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February 25, 2023
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Interview: autism & lying

Last updated on December 15, 2023

Here is an interview about lying from an autistic perspective. The definition of a lie is:

An deliberately false statement used with the purpose of misleading or deceiving others.


Can autistic people lie?

Natalie: Can you lie?

Eva: I rather not. But of course I can lie!

Natalie: So why is it assumed that autistic people do not or cannot lie?

Eva: I think because autistic people have a reputation of being brutally honest in situations where it’s arguably more diplomatic not to; situations where white lies are expected, and situations where it would benefit them socially not to express their unfiltered truth. So because we often undiplomatically and unapologetically speak the truth in social situations—often with undesirable consequences—I think people have gotten the impression that autistic people can’t lie. After all, if they can lie, why would they say such uncomfortable and often insulting things? And why would they insist on speaking the truth if it impacts themselves negatively, and create awkward social situations?

Natalie: So do you lie in situations where neurotypicals would?

Eva: I’m usually too honest for my own good. But yes, sometimes I do bend the truth a little. However, outright lies are very rare for me. I actually can’t recall when I lied in recent years.


White lies, omissions, and deception

Natalie: Can you give me an example where you lied?

Eva: I’m not sure if I could count this as a lie—no, I guess it’s deception, but not exactly a lie. I was thinking about a party I went to for work back in 2017… I asked my colleagues questions that I didn’t care to know the answers to, because I felt that not asking those questions would not reflect well on me. But maybe that’s more masking than lying. It felt insincere to me, anyway. But I think people expect me to show an interest in them. I felt I had to be social and adhere to social conventions, because my boss invited me to his party, so it would have been strange for me not to ask anyone anything. I wouldn’t have gone to the party in the first place if it was socially acceptable to decline. And I didn’t want to lie and make up a reason why I couldn’t go to his party.

Natalie: So what is an example of lying?

Eva: I can’t really recall. But I could give an example of a situation where I arguably should have lied!

One day, my boss walked into the studio with a work of art he purchased, and proudly showed it to everyone. It was some kind of hybrid between a sculpture and a painting by one of his old interns. My colleagues intuitively responded with excitement, but I don’t recall saying anything.

So he asked what I thought of it, and I told him the truth; I said it looked really interesting, but that I didn’t find it particularly aesthetically pleasing. I figured I was balancing something negative with something positive. But that was probably the wrong strategy, because my boss was taken aback by my comment. In hindsight, I think I should have lied; and I probably will next time a situation like that presents itself—assuming I can override my inclination to speak truthfully.

Because, as I later realized—what he was looking for wasn’t really my honest opinion. Or if he was, I still think I could have offered a response that made him feel good, rather than bringing him confusion and disappointment. What he was actually looking for was validation; he wanted me to affirm that he made an awesome purchase. We might even have bonded over our mutual appreciation of the artwork!

Suppose I actually hated the art he purchased, and he proudly shows it to me, asking what I think of it.  If I told him what I genuinely thought of it, what good would that have done? It would unnecessarily have hurt him. Even though my actual answer was a bit more nuanced than expressing extreme dislike, I still think it’s not what he wanted to hear. He would have liked to hear the art looks lovely! After all, he thought it was, because that’s why he purchased it, and I think he imagined his colleagues would affirm how awesome it is.

I also realize, being truthful isn’t about sharing everything you think. I could write a whole book on that artwork my boss showed me. About my initial reaction; what I think after having thought about it longer; how it relates to me and the world; how it juxtaposes with other shapes, concepts, artworks, and art movements; its composition, techniques used, or the process behind the artwork. I could have spoken about all that and more. But he only asked me for a snippet of information. One sentence would suffice. As such, it is quite relevant what snippet of information I offer. Is it necessary for me to say I don’t like it? I could have offered him a lot of other information that would still be true, and yet would have entirely validated him and his purchase. I can thus still be honest while not being brutally honest. Call it half-truths.

Also, when I was at his party, I saw the artwork in his home, and it was a perfect fit to the interior of his house. It looked quite impressive, whereas it wouldn’t have looked good at all in my home. So it’s both interesting and frustrating to know how context-dependent my opinion and answer can even be. It calls into question whether speaking the whole truth is actually necessary even more.


