, and even by “old tapes” playing lies in our minds. Yet, you can choose and learn how to work through those obstacles. Or not. YOU CAN MOVE.
You are not stupefied. Don’t like something? Not happy? Make a new choice. Make a change. With the right tools, the right advice, and the right friends (ALL of which you can find at Asperkids.com), you’ll discover that if you feel paralyzed by anxiety, circumstance, or habit, YOU are the only person who can ever stand in your own way. You are also the only person who can decide to follow a new route. You’ve got options, time, and power. Always. And those are very, very, very good words, indeed.
Jennifer O’Toole, winner of the 2012 Temple Grandin Award, is an Aspie
(married to an Aspie) with three Asperkids of her own! Her conversationalist presentation of useful insights has touched hearts, lightened spirits, and even led to the founding of Asperkids, LLC, a multimedia social education company. Jennifer is the author of five books, including The Asperkid’s (Secret) Book of Social Rules.
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