Throughout most of my life, I’ve noticed that the way I go about living this life tends to annoy other people. I might think I’m not doing anything wrong; I think I’m doing everything that’s expected of me, and in just the right way, even being sure to mind my own business and being sure not to harm, bother, or inconvenience anyone.
But it never fails: no matter what I do, it seems to be wrong. I can’t get it quite right–even though I’m trying my best and putting forth all the effort I have to give.
For example, I might actually be talking with someone. (That right there can be considered an accomplishment.) I try so hard to be cognizant of my facial muscles and lighten them so that people don’t think I’m grouchy or scowling. I try even harder to make eye contact, and even harder yet to keep track of what they’re saying, when it might be my turn to talk, and to remember not to over-share or go on for too long before pausing to let them speak again.
But there’s always something, some egregious gaffe or faux pas I commit, one that I didn’t know about beforehand, and about which I was clueless at the time.
Of course, nobody tells me these things in the moment. That’s probably good, because I’d be horribly embarrassed. But it’s also a bad thing, because if I don’t realize that I’m doing something wrong, then I don’t fix it….
…Instead, I keep doing it.
I often double-check my behavior and performance (especially during meetings), with my partner, with whom I work.
“How did I do?” I ask brightly, feeling fairly confident that after almost four decades of life, I might have ironed out all of the bugs in my social skills and finally be getting the hang of things.
“Well, you need to end the conversation and let people go when they need to.”
“I had no idea that they wanted to get going! They never said anything!” I protest.
“Well, they were inching toward the door and sort of shifting their feet a little…”
Well now, that’s not the same as saying something, is it?
“Why don’t people just say these things??”
“Because they’re being polite. That’s not the kind of thing you say.”
First, why the hell not?? Telling someone you have to go or that you have somewhere to be in 20 minutes isn’t rude. Tuning them out and starting to resent them because you’re too delicate or chicken-shizz to say what’s on your mind, however, is.
At least, that’s the way it is in my book. But neurotypical society obviously didn’t use my book as a reference manual. They (un)wrote their unwritten rules and…what, are we simply supposed to be born knowing them? When are we supposed to learn these things? How are we supposed to learn them?? How did I get through my upbringing and 20+ years of adult life oblivious to something that’s implied to be so basic and universal??
Second, the idea that “people don’t say that kind of thing” is BS, because I’ve heard it all the time, from all types of people. So why didn’t somebody say something in this instance, for my benefit? Who says you’re not supposed to say stuff like this? Whoever came up with that section of unwritten neurotypical societal code should be notified that many people aren’t following it. So is it actually a rule or not? Some consistency would be nice, especially when neurotypical customs are not my native language.
Third, if someone is getting antsy to leave, and growing increasingly annoyed because I’m not picking up on some kind of subtle hint, then it’s their own damn fault for not speaking up. They don’t get to seethe inside and then blame their situation on me.
Miffed and instantly overwhelmed (and all hopes of bright, sunny brain-skies dashed and dampened), I huff, “well, I thought I did OK. The conversation seemed to be going well. Nobody gave me any indication otherwise. How could you even tell that they were annoyed??”
The reply? “It’s just something you can tell.”
Oh yeah? That’s amusing, because apparently my Asperger’s/Autistic Operating System didn’t come with an “I’m Psychic” app. And tell me–are NT people, on average, really that much better at reading body language, or does my embarrassment happen to them, too? Does it happen to them and they don’t realize it, or they forget about it fairly quickly? Or do they agonize about it for the rest of the evening or even a week or a month like I do?
“Well obviously I can’t tell. Not even by this point in my life. So how am I supposed to learn??”
<Shrug> “I don’t know.”
Yeah…helpful. But then, I can’t come down on him too hard. After all, what was he supposed to say? I don’t know if I could’ve done any better in his shoes. Is there even a correct answer to that question? Is there hope for me in situations like this, or will it always be like this, where I feel like I’m flying down a dark highway with no headlights and praying that I don’t smack into a tree?
For the last several years, I’ve become (embarrassingly) aware that I’m impervious to body language. It’s lost on me. When actually conversing with someone, that in itself is a miracle that takes everything I have, using every ounce of brain system resources. I don’t have anything left over with which to monitor incidentals like body language.
In my pre-Aspie-discovery days, I would call situations like this “tunnel vision”, a state during which I would be “in the zone”, ultra-focused on other important aspects of the situation such as the topic at hand and the person’s face. I can’t tell if that pleasant smile I’m seeing is morphing into a forced, uncomfortable one. Since I find it difficult to sustain eye contact, I wouldn’t know if their eyes are getting shifty, glancing at their escape route; I don’t look at their eyes often enough to be able to tell. I can’t tell if they’re still tuned into the conversation and truly present, or if I’m beginning to lose them.
I never could tell.
I still can’t.
It’s possible that I never will.
No matter how many years of existence I log on this planet.
It doesn’t matter how much I practice, role play, or how many times I’ve been down this road before. I get tunnel vision every time. I end up in my zone every time. I’m so busy trying to remember everything else that I forget to try and guess body language….every time.
I don’t see it changing, other than to add it to my mental checklist of NT Social Things To Keep Track Of and, like every other time, do my best.
It’s those Little Things that make life difficult for me (and probably many others on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum). The problem is, Those Little things occur frequently, in common situations, and those situations might be integral to our survival. I can’t avoid those situations and thus, I can’t avoid annoying other people by missing some crucial clue. Especially if it’s a nonverbal one. (I find the irony amusing: on one hand, I know that talk is cheap and action is everything. But when it comes to interaction, I rely heavily on what’s being said, because I can’t always pick up on the nano-action.)
As tough as it is at (frequent) times, I do love being an Aspie/autistic person. I know that it might sound a little hypocritical to lament about my challenges and then proclaim that I’m proud to be on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum. It’s not necessarily the fact that I’m on the spectrum that makes life tough; it’s the fact that the rest of the world isn’t…and doesn’t yet know an Aspie/autistic person when they see one, so all they think of me is that I’m weird or awkward.
I’ll always be the way I am–someone who is tuned to an Asperger’s/autism spectrum key, trying to make sense of a neurotypical world. That won’t change as long as I’m alive.
But what can–and should–change is not just mere “awareness” of Asperger’s/autism, but recognition and acceptance.
What kind of recognition?
Recognition of us as a separate, distinct, and valid neurological orientation.
Recognition of what one of us might look like “in the flesh”.
Recognition of our traits, including the unique strengths and positive characteristics, and how those traits might manifest in adults of all genders and mindsets.
Recognition, acceptance, and embrace of our differences….and at the same time, our common humanity.