Rumpelstiltskin & Autism: the Power of Names



Soon afterward the little man came in and asked, “Now, Madame Queen, what is my name?”
She first asked, “Is your name Kunz?”
“Is your name Heinz?”
“Is your name perhaps Rumpelstiltskin?”
“The devil told you that! The devil told you that!” shouted the little man, and with anger he stomped his right foot so hard into the ground that he fell in up to his waist. Then with both hands he took hold of his left foot and ripped himself up the middle in two. [the Brothers Grimm]

I haven’t torn myself in half yet (not literally, at least), but I certainly relate.

One of the more surprising traits that sometimes show up on lists of autistic characteristics is having difficulty with names, both using them for others and being addressed by them ourselves. Whenever I’ve brought this up with other autistics, the response is almost always the same: I thought it was just me!

Good news! You’re not alone. There are gobs of us secretly cringing and cowering in dismay when our unsuspecting friends, colleagues, and acquaintances have the temerity to address us by name. While this is a casual way to snare someone’s attention in the neurotypical world, autistics may feel exposed, judged, pierced to the soul as you blithely peel away our thin armor and douse us in ice water.

It gets even more painful if you use my name in an argument or other conflict. A word you don’t even remember saying will feel like a sucker punch, an outright and deliberate personal attack as you pull out all the stops to wound me however possible. There’s a malicious sneer attached, there has to be, and if you haven’t actually struck me yet it is surely only seconds away. Calling me by name physically hurts; it hurts my ears, it hurts my face, it hurts my shoulders and chest. My entire upper body winces and crumbles at the sound of this “normal” conversational quirk.

It’s not pleasant.

It’s not always that bad, of course. Generally, being addressed by name just feels invasive and overly intimate, the way most people would probably feel if a brand new acquaintance came up to you and slid their arm around your waist. Except if you say anything, you’re the strange one–on this planet, everyone puts their arms around strangers’ waists. No big deal, right? Great, because there’s more.

You’re stuck on this odd, waist-fixated planet, so you’re expected to go along with their conventions–that is, you have to put your own arms around others as well.

image description: two adults hugging intimately with the caption "Hello, it's nice to meet you."
image description: two adults hugging intimately with the caption “Hello, it’s nice to meet you.”

Some people have an unbelievably hard time understanding you want their attention unless you wrap your limbs around their torso. If you’re a child, you may be forced into waist-hugging therapies in which you’re trained to do this every time you talk to someone. As an adult, you may regularly read or attend business trainings which insist that this behavior is beneficial or even necessary to build relationships.

And remember, expressing discomfort at any point about this ritual is taboo. There is absolutely no casual way to mention that you will be withdrawing due to discomfort without it sparking a conversation that will be, at best, incredibly awkward.

It’s deeply embedded in our culture. Dale Carnegie, after all, whose social advice has been followed for nearly a century, insists that “a person’s name is, to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”

Yeah. No.

Names are important. Names are powerful. As in the Rumpelstiltskin excerpt above, using someone’s name to take control over them or break a spell has been a steady theme in folklore for centuries, and even continues to this day in contemporary fantasy–you’ll find it in things from The Hobbit to Inheritance to Doctor Who. Cultures around the world have naming ceremonies, and many continue to practice traditions of holding secret, “true” names while using another public alias in everyday life.

I wish we had such traditions in America. We are so locked into our collective obsession with “authenticity” that using a pseudonym is usually frowned upon in anything other than the most casual social contexts. And as a result, this encouragement of rampant name usage constitutes yet another invisible barrier to mainstream career and social success for many autistics.

In high school I created a nickname completely unrelated to my actual name for people to call me. The great thing about being a teenager is how enthusiastic people can be for trying things simply for virtue of how weird they consider them, so it went over quite well; as a result, I could respond to a friend calling me from down the hall without fighting an impulse to find the nearest locker to crawl into.

Then I grew up and had to get a job. And then another job, and another (because enduring one job for longer than a year is… challenging).

You can’t use a seemingly random nickname on your reference sheet, or else no one will know who they’re asking about. And you can’t list both your real name and your new name, or else you have to answer questions and explain stories–and since the whole point of this nickname business was to avoid drawing attention to this raw layer of yourself, we’ve just entered into a massively futile and counterproductive spiral that is Not Worth It.

So for now, I keep cringing and have learned to live with my name. At least as well as anyone can learn to live with strangers coming up to them, arms twining the waist as though it’s the most natural thing in the world.

Rumpelstiltskin & Autism: the power of names

2 Comments to “Rumpelstiltskin & Autism: the Power of Names”

  1. Yup, the thing about flinching at the sound of my name when used in an argument… otherwise, I have no problem hearing my own name, but that….is a thing.

    I don’t know if you ever watched the show LOST, but I’ve become utterly convinced that the character Sawyer is unintentionally autistic, and one of the factors is that he’s near-incapable of using anyone’s name. His own name is an alias, and he calls everyone else by callous or affectionate nicknames. (He shows intense concern or affection for other characters only by using their real names, or giving them better nicknames.)

    I also had no idea people were actually *trained* to that thing where they put an arm around you if they want to talk to you?! Of course I know that I’m much less tolerant of casual touch than most people, but I’ve always been super confused that anyone thought that was a great thing to do to someone you hardly knew. That seems like a massive failure of context-specificity on the part of people teaching this…

    1. Toby Author

      Oooh, interesting thought about Sawyer. I did watch LOST, avidly, but haven’t rewatched anything since the finale. Now I’m tempted.

      I don’t know if you’re at all familiar with NLP stuff, but there is this massive assortment of people who follow it (in hopes of realizing all of their personal and professional dreams of success) and frequently touching people, ALL people, is a big part of it. Super creepy for a lot of reasons.


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