Aspies are from Vulcan!

Who out there loves Star Trek?!

I love Star Trek. It was my “special interest” when I was at school. I think there must have been an aspect of the self-containedness that appealed to me: restricted to one ship, a military hierarchy (if in somewhat idealised form) with rankings to dictate the boundaries of relationships, and a limited number of people contributed to a social construct that – unlike most soaps and dramas – I could actually understand. Things evolved slowly, relationships unfolding in a wonderfully simple and idealistic fashion. Voyager was my favourite, with it’s almost entirely closed system: particularly good for consistency. (Also, Captain Janeway. Who doesn’t want to be her?) I don’t watch it so much any more, but there’s a lot that stayed with me.

One of the great things about Star Trek is its characters. They’re multicoloured. All of them are strong, in their own way; but it’s in the spectrum of their vulnerabilities that the real interest lies. There’s Tom Paris, with his chequered history and survivor guilt. There’s Harry Kim, just a little bit too young, idealistic and homesick: his naivety sits on the fence between invoking protectiveness or annoyance. The half-Klingon Torres fulfils what is in many ways an extension of Uhura’s role in the original series: a focus to challenge racial and cultural stereotyping, addressing closely and painfully the impacts of such divides.

And it doesn’t stop with race or gender. Dr “Bones” McCoy of the original series, grumpy but lovable; indignant, inflexible and abrasive; and yet somehow not weak. Seven of Nine, a grown up child, a mess of analytical genius and PTSD and contradictions. Tuvok. And the inevitable Mr Spock.

Comparing autistic people to Vulcans is something of a cliche: something you read on the internet in quirky, unrealistic pop news. Not something I ever expected to happen in real life. As it happens, it has – but that’s not really the point. It’s an analogy that, secretly, I quite like. Because it’s usually made by someone who knows nothing about Star Trek, and nothing about the very nuanced characters and characteristics of these fictional Vulcans. This is also roughly equivalent to their understanding of autism. They see the stereotypes, the surface behaviour – reliance on logic, the struggle to understand human social relationships – and they match. So they say “you remind me of Mr Spock”.

And inside, I laugh. Because I am, and I am not, like Mr Spock. Just like autistic people, there is more to Vulcans than first meets the eye.

Let’s take a look at some of the reasons autistic people might be compared to Vulcans:

  • Vulcans find human behaviour chaotic and unpredictable – “illogical”.
  • Vulcans have strong analytical skills, and place a high value on logic. (This is something seen particularly in autistic women, who often turn to logic to unpick the complex social situations and problems they’re expected to understand.)
  • There is a tendency towards rigidity in rules and their enforcement.
  • Vulcans appear unemotional – but they can show both empathy and love. “I have been, and always shall be, your friend” (Spock, in The Wrath of Khan). Stilted, uncomfortable, painful to articulate – but it’s there.
  • They have hypersensitive hearing! (On any away mission, the Vulcan is always the first to sense approaching danger.)
  • Vulcans tend to be solitary and quiet. Rather than socialising, they spend a lot of time alone to meditate and reflect.
  • Some Vulcans understand analytically the importance of emotional communication to humans, but struggle to do it themselves.
  • Occasionally Vulcans struggle with outbursts of emotion.
  • They are all different! Mr Spock and Mr Tuvok, underneath all their logic, have very different histories and personalities.

Of course, there are differences between this fictional species and the reality of us as autistic humans. Emotions for Vulcans are a cultural taboo: one which they take pride within their species in learning to suppress. Autistic people in public may seem repressed or withdrawn – but in a safe environment, or among their own, can be emotionally expressive. There are references in Star Trek to a long distant past in which Vulcans could not control their emotions: an age of violence, chaos and fear. If not totally irrelevant, this may be intended as an analogy to autistic children learning to “control” meltdowns as they grow up. If so, it would be dangerously misleading. Autistic adults don’t “control” their meltdowns: they learn to avoid and manage the triggers leading to that level of sensory overload. But nonetheless, it’s easy to see how these two very different cores of being manage to generate almost identical surface behaviours.

So I laugh, secretly, because these people are both right and they are wrong – and it doesn’t matter. The underlying details of Vulcan and autistic people’s nature aren’t the same. But that’s not what these people see. They see behaviours that match. I see behaviours, accepted.

I laugh, secretly, because those people told me something they’ll never realise. They match my identity with a different species – something so odd it is not even human. But in that one thought, they show me how I can exist among others, as me. Star Trek paints a vivid picture of a society in which people like me are an intrinsic and valued part – not as some defective version of humans, but as Vulcans. Spock, Tuvok and many others are accepted by the people around them, who understand their differences, value their strengths, and learn to read the different ways they show their emotions and feelings. In the Star Trek universe, people who move like me can live full and complete lives, as themselves, without needing to change or conform.