Lying to maintain the mask

So these days, in certain situations and with particular people, I’m more considered in my response. I won’t lie outright, but within the constraints of the truth, if I don’t have a very close relationship with someone, I do try to answer what I think people want to hear rather than what I actually think.

Having said that, I still pride myself as someone who can be counted on to speak the truth. I would think that people can rely on my opinion being genuine much more than with most people. It really depends on who’s asking, too. I try to be socially appropriate in social situations with people I don’t know that well. But with you or my friends, I wouldn’t lie! I want our relationships to be honest and deep, and the only way it can be—and the only way we have a foundation of trust to build on—is if we’re able to be honest with each other.

Natalie: You say that you tell the truth—that people can count on your honesty—but yet you lie, and from the sounds of it, pretty regularly.

Eva: I wouldn’t say regularly. But I did mask quite a bit back when I worked at the design studio. I felt that sometimes I needed to “not be me” to be part of the social environment at work. For starters, I don’t tend to speak about my interests, as I noticed my colleagues weren’t genuinely interested in hearing about it. What I am at work is a constrained version of myself; the version of myself that is relevant to work, and more conducive to the interpersonal relationships there. In that sense, there was little genuinity at work.

Natalie: So people are not genuine at work?

Eva: No, I’m not. Well, I guess nor were my colleagues. When I first started working there, I told a colleague that I liked black holes, and that I had written an article on the topic. He showed interest in the article, and told me that one of his friends was a physicist. I happened to have the article with me, so I figured I would give it to him, and he could read it over in his own time—possibly even show it to his friend—but I don’t think he ever did. It made me feel awkward, because I trusted his interest to be genuine; but if he was interested at all, it didn’t extend as far as to read my article. So I don’t think he was actually interested, but feigned interest to be nice and socially appropriate. And I don’t think he was expecting to be given an article to read. It still confuses me why he showed interest when he actually wasn’t, though. Why even tell me that one of your friends is a physicist? It makes it hard for me to rely on what they say being true or genuine.

Natalie: Yes…

Eva: What makes it difficult is that I have to respond immediately, yet I have so much to think about. As such, I suppose there is a tendency for me to be brutally honest on account of that being my first response. Given more time, a more sophisticated and nuanced view can develop. Ideally, I would go home and think about it before I give my answer—possibly the next day. My boss should have asked me that question to answer as a homework exercise!

Natalie: That would be great! I think there could also be a sex difference when it comes to lying and masking. When growing up… as a female we learn social conventions. We learn to ask ourselves, “What does this neurotypical person want to hear?” So I recall that I was already lying and masking by age 6. When my best friend asked me what my favourite colour was, I said, “What is yours?” She said her favorite color was red, and I said, “Mine too!” I would do this for everything, like my favourite animal, my favorite TV show, etc. NTs are largely looking for us to validate their preferences. And they like people who like similar things to them, so it is good to mimic their preferences, but I was not so adept when I was young. My friend—I recall—got exasperated and said, “Don’t you have an opinion of your own?” It is confusing, you see… they want an opinion that validates theirs, and yet they want it to sound like it is yours.

Like shopping for clothes with NTs… You know, when they ask, “Do you like these pants?” My logic is they have not bought them yet, so tell the truth… Nope—not the right thing to do! They want you to validate them, and confirm to them what they already think. They can actually get quite upset if your opinion contradicts theirs.

Eva: Exactly. But we don’t need to lie per se; we can soften our statements without it detracting from the truth. Instead of saying the pants look bad, you might say the pants don’t quite accentuate the body perfectly—or whatever else actually applies to the situation. Something more nuanced than, “That looks bad”.

Natalie: No, I did all that! It does not work. You really need to mind-read what the person wants to hear.


Consequences of lying

Eva: I think another reason autistic people don’t lie as much is that lying tends to damage us rather than serve us.

Natalie: In what way is it damaging?

Eva: If it goes against our moral framework—which lying tends to do for us—this can result in anxiety, guilt, stress, and possibly even depression.

I also think that to the extent that autistic people lie at all, they are lies to avoid hurting feelings or to evade certain situations; it’s a form of masking, rather than a form of manipulation or an expression of malicious intent. We don’t tend to lie for personal gain.

Natalie: So neurotypicals lie for their own benefit, and we autistics lie for their benefit, too!

