How Aspie / autistic people communicate, Part 2: Straight-up

Aspie/autistic people are generally a pretty straight-up lot.  We tend to tell it like it is.  We don’t mean to be insensitive.  We’re just trying to be honest.  We’re trying to be accurate.

It’s not that we never lie; it’s that we’d rather not.  A lot of us don’t even like telling “little white lies”, because they’re not accurate, they’re tough to conjure up off the top of our heads), and they’re tough to remember and maintain.  Lying creates stress for us.

Not only that, but even telling a “little white lie” can do a disservice to someone else.

For example, since I’m female, another lady might ask me if her shirt looks OK.  What (I might not realize that) she may actually be asking is, “am I attractive enough as a person, am I acceptable, and would people value me as a good person?”

But since she asked me about the shirt, I’ll probably respond with an answer to the question, which was a request for a judgment call on the shirt.  If I say, “well, I love it in general, and although I especially like the color, it makes your skin look a little washed out”, what she might hear is, “you’re ugly and you can’t do anything right; you can’t even choose a good shirt!” and she might respond as though I just told her that she’s stupid.

In the scenario above, my intent was to do her a favor by giving her an honest answer to a question she asked me.  My goal in answering the way I did is to protect her from wearing the wrong color for her skin tone.  She interpreted my answer completely differently, and responded to me as though I had attacked her personally.  Since my mind was still on the shirt and nothing more, I might be quite confused and incredibly stressed out when she responds so emotionally.

In truth, she may not be wanting to change the shirt.  She’s more likely looking for validation as a person, or at least that she’s physically attractive.  But I’m caught between a rock and hard place: I obviously stepped on a landmine in the scenario above, but what if I had responded with “it looks awesome!  It’s perfect!  Let’s go”?  We would’ve left the house, with me harboring the awful secret that her shirt is totally the wrong color for her and it makes her face look grayer.  What kind of friend does that?  Sure, the peace would’ve been kept, and she would have been none the wiser, but I couldn’t have known that my innocent-and-honest answer would’ve taken her mood so south before saying anything.

In those cases, don’t ask an Aspie.  It’s best not to ask us the question unless you want the genuine answer to that particular question.  If your question is a veiled search for personal validation or approval, don’t ask about shirts.  We may not consider or pick up on the fact that a question about clothing may be attempt to affirm personal validity, and when we give an opinion about the clothing itself, it might cause offense taken or disappointment.  We’re only listening to the words being said, not searching for the potential hidden meaning behind them, and that’s how we’ll answer the question.

Another situation: consulting with Functional Medicine patients in my office.  People come to me for advice about complex, chronic, multifactorial health issues.  I’m going to tell them the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  Their health (and sometimes their lives) depends on it.

I’ll explain to them exactly which evaluations they need, what each lab test or physical exam will and won’t tell us, and depending on the findings from the early evaluations, which follow-up evaluations might be needed.

When the results come back, I’m going to inform them of every finding, what it means, how the findings are related to each other, what probably caused them, and how they relate to the symptoms that person is  experiencing.

When presenting them with their Care Plan, I’ll outline every aspect, explaining how each recommendation should benefit them, what side effects they’re likely to experience, how long those side effects may last, any risks involved with any recommendation, and what’s likely to happen if they don’t follow through.  To do any less would be a disservice, to fall short, to fail to do my job to the best of my ability.

I don’t have time to BS anybody.  It would be against my ethics and I don’t have the time or the patience or the desire to manipulate anyone.  I’m not going to needlessly worry anyone with scare tactics or high-pressure strategies.  I’m not a bully.

But I’m also not going to sugarcoat the situation.  The program is comprehensive.  It can be intense.  It can be difficult.  It requires change, on many aspects of one’s life.  It may even require a gradual–but complete–overhaul.  It gets expensive.  It must be sustained for long periods of time.  The intense “corrective” period could last up to a few years.  I don’t want to deceive anyone into thinking it’s going to be unicorns and rainbows and it’ll be easy, convenient, or short-lived.  Because it won’t.

