Asperger's / Autism Toolbox
Intemperate Zone -
A Post by Monkey Pliers
There are cool things about my autism, such as the way it lets me be free from certain superficial social norms, allowing me to be less self-consciously and more joyously myself. There are challenging things about it, the struggle to organize my living space and schedule being among them. I love my unique perspective and how it affects my creative output. But this post is about an aspect of my neurology that truly troubles me.
When it's said that autism involves difficulty with things like social communication, there's room for the stress, confusion, and embarrassment those of us on the spectrum can experience to be acknowledged. But I'm not sure the full range or weight of what this can mean is being understood by those who've never experienced this problem.
True enough, a lot of what we're talking about is stuff related to playing catch-up with our language processing; getting words to come out properly, so that we convey the meaning we intend; figuring out body language, facial expressions, and other cues, so we can clue in better to what's going on and interact in a way that appears more familiar and natural to neurotypicals (non-neurodivergent people in general) and other allistics (those who, regardless of whether or not they are also neurodivergent, are non-autistic) around us. And, yes, anyone can make ordinary social errors, or even the occasional major gaffe. That's just being human. But then there's something else - a thing that makes me cringe just thinking about it.
I won't go into any serious detail here. My point is not to assuage a guilty conscience with some kind of gruesome public confession. But I will give a couple of sufficiently vague examples, just to let you know what I'm talking about. The first is the more recent. While with some friends, I made a comment brought on by a combination of physical pain, the emotional stress that often accompanies it, and a kind of self-criticism that, unfortunately, all too frequently results. I was totally self-focused when I said it. As I spoke, I began to realize something was wrong. I noticed the mouths of the people around me opening and closing, while seeming almost to smile slightly. I've learned to be wary of smiling, given how many different things it can mean, not all of them pleasant. However, although the upturned corners and wordless movements of their lips alerted me, I was caught, as if on a track, speeding like an uncontrolled train towards the end of my statement. I actually couldn't stop talking. My sense of dread grew. I was driving this, and I couldn't shut it off, as much as I wanted to. Try halting a train headed toward disaster while having nothing to bring to bear but your will to discontinue its forward momentum. Unless you have some pretty impressive telekinetic skill, that should give you some idea of how this felt for me.
When it was over, I realized I'd insulted my companions by saying something that had a completely different meaning in my head from the one it took on by the time it reached their ears. I was mortified.
My second example is from my childhood. I had the, shall we say, interesting experience of having my mother explain to me what adult humor was and why I shouldn't repeat a joke that my family hadn't bothered to prevent me from hearing. All I knew before then was that certain things made people I knew laugh, making people laugh seemed to make them like you, and I wanted an adult I liked to laugh, so she would like me. It never occurred to me that she would feel embarrassed and that I would later hear about it. My mother was pretty kind about how she explained it to me, but I felt awful. Furthermore, although this can happen at some point to any child, it's not considered okay if it continues well into an age beyond which one would be deemed too old for this kind of mistake. I was very young back then. But my concern continued, with reason, as I grew older.
That's actually not the worst experience I had back then with this type of pitfall, but it does show how compensatory skills such as mimicry and scripting can get a kid on the spectrum into trouble. You can sometimes squeak by a bit better than usual in a social setting with such tricks. But you'll eventually pay for your inability to grasp the impact of your words before it's too late, when those words happen to mean something very different from what you initially may have imagined. Ditto when it's about describing the dissatisfactions of your inner world a bit too enthusiastically, which is an example of undesirably unregulated spillage resulting from mental and physical suffering, rather than excessive use of formulaic behaviors.
So, we have several different types of problem converging whenever something like this occurs: One is a lack of proper understanding in some way at the outset. Another is a delay in mental processing as things begin to go awry. A third is a brain and body that refuse to obey their owner. And a fourth, making up a "perfect storm" of circumstances, is that the nature of the comment being made can come off as outright offensive and rude, not just silly or awkward, in spite of the original intent.
Heaven help me if this ever happens on social media. The feeding frenzy would be more than I could handle. At least I have a better shot at preventing trouble when I write, given the added time it provides for me to actually view my statements before going public with them. But that's no guarantee. The other components of this issue, along with not always knowing when I might need even more time than I'm allotting, can still overcome my best efforts. And that really scares me. Ratcheting up the risk factor is the fact that, because my comprehension is often good enough, I frequently say things on purpose that others find quite funny - including stuff that uses adult language or includes some insight I've had about society and culture. When it works, my sense of humor is appreciated, which I greatly enjoy. But that just makes it all the more shocking when it falls apart. I try to be very careful, but I know that might not be anything like enough one day.
