excuse noun /iks-kūz’/*
1. A plea offered in extenuation or explanation, in order to avoid punishment.
2. Pardon or forgiveness.
ORIGIN: Latin excusare, from ex from, and causa, a cause or accusation.
Excuses are emotionally charged things, in search of absolution. They are what we offer when we’re trying to “get away with” not doing something we know we should have done. They carry a negative quality; I am at fault (e.g. I’m late for a meeting with a friend) and I regret it. As such, excuses are usually preceded by an apology, e.g.: “I’m sorry I’m late, but the traffic was terrible.” If I offer an excuse, it’s because I want you to say whatever I’ve done wrong doesn’t matter, so I don’t have to feel bad about it (because otherwise I will).
reason noun /rē’z(ǝ)n/*
1. Ground, support or justification of an act or belief.
2. An underlying explanatory principle.
3. Conformity to what is fairly to be expected or called for.
Origin: French rasion, from Latin ratio, onis, from reri, ratus to think.
A reason is a statement of fact, which carries no emotional charge; I am still late, but I am not seeking my friend’s forgiveness (even if I start with the socially essential apology): “I’m sorry I’m late; there was an accident and the traffic was terrible.” As it’s clear there’s nothing I could have justifiably been expected to do to avoid being late, the issue is not one for which forgiveness is appropriate, my friend will probably say, “Don’t apologise; it’s not your fault.” It’s a good reason.
This situation is completely different from: “I was late because I didn’t leave enough time to get through the rush hour jams,” in which case my friend (however open-minded she might be) would be justified in feeling annoyed, and think (even if she doesn’t say), “that’s no excuse; you know the traffic’s always bad at this time of day.” This is an bad excuse.
Of these two forms of explanation – the excuse (unjustifiable) and the reason (justifiable) – one is seen as good, the other bad. One requires forgiveness and the other does not. How any particular explanation is received depends on the wronged party’s own life experience and generosity of spirit.
So, when I hear someone saying “he [or she] is just using Asperger’s syndrome as an excuse for not doing it…” my hackles rise. (Sure, the aspie might be milking it to his/her own advantage; but aspies, by definition, are not inclined to manipulative behaviour.) In most cases, it’s likely that the other person simply has no concept of life on the spectrum. Particularly if the aspie “appears normal,” his/her autism is seen as an excuse, an unjustifiable reason, for being unable to do whatever “it” is.
Conversely, more visible disabilities (and the issues involved) are easier for others to comprehend. You have to be pretty sheltered (or cruel) to accuse a partially sighted man of using his blindness as “an excuse”. You’d never blame a deaf man for needing subtitles, or the paralysed for being unable to walk. These disabilities are imaginable: if I close my eyes, or stick my fingers in my ears, I can get some idea of what it is like to be blind or deaf. I don’t need an analogy to explain paraplegia. I can imagine the fundamental issues, and even with my limited “empathy”, I can see any of these disabilities would have a severe effect on my life.
But you can’t temporarily rewire your brain and pretend to be autistic.
Living with autism is hard enough without being made to feel I must justify everything I can or can’t do. Or apologise for it. So it’s important to keep educating others, to gently explain that – whatever their own experiences of life – I can no more “pull myself together” than a blind man can see. Asperger’s syndrome is not an excuse for the way we behave; it’s a reason.
I recommend The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, by Oliver Sacks, as a fascinating voyage into the world of neurological disabilities – conditions that are virtually impossible for the rest of us to imagine.
*Taken from The Chambers Dictionary, 12th Edition, 2011. I have omitted definitions irrelevant to this post.