So, I want to make sure everyone is well aware of what they’re committing to and that they’re truly ready to do what will be asked of them.  If they’re not, then this approach isn’t going to work.  Therefore, I’m thorough, complete, and straight-forward.

Those looking for an open-and-shut solution (a “quick fix”) to complex problems or a sugarcoated turnkey program without concern for the reality of it should not ask an Aspie.  Because we’re going to give you the reality.  We don’t want any misunderstanding later.  We don’t want to hear “this isn’t what I thought it was going to be.”  (Of course, no one is psychic and no one knows for sure what this approach is truly going to feel/be like until they actually begin to experience it, but I at least want everyone to have all the facts beforehand so that they make as informed and enlightened a decision as possible.)

With patients, there’s little room for tiptoeing around.  Their health and quality of life hang in the balance.  They’re suffering.  They’re desperate.  They’re emotionally, mentally, energetically, and sometimes financially bankrupt.  They have nowhere else to turn (usually because they’ve already been everywhere else).  They’re looking for real answers and tangible results.  They’re understandably jaded and skeptical.  They want someone to “get real” with them.

Some might think they want the honest and brutal truth, but they’re not expecting it to happen, so they may be taken aback when I do give it to them.  Although I try my best to be gentle, I don’t mince words.  I’ve learned to modulate my tone of voice to soften the blow of tough news, whether it’s catastrophic test findings, an overwhelming Care Plan, or a high dollar amount.  But although my tone is compassionate, my words are blunt.

Advice for Both Neuro-types:

If you’re on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum: In the “shirt situation”, we can do a couple of things.  First, just being aware of the possibility of hidden messages or meanings can serve us well.  We can “front-load” our answers about how clothing looks on a friend by an enthusiastic “you look great!” (There’s the validation they’re seeking.)

Now pick something you like.  “I love how it shapes your waist.”  And another positive attribute. “I love the color of the shirt, but I think a slightly lighter blue or bluish-green would bring out your skin tone a lot better.” (…And there’s the honesty that satisfies our conscience.)

In the office situation, I’ve learned already (mostly the hard way) how to modulate my voice so that I can “get away with” being extremely straightforward (which is needed, and in my opinion, anything less is not acceptable).  I speak compassionately, and intersperse empathetic phrases or words as needed to let them know that I’m on their side and support them and that I understand it can be difficult or challenging.  I might even share a quick personal story to let them know they’re not alone and that yes, I’m someone like them who is recommending what I recommend because it works and I’m living proof.

If you’re allistic (not on Asperger’s/autism spectrum): Any time you ask an a person on the spectrum for our opinion on something, please be straightforward in what you’re asking.  It’s best to ask what you really want to know, and to word your question accordingly.   Don’t try to lace it with any hidden meaning.  Please don’t take this the wrong way, but we’re not here to make you feel good about yourself; that has to come from within, and it’s certainly not going to be determined by what you choose to wear or what we think of it.

Try to resist the temptation or tendency to read any hidden meaning into the answers we give (or anything else we say).  Just before asking the question, relax yourself, dilate your mind, and toughen your shell just a bit; be ready for anything.

If we say something you weren’t ready for or that otherwise catches you off-guard or causes any other unsettling or upsetting feeling, just ask us what we meant or ask us to elaborate.

Above all, cherish the honesty; you probably won’t get such a reliable opinion from anyone else.  You can also be honest with us and tell us what you really think or how you really feel.  Chances are, we’ll be among the few with whom you can do that.  (Although we can be sensitive inside, we’ll appreciate your honesty, too.)

For people both on and off the Asperger’s/autism spectrum:  Strive for clarity.  Seek understanding.  Value and accept honesty (it’s a virtue).  Choose your words wisely.  Grant the benefit of the doubt.  Consider multiple points of view.  Keep calm.  Keep talking through any misunderstandings.  Keep your words neutral.  Don’t make assumptions.  Stay cerebral, as opposed to emotional.  Appreciate the differences, the individual diversity.  And on the other hand, remember our sameness; we’re all human after all. 🙂

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