A future world where I am not disabled: just different. Idealistic, maybe. But what a world to hope for.

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Seeing myself

I’ve written about meetings before, and how they’re the stuff of nightmares. This wasn’t a meeting, per se. This was a briefing. This should have been safe.

We were talking about team cohesion. The nightmarish concept of team building dissected in detail – obliquely, not by name, but recognisable in full and terrifying form. But the everyday stuff got a mention too. How to encourage knowledge sharing, technical briefings; just talking to each other about what we’re doing, getting a feel for what’s going on in the department.

“I know”, says one smart guy, full of confidence and authority. We’ve been talking about people sharing their work in briefings, informally, chatting on stage or gathering the team around a plot. I can do this. I would enjoy this. “Let’s video the talks. We can save them on our internal website so people can share their knowledge”.

But no. No, this is not a thing. Chatting with my colleagues about a plot: every day, absolutely. But videoing; picturing; recording? That is something altogether more sinister. I almost bolted the room.

I know, you see, that I am wrong. My movements are clumsy, hands ceaselessly restless, legs pacing out of key. I have a crooked smile. My voice is too loud, too forceful. The pitch, often rising excitedly, is too low for the brightness and enthusiasm it means to convey – I’ve been told it’s intimidating. There is no music to the spoken tone, no phrasing to give the lines their depth of meaning. Speaking in words is a graceless act, stilted, all harsh lines and corners. Like a small child draws, with the pencil scrunched up in its fist, thick lines spreading from a blunted edge pushed too hard against the paper; and like that drawing, the finished product is artless, naive, painful to the ear and to the eye.

I exist each day knowing this about myself. I know how I look; how I sound; how awkward it must feel to be in my presence. Yet I hold my head high, having taught myself to believe that this does not matter. My talents are valuable, and they lie elsewhere. And this is completely true.

But that knowledge is fragile. The understanding is brittle. And seeing myself in image, speaking and moving in that way that does not fit, that does not flow – being so wrong – would shatter my confidence to the bone. To be recorded, this shattering of self-image branded onto physical media to be relived again and again and again, is merciless in its permanence. The humiliation forever and inescapable. I cannot bear to see myself.

It is strange to be faced, out of the blue, with the remembrance that normal life is not like this. That most competent adults are aware, confident and comfortable in themselves. This fear of self-awareness on a literal, physical level is not something that’s accepted in the professional world. My fear is unreasonable. It’s weakness. It’s unprofessional, and it will hold me back.

I do resent this. I resent that my professional life is governed by a system that demands conformity. It is not enough to be good – even sometimes to excel – at what I do. But I must look right. I must “be” right. I must smile, and move, and think, and feel, like everyone else. I must be open and willing share my inner self; but not as me: as some false, created inner self that looks like it’s supposed to. My work is not enough. I must have the courage and the confidence to show my “wrong” self to the world, to suffer judgment and humiliation, with only that tiny inner voice to remind me that the only person qualified to judge me is myself.

It’s hard, sometimes. Seeing myself.

When good (wo)men do nothing

“I’d never know if they were autistic or just being rude”.

To the person who said this to me, from a position of power, as an excuse for not putting into practise anything they’d learned: here is what I wish I’d been able to convey at the time.

As an initial aside: yes, you could know. They might even actually tell you; but otherwise, you’d just have to make an effort. Not unlike the effort I make with non-autistic people, every single day. If you’re needing some ideas: how about judging that person on what they’re trying to do, rather than how they “look” in the moment or the exact words that they say? You could try questioning those immediate, intuitive conclusions you jump to and ask yourself: did they really say what I’m reacting to, or did I interpolate that into the space between their lines? You could step back for a moment and consider: is it possible that what they said just now isn’t actually about me? Could I, perhaps, be reading too much into this? Should I be taking this so personally? I know that kind of thinking isn’t easy – it does take a bit of patience, and you might have to practise a few times before you get it right. But you can do it, if you try.

But what I really wanted to tell you is that your attitude, right there, is the reason that people like me need medication. It’s the reason we’re underemployed. It’s the reason we feel valueless, despite our unique skills. It’s the reason so many of us are driven to suicide.