What about guilt? If I lie, I feel like I have to fess up; I get obsessed over the fact that I have lied. I really work myself over. But I have found that in conversations with NTs, you just say what they want to hear, and I can reconcile that as a social convention—not a lie… But it’s frustrating not being able to speak the truth, and exhausting to try to deduce what other people actually want to hear.

Eva: Yeah. I think autistics get so much social and sensory information we need to intuit, and we process this information in arguably convoluted ways. As such, lying just adds unnecessary complexity to our life on top of all the complexity we’re already dealing with. It takes such a cognitive effort, and you have to memorize your own lies and track which lies you told to what person—just to sustain your credibility. It sounds exhausting just to think about the logistics of all that! It just seems a lot better to tell the truth, so that life is less complicated. You don’t have to keep track of your deceptions, you don’t have to experience the guilt and anxiety for having lied, and you don’t have to fear being found out as a liar.

Natalie: Is it okay to lie to your family?

Eva: No, it’s not. And I would never feel good about myself doing it. Not about outright lies, anyway. But I might omit information in certain cases for the benefit of someone else. For instance, my mother often asks me about my opinion on certain things, like art she makes, or art or furniture she bought; but she is very sensitive, so I generally focus on what I like about whatever she asks about, and point that out—rather than speaking my mind freely.

Natalie: Well, I think that is a lie, but is there any benefit to telling the truth?

Eva: Probably not the unfiltered truth, no. I tried to in the past, and it just ends up hurting her. She would take it as harsh criticism, so it doesn’t benefit her. She doesn’t tend to take criticism well from anyone. One time, someone online gave her elaborate criticism and she went on and on about how much time the person spent on what I considered to be constructive criticism, and how this woman could do such a thing to her, and yet all I thought was, “Yes, look at how much time this person spent on trying to help you!”. If she asks me for my opinion, I start having anxiety, as I have to consider what the right thing to say is. I try to be as honest as she will endure, but I usually find it easier to express something I feel positive about.

Natalie: So lying makes you anxious. Why?

Eva: It causes stress, and a slight fright; like something is not computing in this world… In my youth, I lied about stealing candy. When my parents would confront my siblings and me about candy that disappeared from the kitchen cabinets, I did not want to admit that I did it, as I already felt bad about taking it, and I was terrified of getting in trouble on top of that. I think that when I lie, I feel that same subconscious fright, like I’m getting in trouble. So I think I feel the same anxiety and fear for having lied that others might feel when they are confronted with their lies. It’s a very strong deterrent not to lie.


Getting lied to

Natalie: What do you feel about people lying to you?

Eva: Obviously I do not like it, but who does? I expect to be told the truth, and if I find out I have been lied to, that takes whatever else they might say into question. I don’t like that level of uncertainty. I already find it challenging to distinguish between social convention and genuinity. I need to be able to rely on a person, or else I rather avoid them. And so I highly appreciate it when people are upfront with me, and when they are honest even if it hurts. Nothing is too crazy for me.

Natalie: You mean you don’t judge?

Eva: Yes, I am very open-minded. But I’m also naive—thinking others operate the same way as I do, even though I know this isn’t actually the case. Somehow, I keep expecting people to tell the truth, and I don’t feel people have a reason to lie to me.

I think this is also what makes us vulnerable. Just because it’s logistically and cognitively too complicated for us to lie a lot, that doesn’t mean that others deal with the same challenges with lying. I suppose most people don’t lie maliciously, and yet it seems quite common for people to be less than honest, and being ingenuine in social situations. For this reason, I rather enjoy talking to autistic people instead. Their honesty can be painful at times, but I can handle that pain. At least I know what I can rely on. Honesty is foundational when it comes to developing a deep relationship, with people I can trust.

References

This article
was written by:
drengelbrecht-and-eva

Dr. Natalie Engelbrecht ND RP is a dually licensed registered psychotherapist and naturopathic doctor, and a Canadian leader in trauma and PTSD, and she happens to be autistic; she was diagnosed at 46.

Eva Silvertant is living up to her surname as a silver award-winning graphic designer. She also loves researching autism, astronomy, and typography. She was diagnosed with autism at 25.

Note: Eva is trans, and used to be Martin Silvertant.

Disclaimer

Although our content is generally well-researched
and substantiated, or based on personal experience,
note that it does not constitute medical advice.

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