One of the most pervasive myths about Asperger’s/autism is that we’re all distant and aloof. This is especially true about the Asperger’s sub-class of the autism spectrum, to split hairs. (And I’m exceptionally adept at hair-splitting (grin).)
I can see why some people might believe that. After all, speaking for myself and also what I’ve learned from reading, we might not respond to something someone says in the typically expected way, or we might not pick up on a subtle facial expression.
But just because I can understand why something happens, that doesn’t make it less dangerous. It doesn’t alleviate any of the damage that such misconceptions can cause. It doesn’t prevent harmful assumptions from forming and spreading, like invasive weeds.
And my understanding of such misperceptions doesn’t make them true or valid.
Because actually, this myth could not be further from the truth.
The truth is, for the cheap seats, that more of us on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum would actually like to be able to feel comfortable getting closer to more people than the world at large may realize. Speaking for myself, I usually do crave more social contact and deeper relationships.
That does sound nice.
But here’s the kicker: since I don’t tend to operate in the same way as non-autistic people, this provides ripe and fertile breeding grounds for misunderstanding.
The misunderstanding occurs on both sides; nobody’s in the Hall of Blame, and nobody’s off the hook. No one has the monopoly on understanding or misunderstanding, despite the ratio of autistic to non-autistic.
It’s just a fact of life.
Because it is I who is in the minority, however, my input wasn’t exactly solicited as the social rules developed and evolved over time. The majority rules, as it does in most instances.
In any social situation, the I can be seen, awkwardly trying my best. Muddling through. Getting by. One of the rare instances in which “good enough” has to suffice for good enough, because that’s probably the best that I can hope for.
My best is, too often, not good enough. There’s inherent risk in processing information differently, and responding as such. I know that I must “convert” my thoughts and words to something that will be not only recognized but also accepted by the non-autistic person I’m interacting with.
This conversion is required, without exception. If I fail or forget to do this, then I run the risk of eliciting a response that I hadn’t anticipated–usually a negative one, ranging anywhere from confusion to outrage.
So, I can’t respond with complete natural honesty. I wish I could, but I can’t. And my operating system didn’t come with a Plan B.
So I’ve had to sit back and watch. Observe. Take mental notes. Memorize. Practice. Refine. Tweak. Evolve. Develop. Adapt. Adopt. And so on.
In the meantime, until this observation is complete, the active participation in social interaction is dangerous and fraught with land mines, which makes it frightening. Each land mine is a potential source of pain, the kind of pain that makes a permanent imprint on one’s memory for years, maybe even for life.
And until I’ve mapped out the social landscape of what’s acceptable and what isn’t, I don’t know where the land mines are.
That’s not exactly an inviting, confidence-building situation.
Better to sit back and watch from the sidelines. It’s much safer there. The less I talk and move, the better. The fewer people notice me, the better. The less attention I get, the better. I’m perfectly content watching until I can begin to detect where some of the bigger land mines might be hiding.
My strategy probably looks strange to others, because they all seem to know where the land mines are. They received a map, early on, with most of the red “X”s pre-printed. The rest were easy for them to spot, with a little guidance, which they easily understood and remembered. The logic behind the land mine-setting plan, whatever logic that is, seemed to make sense to them after the briefest of explanation. They were born with a head start, and the remaining little bumps were smoothed out–quickly, easily, and early on, with little fanfare.
Not so, for most Asperger’s/autistic people that I’ve come across. I didn’t receive that land mine map or the mine-laying strategy. It didn’t come onboard some Asperger’s/Autistic Operating Systems. I have to populate that map by hand, using syntax we don’t understand.
It’s like writing computer code, when you don’t know the basic rules and language of that code. You might pick up chunks of code knowledge here and there, but it’s up to you to try to reverse-engineer its meaning and try to apply the right chunks to the right situations. And if (and really, when) you apply the wrong chunk of code to a situation, an awful digital blast sound occurs.
The human nervous system, no matter what one’s autistic/non-autistic classification may be, is wired to avoid pain.
So, naturally, I instinctively seek to avoid pain. The desire to avoid pain is even greater than that to seek pleasure.
Every time I find ourselves around people, I’m seeking to avoid pain.
Pain comes in many colors.
Pain comes in the form of a strange look in response to something I said or did.
Pain comes in the form of disapproval or disappointment. I didn’t say the right thing.
Pain comes in the form of inadvertent hurt feelings. Because I didn’t express sympathy or a congratulatory message fast enough. Because I didn’t ask someone how they were doing after they had asked me.
Pain comes in the form of rejection. I did something I didn’t know was wrong, and now the person doesn’t want anything else to do with me.
Pain comes in the form of misunderstanding. I’m supposedly rude because I forgot to make introductions between friends.
Pain comes in the form of odd and awkward silences and stares. For example, I was happy, so I clapped and hopped up and down.
Society says, you’re weird.
My inner voice says, so what?
But society says, that’s not age-appropriate.
My inner self says, why not? What’s wrong with that?
Society says, because I said so, and I shouldn’t have to explain, respectively. You’re old enough to know better.
My inner voice says, what the hell?!
And society retorts, it’s just not done. That’s unacceptable.
Replay, ad nauseum, edit, erase, correct for next time.
Because there’ll always be a next time. Hopefully I’ll remember where that land mine is. Often, I forget. Which doesn’t help.
Pain creates apprehension, and even fear, which creates avoidance and, when social contact is absolutely necessary, extreme caution.
That caution “earns” me the labels of distance and aloofness.
Being distant is merely a cautious approach, borne out of apprehension. Nobody wants to repeat a painful experience.
Being aloof is merely an observational approach, borne out of the desire to appear more likable, but not knowing how, so having to collect sayings and mannerisms that didn’t come native to my Aspie OS.
Nothing more, nothing less.
Distant, Aloof…and Embarrassed ~ November 9, 2016
Asperger’s / Autistic People Feel, Too ~ July 3, 2016