Let’s think for a moment about what you just said. Your words said:

  • It’s more important for me, from my position of power, to judge, than it is for you and people like you to be treated fairly
  • I need to be able to label people as “rude” more than you need to be able to communicate
  • Upholding my neurotypical standards as the default in every interaction is important enough to justify ostracising anyone who cannot achieve them

And behind those words, in context – even as an autistic who struggles with implications – you’ve told me a whole lot more. You’ve told me that despite what you’ve learned about adult diagnosis rates and the stigma of disclosure, you still won’t treat anyone without an openly declared official diagnosis with anything other than prejudiced contempt. You’ve told me that you’ll continue to judge everyone according to those unwritten neurotypical “rules”, regardless of their ability or the impact of your judgements. Better that, after all, than to let someone “get away with” being “rude” to you. You’ve told me that in your “normal” social sphere, everyone is guilty until proven innocent.

One of the reasons I didn’t say anything at the time was because I know, deep down, that there is nothing I can do to change your mind. I know you know the facts – we went to the same training course on autism. I know that you went of your own volition, because you were interested in learning more. And yet I see that interest is skin deep for you: purely, trivially academic. You do not see that there are people in your world, like me, for whom this is a lived reality. You will not acknowledge that those affected by these issues are living and working invisibly, close beside you. And so you are incapable of putting the facts you’ve learned towards changing your behaviour or challenging your prejudices, to make us invisible people that tiny bit safer in an inhospitable world.

You are not the first. Nor will you be the last. Your attitude is as endemic as it is poisonous. People like you are the reason so many autistics suffer from anxiety; from depression; even from PTSD. Nice people; good people; decent people; who nonetheless ruthlessly perpetuate suffering by their quickness to judge and unwillingness to learn. Suffering that is all the more criminal for being so easily avoidable.

Someone once said, “the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing”. You heard the facts, you followed the implications, and you did nothing. You are complicit in this evil. You are responsible. You.

The perils of workplace meetings

The statistics for autistic adults in employment in the UK are bleak. Despite the similarity in distribution of intelligences on and off the spectrum, a mere 16% of adults with autism are in full time paid employment, compared to around a 75% employment rate for the total population of the UK. This factor of five difference in employability is widely attributed to the difficulties autistic people have, not with work itself, but with the social and political expectations of the workplace. I suspect that executive function and time management / perception issues may also play a role here. But in the socio-political arena, not least of the pitfalls awaiting us is the workplace meeting.

The issue of workplace meetings is huge for me, and much too large to deal with in one post! I’ll make a start here by sketching out the intricate, inconvenient little details that add up to explain why meetings can be such a tricky environment for autistic people – and the equally intricate little workarounds I use to chip away at the problem.

Meetings can be difficult for a variety of reasons. First, verbal dialogue. Some autistics (including me) have difficulty with short term memory, and struggle to hold verbal information in mind. This is a characteristic we share with others in the neurodiverse community, notably dyslexics. In offices with a culture of unstructured meetings, often lacking an agenda or minuted actions, it is easy for us to miss or misunderstand what is going on and what we are required to do.

Secondly, processing speed. The nature of conversation is to flow, sometimes rapidly, from one person and one topic to the next. Many of us on the spectrum need time to assimilate and consider the facts as they come in. Again, particularly in unstructured meetings, I often find my responses or questions arise too late, when the group has moved on to another thing. If I interrupt then, I disrupt the conversation; but if I don’t, I cannot contribute, and decisions are made without me.

Thirdly, when and how to speak. This is an area of immediate risk – for me, at least. It’s well recognised that the natural language of autistics is literal and direct, and that many of us don’t automatically modulate our vocal tone. To speak up quickly and avoid missing what is often the only opportunity – after insufficient processing time and with the anxiety of not completely assimilating the verbal dialogue – is to risk accusations of rudeness, insensitivity or disrespect. But not speaking carries the more insidious risk: of not understanding, not executing the correct actions, and ultimately of losing trust and underperforming professionally. Not forgetting that remaining silent prevents us from making our own, valuable contributions to these conversations.

I decided some time ago to choose the immediate risk of speaking in meetings. Accumulating experience, I began to recognise that my insights and experience could be important, even crucial to success. I’ve come to understand and believe very strongly that everyone on the team has something to contribute toward improving our products and processes; and that by not contributing myself, I would not be fulfilling one of the key responsibilities of my role.

Having said that: on a daily basis, maintaining confidence in meetings is one of the most difficult things I ever have to do. My style of communication is quite direct, honest and upfront, and I don’t hesitate to ask questions if unclear. The combination of being young and relatively intelligent, and of outwardly taking people at face value rather than on reputation, leads certain individuals to interpret this as a personal affront. (I suspect the fact that I am also female only compounds this issue, given the jarring disconnect between the stereotypical submissive young woman and the competent, questioning scientist that I like to project.) There is always the risk, therefore, especially in meetings with particularly well-established or tender egos, that I will be judged on the lack of soft edges in these interactions rather than the content of my message. Having confidence misinterpreted as arrogance and straightforwardness as lack of respect causes the sort of unquantifiable damage that can lead to the end of a career. So there is always pressure, and there is always fear.

