Alternate Title, “Why You Should Look Elsewhere for Inspiring Autistics.”
I suck at communicating.
This hasn’t been obvious to me the past several years, because I’ve spent the past several years working from home and having 99 percent of my significant relationships via the Internet only. I write great. I talk okay (usually). I communicate for crap.
In the interests of communicating for less crap, I checked out Social Skills for Teenagers and Adults With Asperger’s Syndrome: A Practical Guide, by Nancy J. Patrick. I have to confess it was not much help. The information on small-group dynamics and how to tell just how impaired you are communicatively was next to useless for me; I work in communication-based fields for a living, and I’m painfully aware on a daily basis of how impaired I am and in what capacities. My problem isn’t knowing I have a problem; it’s finding things that actually help.
The rules I have been taught to date about communication? Don’t actually help.
See, all the rules I was taught as a kid about how to communicate in an allistic world were not about actually helping me to communicate. They were about not making other people uncomfortable with how I communicate. The only commandment I was ever taught was Thou Shalt Not Make Others Uncomfortable, No Matter the Personal Cost to You.
Consequently, I got stuck with a raft of communication “rules” that are utterly useless when it comes to helping me actually communicate better. They include:
- Make eye contact with the person who is speaking to you and the person to whom you are speaking. It makes other people uncomfortable when you don’t look at them during a conversation. Never mind that the cognitive effort required for me to modulate and maintain eye contact sharply reduces my ability to make sense of what is being said to me or to formulate a response. Never mind that I can’t not notice my surroundings – and no surroundings are sufficiently sensory-empty to escape my notice.
- If you didn’t understand what was just said, act as if you do. It makes other people uncomfortable when you ask them to clarify or repeat themselves. Never mind that my chances of filtering out my surroundings enough to understand the other person and the chances that my brain will actually bother to interpret their sounds as words I comprehend are low-to-middling in the best (read: pre-eye-contact) conditions.
- Respond promptly when another person in a conversation stops talking. It makes other people uncomfortable when you spend more than a couple seconds formulating a reply. Never mind that, if I’m expected to have a reply on deck, the effort required to organize and prepare it for launch utterly eliminates my ability to attend to what is being said.
- Do not express discomfort or disagreement; do not ever, ever say “no.” It makes other people uncomfortable to encounter resistance of any kind. This one needs an entire blog post dedicated to it. This lesson is taught to a huge number of autistic people, and autistic women get a double dose. It is the single biggest casualty caused by the “do not make others uncomfortable” commandment. It leads to repeating cycles of abuse, neglect, and shame. When I say you do not want your child to grow up like me, this is what I mean – you do not want your child to grow up believing zie can never say “no.” Trust me.
- Do not share your feelings. It makes other people uncomfortable to deal with your feelings. Especially yours, which are weird. But always, always accommodate other people’s feelings in the way they want their feelings accommodated, no matter how personally difficult that is for you!
- Always say the right thing, which is the thing the other person wants to hear. It makes other people uncomfortable whenever you say something they don’t expect. If your feelings are “weird,” your words are even weirder. Not only should responses in a conversation be ready to go and totally appropriate to the content of the other person’s comment (both spoken and non-spoken), they must also conform to the other person’s wants and needs – especially the non-spoken ones.
- Never, ever ask another person what they expect to hear. It makes other people uncomfortable when you draw any kind of attention to the rules of social interaction or ask them to explain their own needs. The discomfort other people suffer over being exposed to my “weirdness” increases exponentially when I weirdly ask a question to which I am obviously supposed to know the answer – like “what do you want?” or “what should we talk about?” This one bothers me in particular because my entire life I’ve been encouraged to ask people what they want or what I can do for them – but the blowback for actually doing it is often extreme.
I understand that the line between “rules that help you communicate better” and “rules that help other people think you are communicating better” is a hard one for allistic people to understand. Assuming an open posture toward the speaker, making eye contact, and not thinking about what you’re going to make for dinner while the other person talks all help the average allistic person listen and formulate a response better, so why shouldn’t they help autistic people, too – especially when autistic people are so obviously terrible at those very things?
Answer: we don’t communicate the way you do.
How do we communicate? I wish I knew. I’ve had thirty years of being taught rules for communication that have nothing to do with how I actually communicate, and nothing I can find on the subject has yet taught me how I can communicate more effectively. Part of the point of my thesis, for me, is trying to figure that out.