I'm not going to disappear and stop living my life just because of what I'm afraid could happen in the future if I make a serious mistake. But I can't get away from my past and the knowledge that this is a risk I will always have to face. As you might imagine, far from being my most favorite part of my Asperger's, it's my very least. In fact, I hate it. I don't spent all my time thinking about it, by any means, but I can't ever really get over it when it happens. No matter how I handle it at the time, once it's done, I can only hope eventually to gradually turn my mind to other pursuits, as my days fill my head with new information.
When my thoughts alight on one of these extremely painful memories, it strikes me as being similar to touching a hot stove. I want to pull away immediately. But looking into my past this way is also like "rubbernecking" while driving by the twisted remains of a car accident along the side of the road. How can you not look after you've noticed the crash? And yet, if you spend too much time allowing your gaze to be redirected, you can't see where you're going. Let me tell you, attempting to prevent a brand new pile up while looking back upon a previous one is a bit tricky, especially when the earlier wreck is also your own, and you know that examining past mistakes is supposed to help you avoid making new ones.
I'll say it again: I hate it.
It is my good fortune to have very kind, forgiving people all around me these days. I had significantly less of this good fortune in my younger days, though it wasn't completely absent. I also have the great advantage of a much higher degree of understanding, from both myself and others, thanks to my ASD diagnosis. I should also allow myself the dignity of acknowledging the amount of good will and respect I've accrued over the years, from people who've gotten to know me, and who also have my good will and respect. I credit all that when I consider how much easier it is for me these days to deal with awkward situations and their aftermath. Still, it's hard not to set aside everything positive I've come to know about myself in light of the most serious of my missteps, if not the accumulation of them, large and small, during the course of my life.
I'm still wincing over my most recent predicament. Everyone was polite enough not to confront me about it at the time, but I have no way to predict what the ultimate effect of my comment will be. I've considered things carefully and determined that trying to apologize this long after the fact will probably only make things worse. My girlfriend, with whom I've discussed this, and who has shown such beautiful sensitivity in helping me deal with all sorts of painful issues, agrees. But she'd like me to let go of this, now that it's irretrievably in the past, and I can't seem to do that. I suppose it's a result of my fear of generating negative outcomes mixing with my propensity for attention to detail and getting stuck ruminating on a particular subject. In other words, hyperfocus and perseveration, two other traits associated with autism, are contributing to my inability to move on and making the whole affair that much worse.
I'm working on it. But it's tough when you have the feeling you're just being lazy about your own guilty conscience, trying to make yourself feel better at the expense of making enough of an effort. And that worry is intensified by the heavy shaming environment of today's social media. I already often have trouble sleeping at night and relaxing during the day, for all kinds of reasons. This isn't making it any easier. One thing I have going for me is the knowledge that people who really do mean to be cruel, and who really don't mind what kind of impact they're having, because they think they're right and perfectly justified, don't find their sleep or daytime functioning to be disturbed by any consideration of their actions. At least that isn't me. I care deeply how others feel, even if I can't read them easily on the spot, and I consider myself someone who actively strives to treat others well. If that means I lose a little sleep, so be it. But I'm still a little freaked out right now. It's going to be a while before I feel ready to let myself recover from this one. And then, of course, there's the next time...
I continue to learn and grow, so some of this has gotten better over the years. But there's no denying that my brain will always work in a kind of wonky fashion, so the matter will never entirely go away. Whenever I catch myself in, or immediately following, the moment, I can try to "own" my mistake immediately, as I spontaneously did of my own accord recently, with a lesser error, not long after the big screw up. That's an impulse that comes to me naturally, whenever my brain allows my reaction to kick in fast enough. But I still don't know how to cope when my response time is too slow even for that, and I still can't get past the fact that I do this kind of thing in the first place. The more time goes by, the more it seems like bringing up a faux pas again will only make things worse. If it were more major, I'd have less doubt that apologizing this late would still be the right thing to do. But I don't know how to keep awkwardness from just piling up into more awkwardness, so that everybody ends up feeling bad all over again. Besides, as my girlfriend has pointed out, what if I misread people's reactions? What if they noticed nothing? Do I really want to make them uncomfortably aware now?
When I figure all this stuff out, I'll let you know. In the meantime, now that you've read this, it's my hope that when someone on the spectrum tells you socializing is exhausting, and that you have no idea what it takes for those of us who can manage it to appear to do it smoothly, you'll have a little bit better idea of what that individual is talking about. Please be patient and kind.