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?

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Talk to me!

One of the things I struggle most with at work is keeping on top of what’s going on around me. Oh, absolutely, I know my own job. But especially when I’m under pressure, I find myself shutting people out to the extent that weeks can go by before I speak to anyone else on my team. The day-to-day conversations where we bounce around the technical stuff and help each other out just never seem to happen.

Lots of team meetings are getting cancelled at the moment. It always seems like we’re too busy, or there’s something more important to do; people just drop out until there’s barely anyone left. I thought at first this was a bad thing. But as it turns out, it doesn’t have to be.

See, when there are several people in the room, as an autistic person I am never going to follow that conversation. We’ve tried to impose structure so that it’s easier for me, but that inevitably restricts the depth of content – it makes people uneasy if they feel like they’re talking to a schedule. The fewer people there are in that meeting, the more likely we are to make something of that time.

So over the past several weeks people have cancelled and cancelled until there are pretty much just two of us left. Not always the same two, but since I plan and prepare exhaustively for meetings I’m usually one of them. The temptation then when I’m stressed or struggling with speech is to make some excuse: there’s only the two of us, it isn’t really worth it, I haven’t got anything to say. Even when I have.

But the last time this happened I was getting a little bit fed up. I was doing my best to keep on top of things, but I honestly felt like I had no idea what was going on. I felt isolated and at a loss, and I wanted some input. So I didn’t cancel the meeting. I reinforced it. Instead of emailing an excuse, I sent a request. I asked: can we find the time to do this? I’d really like to hear about your project and how you’re getting on.

It was a massive leap of faith. I’d never have had the nerve just to email this one person and ask to talk with them about their work. It’s not because they’re scary or anything: starting an unstructured dialogue is just something I cannot do. But it was amazing. We spent half an hour or so having a proper chat about the technical details of our projects, without a third or fourth or fifth person to get in the way. No bouncing the ball or watching for signs of disengagement; no being worried about one subject dominating the conversation. Just getting properly absorbed in the really interesting stuff.

Sometimes I think in terms of people who can communicate with me and people who can’t – but in reality it’s the context that matters. These are the same people I go into meetings with and, collectively, I am literally terrified of them. I’m scared and ashamed because I know I won’t follow, and I’ll try to engage but the faux-pas will be just excruciating. I’ll watch from the sidelines and try not to stim, even though it helps, because of how it looks. I’ll ask for clarification and the new answer won’t make any more sense than the first. But talking with my colleagues as individuals, one at a time, makes so much difference to my ability to understand and interact with them. I don’t have to worry about how I look any more, because in that context I’m actually able to make a contribution. We communicate. I am involved.

I can’t do this every time. But I think that next time practically everyone cancels on a team or technical meeting, I’ll see it as a blessing in disguise.