There are a few tricks I can use to reduce the risk of workplace meetings. I have an agreement with my manager to get an agenda or “goal statement” in advance of each meeting, to help me follow the changes in topic. If I need to, I can ask for actions to be summarised in writing, at the end of or after the meeting. But it’s rarely enough to deal with the issues of tone and “word choice” – using the straightforward language that comes naturally to me.

I’ve had to accept, reluctantly, that the likely prognosis for any given meeting I’m invited to will be negative. But there are methods I can use to swing those odds back in my favour. In later posts I’ll describe parts of the wider, strategic approach I’m using to navigate the meeting culture in my organisation, and the benefits I’m starting to see in my performance and wellbeing over the longer term.

Nice people

I’m struck sometimes by the cognitive dissonance there seems to be in the heads of a very specific breed of “nice people”. Nice people know how you feel. Nice people sympathise with you. Nice people make soothing noises when you break down and cry, and tell you that everything is going to be OK. But tomorrow those nice people will do sweet F.A. to make it so.

Nice people, you see, don’t need to change. Their sympathy is enough. They know how good they are with people – they’ve been told so all their lives. They couldn’t possibly be part of the problem.

The problem with these “nice people” is their pride. Whether or not unconsciously, they are proud of being nice. Their natural way of being makes others feel comfortable. It’s a role they know from heroes in stories and leaders in films, the aspiration of many. They share others’ pleasure and soothe their pain; and they draw what is a perfectly innocent satisfaction from their social value.

Honestly, I do understand. It’s rewarding beyond measure to know that you can help or inspire another person. There is a deep, quiet joy in being able to support a friend or loved one, in the everyday things of life as well as the crises. I can imagine how that situation being normal, and not the beautiful exception, might shape a person’s self image; and might shape what they come to expect from the world.

Nice people know, with quiet certainty, that their value is intrinsic. This is their gift. They always know what to do and what to say. They’ve never had to think about the impact of their actions. That impact has never – to their knowledge – been anything other than good.

And then they meet me.

Actually, it’s not only me. It’s anyone they meet from the Other Side: poor, frail, depressed, sick, disabled. Anyone whom the system does not support. Anyone from whom, in fear or in pain or through simple lack of ability, the social niceties in just one of many crises might slip away.

Nice people are hurt when you snap at them to STOP causing you pain. Nice people feel pressured when you beg for their help. Nice people know the best way do things is gently, with trust and with patience. They’ve never had to step out of their own heads to feel what you feel. And that’s the danger, right there: that they’ll treat their own passing sadness with more urgency than your desperate, existential need.

Nice people are used to feeling respected. They’re not used to holding back their feelings when someone is rude to them. They’re not used to thinking about the “why” before they complain. They don’t know your pain. They don’t mean to hurt you. But they do.

Nice people are wonderful when things are going well. When you’re passing and functioning and ready to have fun. And nice people can be great at propping you up for a while, just until you get back on your feet. They can be there for you. They know all the sorts of crises that normal people go through – losing friends, breaking up, divorce, bereavement – and they really do mean well. They want to be able to use their skills to help you. But they are so sad, so disappointed, when you can’t be fixed.

What those nice people don’t realise is that we can’t all be like that. Some of us have lives where being on your feet and fully alive is the transitory thing. Some of us can’t rely on being there for others, not at just any time. Some of us save ourselves in anticipation of those glorious days when we’re not sad, frightened, confused or in pain. Some of us mourn those selves that barely see the light of day.

Some of us need “nice people” to be different. Some of us need them to realise that speaking up, again and again, when your basic needs aren’t being met isn’t selfishness: it’s survival. That being in constant exhaustion or confusion can preclude giving away parts of ourselves to support others. That making one choice between being realistic about our capabilities or chronically unreliable doesn’t make us bad people. It’s just that we didn’t have the choice you had. To be nice.

Serenity

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.”
(Reinhold Niebuhr)

In the small bedroom I slept in when visiting my grandmother’s house, at the foot of the bed, was a wooden panel inscribed with these words. Simply carved, decorated only with the raised image of a pair of hands, clasped in prayer. The simultaneous simplicity and depth of those few, short words has never failed to astound me.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be autistic, and to be me. Which parts of me are immutable, and cannot change? Which parts of me are not? And even if I could change those parts of myself, would I want to?

There are things about me that make other people uncomfortable. The way I speak. The tone of my voice. The way I use my hands. These things are different, alien, and open to misinterpretation, but they are not in themselves harmful.

The language of autism is not something I would ever wish to change. It is beautiful, emotional and expressive. It does not tend naturally to hide or manipulate. Rather than change myself, where I can, I seek to ensure that those I interact with regularly have the correct understanding of these mannerisms. Then I can express myself safely, comfortably and freely in my own language.

