I am finished with pesky obligations of the day, and can now settle into a warm, comfortable, guilt-free, technologically-challenged blog-writing frenzy. I feel butter-melting warm and fuzzy inside, and my feet palpate solid landscapes.
The perfect time to delve into a meaty subject.
A life of being Aspergian/autistic has meant that I have navigated the world as if through fog without instruments, frequently misstepping into countless invisible canyons. Realizing that I’m on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum has cleared the fog, but the canyons remain obscured, and I continue to step into them.
The commonly-held belief is that every human being possesses the same preinstalled set of social “graces” (a term that is itself debatable), and those who lack the social graces are either written off as voluntarily antisocial jerks, deemed incompetent, labeled as “less intelligent”, or taken pity upon as the assumed result of bad parenting.
This group of conventionally perceived “misfits” generally includes Asperger’s/autistic people.
Earth to world: the set of arbitrary customs considered to be conventional social graces is not entirely universal, and in many of those of us in whom it is “lacking”, it’s not anyone’s fault, including our parents.
We, the people on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum, are simply running a different operating system. The coding used for the messages sent and received is entirely its own.
What might have prompted members of society at large to write off a particular “socially graceless” individual (especially one who is on the spectrum) might have been a statement of pure and genuine honesty on our part.
We might have breached the guarded walls of small talk and gotten too openly personal too prematurely, before sufficient butt-sniffing had been satisfied according to the standards of the neurotypical society member.
We might have made a joke incongruent with the present company or the contextual atmosphere.
We might have not have fawned enough over a friend who just got a new coat that looks all wrong on them, and when asked pseudo-directly, “does this coat look good on me?” the we, social “graceless” people, might not have responded enthusiastically enough, fast enough.
Or, if we manage to pull off the acting role and respond in a way considered favorable, they might assume we’re lying. “Oh, you’re just saying that.” Or, “really? You mean it?”
They can respond in this way, too, even if we do believe the coat looks good and we’re telling them the honest truth when we say that it does. I wish there was an extra Spoon Allowance for those who interact with people you have to answer every question twice.
Any little infraction out in the social open pasture is fair game for judgment (at best) and even ostracism or condemnation (at worst). It makes fertile fodder for gossip between small minds. It fuels the dust devil of circular currents of criticism, when the victim isn’t even there to defend themselves. From there, news of our social faux pas may spread like dandelion seeds, drifting far and wide, then settling and germinating without us present to tend to it. And during the next encounter with the gossip-breeders, after the information has germinated, we often know that something’s different. Something’s off. Something’s not right. We can almost sniff the air and detect the alteration.
The scent we may pick up might not be a complete shunning, but there’s a palpable change in unspoken attitudes; the neurotypical person’s frequency has been altered, and only toward the you (the “graceless” person).
The other person goes cold, almost appearing to be moving slower. They smile less, and their tone of voice loses some of its light, swapping the animation out for condescension. There’s almost an air of superiority, implying that we’re inept children.
The room gets thick. It might pulse in a syncopated rhythm. The vague-but-unquestionable sensation of dread begins to wash over us, the social “graceless”. Something has changed, and it’s irrevocable; there’s no “undo” button.
Those sensations often become familiar for those of us on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum, who are said to “lack” social “graces” by conventional standards. Anyone “failing” to adhere to the standard gets a “less” mark beside their name. It’s a tired, old, painful, and sometimes annoying pattern.
Sometimes we shake our heads inside and say, oh, not this shit again.
Long after the neurotypical party has moved onto the Next Pressing Thing, we might still sitting in the same spot (sometimes literally), rewinding the conversational sequence in our heads, debugging every line, hoping to find a clear clue that can be converted into a constructive strategy for next time. Of course, there’s no going back with this person; their view of us has been tainted, and it’s that way to stay. But each new person we encounter is a potential fresh start, right?
Kind of. But for me, it has hardly ever ended up that way.
It’s almost like looking at yourself on a played-back video. OK, so far, so good, everything’s fine, the vibe hasn’t changed yet. OK, now we’re starting to talk about this. Now moving onto that, next topic. That change has got to be coming up soon. OK…OK–now! There it is. What was I saying right then? Ohhhhh, OK. That must be it. Got it now. It’s too late, but at least I know. Painful lesson learned…
Or not. Maybe we have no idea what brought about the abrupt change in the other person. In that case, we might resort to Plan B. We begin to cross-examine ourselves.
What did I do this time? Maybe it was something I said. Yeah, that’s probably it, because their demeanor changed while we were talking. I can almost pinpoint the moment it changed. Almost…but not quite.
