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.

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.

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?