There are other parts of myself that I would seek to change. The defensive barrier that rises in response to constant anxiety. The ever-deepening need to protect myself from criticism, moving gradually from legitimate dismissal of unreasoned negativity, to refusal to accept any form of feedback that challenges my fragile self-esteem. The relentless erosion of ability to take risks, learn or grow for fear of destroying the tiny, brittle, frightened thing that I have somehow become.

In changing this part of myself – this figment, whittled down by fear – I need a strength that it does not have. But it is not the only part of me. My autism is my strength. I need to stand up for myself, to challenge the inevitable pressure to conform to a pattern that is not me. My autism can do this, and will not be ashamed. The power to fix myself is already inside me.

Looking back at those words tells me I am not broken. I know myself as I am now: accepting the parts of me that are mine and beautiful, and looking to change what I can. Things will not always be this way – couched in this quiet place where everything is clear. But for today, I am serene. I am courageous. And perhaps, if only in this, I am wise.

Communication: taking the risk

Autism is a wonderfully complex thing. The word incorporates a spectrum of differences, abilities and disabilities so broad that if asked “what is autism”, I wouldn’t even know where to start. It’s a difference in perspective so vast that you have to break down the whole other reality to build a new picture, right from the bottom up.

In amongst the stinking miasma of misinformation, oversimplification and stereotype surrounding autism, non-autistic experts have grasped a few grains of truth. One is that many autistics genuinely struggle with verbal (spoken and written) communication. In my opinion the experts understate this problem, particularly with Asperger syndrome. Despite being articulate on a number of unusual topics, words in general do not come easily to me.

Coupled with an inability to multi-task, struggling to put concepts into words presents some very real and complex problems. When dealing with human interactions, realistically, I have three options available to me. I can communicate a message using clear and direct words. I can speak in indirect words, engaging in small talk and surface emotional processing. Or I can mirror the body language that is expected of me in a social situation, and which also does not come naturally.

In practise, I never mirror body language. This is because I will always need to use words at some point to interact, and so am never in the situation where neither communication nor indirect words need to take place. I know some of the theory around body language, but it was never really worth learning as when it comes down to it, I cannot apply that knowledge in real time.

I do speak in indirect words. This is because I recognise the importance of others’ feelings. In its most mercenary form, putting effort into making people feel comfortable makes them more likely to approach me for help, with offers of inclusion or of information – all of which are things I like and want to encourage. But further than that, I don’t want people to be uncomfortable around me. I genuinely care about fulfilling others’ emotional needs.

Speaking indirectly comes at a cost. Think of it in terms of learning a language. Normally when you learn a foreign language, the first stage is passive: the listening. That doesn’t mean you can’t say words. When babies learn to talk, they start by echoing a few words. But everybody understands that the actual words used are meaningless. (In autism this manifests in a behaviour called echolalia. This can be extremely subtle and difficult to detect, and I use it probably more than I realise. But that’s a whole other post!)

Learning to say words – starting with those that are easiest to articulate – comes before the stage where those words are used for communication. To communicate, you have to know the meaning. You learn the meaning much more gradually, by hearing how others use words, and in what contexts. You have to understand how that language is used before you can start to use it.

Autistics like me notoriously have problems understanding normal language. The problem manifests around things like implication and context, and is often described in terms of the autistic person taking things too literally. Sometimes this is characterised as a “delay” in “language skills”. I don’t know whether this is true – I probably won’t know until I am old enough to have waited out the delay – but what I do know is that to us, language comes differently. We use the same words, but in a very different way. And when you don’t phrase things clearly and unambiguously, we don’t always understand what you are saying.

When you consider this fact, it makes a lot of sense that autistic people actually cannot use words in an indirect way reliably to communicate a message. If we can’t interpret indirect language reliably as it was meant (although many of us do get better at this over our lifetimes), then how could we possibly use it?

Think about it another way: as a code. Non-autistic people don’t use words according to their literal meaning. Instead, they communicate in code. First, they translate their literal meaning into some different words. It looks like evasion to me, because I don’t understand it, but it has a clear meaning to them. When another non-autistic person hears the code, they have the right key to translate it back into meaning. I don’t have the key – so I have to ask for clarification. Then when I make my own indirect messages, with words that I hope will help others feel comfortable, I don’t do the translation right, and the recipient might not get the message. It can take several trial-and-error attempts for the message to get through.