Maybe I said something off-color? Did I offend them? Wait–what? That was offensive? It never bothered me. How could that bother anyone? OK, wait a minute–that word actually means that? Well, that’s fine, but I didn’t know.
Maybe I was too honest? I thought that was a good thing. Oh wait–that’s considered blunt? OK, wait a minute–honesty is good and bluntness is bad? Where’s the line between the two? I wouldn’t cross it all the time if I knew where it was. But I can’t see it?
Maybe I got too personal? I thought people did that. OK, so scratch my teenage burping contest off the list of acceptable topics for a first encounter with someone. Got it–I think.
It’s not just first encounters that cause trouble for many of us; longtime relationships can also get the hiccups.
Sometimes I’m accused of being too diplomatic. The implication is that I’m somehow a wallflower or wuss who can’t stand up for herself. Or worse, that I’m being manipulative or doing some fancy footwork, much like a politician playing to their crowd.
But if I become any more straightforward than that, in the interest of being more direct and transparent, I ruffle the feathers of the more delicate. Nasty words can hurl back toward straightforward people. Racist, bigot, misogynist, conspiracy theorist, fringe, or ableist (the latter being the broadest, widest-encompassing, confusing, and sticky one) are common current favorites. People who know me know that none of these words actually apply to me. But that’s the price one might pay for being too direct.
Not knowing which path to err on the side of, we can experience temporary cognitive paralysis. Do I say [x] or not? It could be interpreted as insensitive. But if I don’t say it, people might think I’m fence-sitting.
The same is true for questions. For some reason, people in offline life love to ask me questions. Sometimes it’s a simple seeking of a personal opinion.
But how do I answer? It’s often a case of “damned if I do, damned if I don’t”. There doesn’t seem to be a correct answer. The carrot moves every time.
If I’m honest, then people often recoil, as though I’ve suddenly smacked their hand. What follows is a mutually-shared confusion with completely different roots. I’ve maintained my integrity by stating the full truth, but I’m criticized for being too “blunt”. The world in general is not prepared to hear the truth. For the longest time, I never realized that the world at large expects you to lie in order to save face. The face saved is theirs, but in saving theirs you also save your own. I’ve lost a lot of faces over the years.
Score: Them: 0. Me: 0.
If I withhold the full truth, I can avoid offending the person or taking them aback. I have now succeeded at being “diplomatic”. Go me. But then, I’ve been less than fully honest. The person might be content and satisfied with what I’ve said, but their approval doesn’t exactly “count”, because it’s based on a distorted sideline view of me, not a full frontal view. I might have “passed”, but they’ve approved of a version of me that isn’t real. At which point, I feel like a fraud. And I’m prone to loneliness, which now has only been reinforced.
Score: Them: 1. Me: 0.
Notice that, generally, for us, the score is almost always zero. It doesn’t matter how we handle the situation; we frequently come up short. Essentially, someone whose system didn’t come with Conventional Social Graces fully installed can’t win. It’s a no-win game of Life.
That doesn’t mean it’s a hopeless, desolate landscape; it just means we have to work that much harder, and be prepared to experience frequent missteps, along with the embarrassment that usually comes with them.
It also means that most of us find ourselves alone a lot, often preferring solitude to contempt.
It means that resentment and bitterness rage against the machine of a world that believes that any minor quirk is open to judgment and that it has the god(dess)-given right to be the sole judges panel. This resentment and bitterness can accumulate behind the scenes like the Cookies list in a web browser, until we deliberately dig them up and clear them out. But the onus of taking that action rests on our shoulders. Even though our reaction is a natural response to a world that acts this way, the majority rules and all that.
There’s another reason why this situation isn’t entirely hopeless, though: autism awareness–and even acceptance–is beginning to bud and shoot sprouts here and there. We can’t hold our breath just yet; it hasn’t hit the mainstream jet stream yet. But it has trickled down to some of the more cutting edge professionals. Steve Silberman made a fresh step in a largely untamed wilderness when he published his book “Neurotribes”. Like him or not, he’s helping to build the solid warp zone between the two worlds that we so desperately need. Neurotypical people benefitted from that book, but only indirectly, through broadened horizons and increased enlightenment. We benefitted much more directly, because through this enlightenment boost, more people (everyone who read the book) can now help become agents of change, spearheads of revolution, which then translates to higher quality of life for us. Someday soon, we might not be perceived in a dimmer light. We may not be given the stamp of “lesser”. We may not be dubbed “mentally disordered”. We might actually get listened to and taken seriously, something that is already starting to happen in a select few (but growing number of) ultra-progressive companies.
Maybe then, our “score” won’t always sit at the big fat goose egg.
Maybe we’ll win some, too 🙂