Autism Tennessee has asked me to submit blogs about my experiences as a person on the spectrum navigating through a world of those who are not on the spectrum.
People who do not have autism mean what they say, but they mean it the way they mean it, not how I interpret it. When I take words literally, the results can be amusing and awkward at best, and tragically inappropriate at worst.
Statement #1: “It is o.k. to be completely honest with me. You can say anything to me.”
If I said exactly what I am thinking when others extend this invitation to me, the person might not be friends with me for long. For example, I might be thinking, “Your hair looks horrible. When are you going to fix it?” Or, I might share the gritty details of the flu I had the previous week: “It was a really nasty flu. I puked about three times a day. Phlegm was all over my pillow when I work up this morning.”
I assure you, this is not what people who are not on the spectrum mean when they say it is ok to be completely honest with them. I have generally experienced that the statement means that the person is more comfortable talking to me. Often times, they are ready to move past the pleasantries about the weather or the score of the big game the night before. They are willing to let you know where they grew up or some of their favorite restaurants. They might be willing to share some of their most traumatic childhood experiences at some point, but that would come much later.
Statement #2: “Call me anytime.”
If I called someone giving me this permission at three in the morning, I will probably be blocked the next time I try to call. I could protest, “but you said I could call you anytime.” That usually produces a “don’t be a smart aleck look. You know what I meant.”
I do NOT know what they meant. If they meant do not call past 8 p.m., then that is what I should have been told. It doesn’t work, though. Others pick up that I am a pretty smart guy and don’t accept this explanation, even if it happens to be true.
This brings me to my next point: I have found that it is pretty critical to be honest if others are going to let me into their professional or personal life. If I really DID know better, it is more effective to apologize than to just blame my autism. The oddness to rudeness of the behavior isn’t protected by the ADA anyway. So, I am out of luck if my employer has had enough of me. The good news is that most people make social errors, and most people are pretty forgiving if I just admit when I am wrong. In fact, some find it refreshing to have an employee they don’t have to spend hours trying to break their denial.
In any event, I have found it is best to ask permission to call between 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays first, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays next, and ultimately, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. any day. I have told folks, “Don’t tell me, as a person with autism, to call you anytime, because that means 3:00 a.m.” I have actually had people say that would be ok, because their phone is turned off anyway. But I haven’t tested that yet.
Statement #3: “I can tell you are angry right now.”
Telling me that I am angry, especially when I am angry, usually just makes me angrier. I know what I am feeling. I don’t need someone else to identify my emotions for me. I can really hit the roof if someone adds, “You shouldn’t feel angry right now.” It is like telling me it is inappropriate to breathe or let my heart beat or engage in any spontaneous involuntary behavior.
My feelings are my feelings. It is not an on and off switch I can control. What I CAN control, however, are the behaviors associated with the anger I am feeling. This what is really meant by the statement, I believe.
I am a big guy. For whatever reason, many of my best allies are petite women, probably because they remind me of my spiritual advisor, who is also petite and knows better than anyone how to get me calm, Anyway, these friends remind me that I am a very big guy, and my anger can be really unsettling to someone who does not know me very well. I can get this stare like Judd Nelson got in “The Breakfast Club” when he was glaring down Michael Anthony Hall, who shared that he was in the math club AND the physics club.
I believe what people usually mean by the statement, “ I can tell you are really angry right now” is that THEY feel a little uncomfortable with my intensity. I think it is their indirect suggestion that I take a minute before continuing the conversation. I am proud to say it has been years since I have yelled at anyone at work. I just tell my supervisors I need a break. They always grant it.
So instead of getting into a therapeutic debate of the codependent implications of letting someone else name my feelings for me, I try to recall the real message that the person wants to convey to me. I am very impressed with my brave petite women friends who will struggle with me. I am touched to know they are not afraid of me. They teach me how to gently say, “well, how do you know what I am feeling?” Then, we proceed to a calm discussion of the conflict, which I have many success stories of resolving.
Anyway, I hope these examples of re-interpreting common statements provided insights to those who have autism and those who don’t. If you liked this blog, I can do another one on this topic. If you’d like, I can share my insights in a future blog on the difference between when a woman is speaking “girl” or speaking “universal.”
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are the those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official views or opinions of Autism Tennessee. The author and the blog are not be held responsible for any misuse, reuse, recycled and cited and/or uncited copies of content within this blog by others.