A lot of the time, this is OK. With technical communications, for example, I’ve learned it’s worth following up conversations in writing anyway. In that format people seem a lot more comfortable being direct, so we can make sure the information has been correctly exchanged. At other times, delay can be a frustrating but necessary price to pay for maintaining good working relationships. But there are also times, when the personal or professional cost of miscommunication is high, when my scattergun approach of using random indirect words is incapable of meeting the immediate need.

And therein lies the rub. Because if I communicate efficiently, using the only reliable tools I have available to me, this is not socially acceptable.

It would be easy for me at this point to rant and rave about the social expectations of a majority non-autistic society and how they must be deliberately marginalising me for my differences. But it’s more complicated than that. I know that in tricky situations, where the concepts are nuanced and hard to articulate, I will appear at best blunt, and at worse outright offensive. The effort it takes me to put those concepts into words – any words – is phenomenal. So when the words come out of me there is no flexibility to soften the message. It would be a lie to say I have no control over my vocal tone, but it’s certainly not automatic – I have to concentrate on phrasing a line. When the message is that complex, my tone is all over the place. It’s rude; it’s arrogant; it’s aggressive; it’s any random word that triggers some past contextual experience in the mind of my conversation partner. No matter that in terms of intention, it means less than nothing. That tone is literally whatever default my vocal cords settle on when my whole attention is focused on the words. But what it says to my companion makes the conversation, for them, a genuinely unpleasant experience.

Reconciling my care for others’ feelings with the occasional genuine need for urgent communication is something I struggle with. Until very recently, I have always erred on the side of caution. Better to delay, and make sure the recipient is happy, than to force the message through and risk alienation. But sometimes the risk has to be taken. When the need is pressing; when, for whatever reason, my increasingly elaborate and creative attempts to use indirect methods are not getting through. When the message can’t be crafted fully in an email, but requires reciprocal interaction; discussion; negotiation. When lack of understanding on the part of that other person could have real, long term effects on my future and wellbeing.

I am learning to take the risk. It has been a painful start. I hope very much that things will get better from here.

Gender unawareness: the benefits of social isolation

Growing up autistic, I was less receptive than most to the subtle underlying pressure society exerts to separate men from women. At primary school, I was bullied horribly by girls and boys alike. But from the age of 11, I attended an all-girls secondary school that prided itself on teaching its students to be leaders. Rarely socialising with my peers, I was never exposed to the social requirement to hide my competence and enthusiasm in the presence of men. Looking back, my loneliness seems a small price to pay for the privilege of a sexism-free adolescence. Of course, I knew that there was something “wrong” that made me less than my peers. But it had nothing to do with my gender.

The lessons I learned in childhood and adolescence bear a stark contrast to the lessons impressed on most girls in their teenage years. In a girls’ school and later at university, I found delight in exploring concepts, helped on as we were encouraged to discuss and develop. Never mind if our answers were wrong or incomplete; I was consistently met with a willingness to explain, to lead me into a deeper understanding.

But in a gendered environment, girls learn that they are expected to be wrong. They learn that unless they have a perfect answer, they should keep quiet or risk ridicule. “Girls talk too much”: so goes the stereotype, implying that women should be careful before speaking to ensure that what they have to say is truly valuable. By the mid-teenage years, some girls would rather present their teacher with a blank page than submit their work so far and ask for guidance. The lessons learned here persist long into adulthood, with women (in my experience) being much more defensive about mistakes and less willing to discuss what went wrong – with a view to what could be improved – than men.

I remember a time when I didn’t “see” gender. Although I grew up surrounded by women and girls, I’ve never been uncomfortable in a working or social environment dominated by men. It served me well in my university studies, and I had no qualms about gender balance in applying for jobs in scientific fields. In the workplace, that’s changed. But not in the way you might expect.

The thing is, from an autistic perspective, I’m now generally more afraid of women than men. In the neurotypical world, behaviours that come naturally to me are often misinterpreted. Both men and women have cautioned me against arrogance, where I suspect they might have recognised (and approved of) confidence in a man. But in face-to-face interactions, I feel like I can trust a man to speak out openly if he thinks I’ve been rude. An open challenge I can face down, or accept and apologise as necessary. Whilst a woman, conditioned to avoid conflict, will keep her feelings quiet and unresolved – and I will never know. This is an observable impact of men learning that their identity and personhood has a value worth defending; whereas women have been socialised to submit, never challenging anything that makes them uncomfortable. The upshot of which is that with a woman I’ve offended unintentionally, I may never get the chance to make it right. With a single mis-step on my part, the relationship is poisoned.

The fact that I’ve learned to “see” gender in the working environment because of these socialised differences does bother me. I try very hard to treat people equally, and I always presume competence regardless of gender. I know that it’s equally possible to have informative, rewarding technical conversations with women as with men. But I’ve found that from an autistic perspective, conversations with women tend to be much less accessible to me, and much higher risk. There is so much more padding and subtext. Getting to the point with someone who’s been taught it’s rude to be direct is hard.

So I find myself fearing a female supervisor. Not because I have a problem with women in authority, or with women in general, but because experience tells me we’ll struggle to maintain an honest dialogue. I fear she will misjudge me, and not speak out. I fear I won’t be able to find her message, hidden in amongst the soft edges. I fear that when I make the inevitable mistakes, I’ll never have the chance to make it right.

(Throughout my life, largely because of my undiagnosed autism, I have learned that my own feelings are subordinate to those of others, and that I should not assert myself or challenge those things which are wrong or uncomfortable. The same lessons learned by every schoolgirl, but on different subjects, and for different reasons. The irony – that I must be afraid of women who have learned not to defend their own interests and expect me to be equally submissive – does not escape me.)

Of course, this fear of perpetual misunderstanding applies to some men, too. But in my experience, there are fewer men who will not speak out in the face of a perceived wrong. And perhaps this is because of how we are taught to relate.

The language of interectionality and feminism is new to me, but the concepts make a lot of sense. It’s interesting to think about the interplay between autism and gender in UK society. I don’t pretend to offer deep or particularly original insights here, but I think I might post around this topic every so often, when I want to explore something new. (New special interest, moi?!) In the meantime, if anyone more experienced wants to recommend me some reading on this I’d be keen to learn more.

Wasted words

In my last post I talked about some of the things I wished my neurotypical peers could understand and accept about me. The post was intentionally light-hearted, but it reflects an intense desire on my part: the wish that people around me could occasionally see past my “unusual” behaviours, listen to what I have to say, and maybe even catch a glimpse of the person I really am. From what I’ve read, this is a dream shared by many autistic people.

But communication goes both ways. I written before about things I do automatically that might seem rude or hurtful to a non-autistic person. These “odd” behaviours are documented throughout the autism literature, always as negatives or in mildly pitying terms. Officially, they’re encompassed in the triad of impairments – since the majority retains the right to define what is “normal” and what is an impediment. What seems to be less well understood, though, is how rude and hurtful some of the non-autistic social behaviours can be when seen from an autistic perspective.

A thousand examples spring to mind. Lying, for example. The amount of non-autistic communication that’s made up of lies and half-truths just staggers me. How is it not the most offensive thing in the world to be constantly lying to someone? And how are autistics not in constant demand as literally the most honest and trustworthy people in the world? But I’ll leave that for another day.

My current beef with neurotypical interaction is something they call “throw-away remarks”. These are words or phrases that people say which they claim, apparently with complete sincerity, don’t mean anything. Just words. And this I do not understand.

Perhaps it is part of my “deficiency” in small-talk – another form of indirect communication through words that mean little or nothing in themselves. But there is a subtle difference between small-talk and throw-away remarks. Small-talk, taken in context and together with other information, is the padding that supports neurotypical communication and relationships. Throw-away remarks on the other hand, as far as I am told, are only there to fill the silence. The difference in subject matter, I suppose, is just an unfortunate coincidence.

You see, I am not wasteful with words. So when I am described as rude or insensitive, it happens in very specific types of circumstance. Most often it’s in association with an idea I’ve analysed critically, which someone takes as an insult to their intelligence or authority. Sometimes it’s because I’m barrelling on with a monologue or directing the conversation, not recognising that another person is uncomfortable or trying to make a different point. Even asking a question too directly can cause some people to take offence. Making personal judgements, however, is not in my nature, and when I cause offence, it is never because I have made a personal remark that is derogatory towards another individual (joking aside – I can banter as well as the next man!). In what is claimed are “throw-away remarks”, this sort of personal judgement is commonplace.

From my perspective, the difficulty with these offhand phrases is that they do have meaning. It may not be conscious, but the words that people throw out in those careless moments reflect quite starkly their underlying biases and prejudices. In a world which it seems is almost constant in the practise of deceit, those little words are in themselves a window to the soul. And what an ugly thing it seems to be.

I encounter this behaviour with something between amusement and pain. Obviously when someone makes an offhand personal comment about me – particularly about any “work-related social skills” – it can be deeply upsetting. But honestly? I am perplexed. It is faintly ridiculous to me that, in a world that ties itself in such terrible knots about tone of voice and conversational balance, someone actually saying direct, meaningful words that are blatantly prejudiced and offensive can brush them off with an “oh, it was just a throw-away remark – it didn’t mean anything” – and that that’s totally OK! It’s accepted. Those are the social rules.

I just cannot get to grips with this concept. Why would you use those words if you didn’t mean them? Since the only person who gets hurt by my being offended is me, I do try not to take this behaviour personally. But still.

All words have impact. And there are times when I would dearly love to say to these people: if you can’t take responsibility for the consequences of your wasted words, then maybe you should learn to enjoy the silence.

Talking Aspie: a beginner’s guide

I’ve been thinking about writing this post for a while, but it seemed appropriate to save it for Autism Acceptance Day 🙂

So a while ago I saw this post on Autistic Not Weird asking: if you could teach people one thing about autism, what would it be? The answers are many and definitely worth reading.

Having been too late to answer Chris’ question, when I tried to think of one thing I’d want to teach neurotypical people about autism what came to mind was my own model of autism as a “different language”. It’s not just a difference in how we use words, but the way we think and feel and our whole experience of the world. This “different language” model is one that I’ve used to accept my diagnosis and build an understanding of neurodiversity, using descriptions of how I differ from the “norm” to reconstruct what that unspoken “norm” might actually be! So the one thing I’d love to teach people is how to begin to translate between those two languages, and recognise in the process that “autistic” does not mean less than human.

Here, then, is a light-hearted look at some “translations” I’d love to teach the neurotypicals in my life, particularly those who might one day become my friends:

Level 1: basic style

What I do: Volunteer the answer to a simple question.
What you think: God, she’s arrogant!
What it means: I am providing information in support of a common goal.

What I do: Ask a straight question.
What you think: This is a challenge to my authority! I must defend myself!
What it means: I genuinely do not understand and am trying to clarify. (Unless you are obviously being obstructive. In which case, yes, I am challenging your authority. That is also a thing.)

Level 2: simple behaviours

What I do: Don’t look you in the eye when I’m talking to you.
What you think: Is she lying to me?
What it means: I’m finding this concept hard to put into words, and looking at your face is distracting me. I need to focus all my attention on translating the message.

What I do: Write while you are talking to me.
What you think: Is she listening to me?
What it means: I think what you’re saying is really important, but I can’t process your words right now. I need to write them down so I can look back at them later.

What I do: Stare dumbly at you in response to a question for an awkwardly long period of time.
What you think: … OK… what now … ???
What it means: option 1: You’ve asked a good question and my brain is working hard to find the right words to respond.
What it means: option 2: There is no right answer* to your question and I am now literally paralysed with fear. Congratulations!

* Where “no right answer” means the truth is not diplomatic, and the diplomatic answer is too wrong to be utterable, but I do not know you well enough to risk causing offence.

What I do: Keep quiet at team coffees / social pub visits.
What you think: She’s unapproachable and standoffish. She never makes the effort to get to know anyone.
What it means: I have auditory hypersensitivity and struggle to maintain conversations in a noisy setting. On top of this, I struggle to follow subtle conversational cues such as when it is my turn to speak. If there are more than 2 people at the table, I’ll likely either talk all night or I won’t get a word in edgeways.

What I do: Talk rapidly and excitedly about a single topic with no regard to the people around me.
What you think: Is she not getting the message that I’m not interested?
What it means: I am really really excited about this topic! WAY too excited to get your message! And you did ask…

Level 3: complex social behaviours

What I do: Agree to come to your birthday party, then pull out at the last minute.
What you think: This is important to me but she doesn’t care. Evidently she doesn’t like me very much.
What it means: I know it’s important to you – believe me, that’s the only reason I agreed in the first place. But now it’s Friday night, I’ve walked into two lamp-posts on the way home and am currently choking on my dinner. Stimming visibly in a noisy pub for 4 hours while tripping over stilted small-talk is the best case scenario here.

What I do: Refuse an invite to the pub tomorrow night, even though we both know I’m free.
What you think: I guess she’s not interested in being sociable.
What it means: BUT BUT BUT IT’S NOT IN THE PLAN!!!

What I do: Occasionally invite you to an activity with me.
What you think: I haven’t seen her in ages. She never makes time for me. Where did this come from out of the blue?
What it means: I need to spend lots of my time alone to recharge, but I still want to spend time with you. I have spent weeks thinking about what you might like to do and building up the courage to approach you. This is me trying to make friends.

What I do: Rarely talk to you.
What you think: She isn’t interested in getting to know me – I guess she has other friends.
What it means: I have precisely two scripts for initiating unstructured conversation, in only a few permitted social contexts. A lot of things have to come together for this to work out! Trust me, if I weren’t interested in getting to know you, you wouldn’t be hearing from me at all.

And the bonus level …

What I do: Occasionally talk to you, and you are a single man.
What you think: She’s really interested in me!
What it means: I’m really not… I want to make friends. This is how I make friends. OK?

Some of these I suspect will be specific to me, but perhaps a few are applicable to others on the spectrum.

My fellow Aspies / autistics – what would you add?