Monthly Archives: August 2014

Social catalyst

I often find myself acting as a social catalyst. I’m good at bringing other people together, smoothing things over, improving people’s relationships with each other. I end up as an impartial outsider who helps out the social group without really being part of it.

Here are some examples of times I was a social catalyst:

  • When I was younger, I made friends with two people who were already ‘best friends’ with each other. When one of them was upset, I would immediately offer to leave the two of them alone to talk, because I knew they didn’t trust me as much and might not have wanted me around.
  • When I’m out with my friends, I’m often the one who interacts with strangers like waiters or salespeople on behalf of the group, because they’re often uncomfortable to talk to them.
  • When my friend was upset, I offered to go and send her partner to talk to her, because I didn’t know what I could say to help – but I just wanted her to feel better.

The general trend is that I prioritise the happiness of other people (or the group as a whole), over my own – even when they directly contradict one another. If someone is uncomfortable or upset, I often don’t know how to help. But I still want to help, so I try to find another way to make them feel better And usually the next most obvious response is to bring them another person who does know how to help, instead of me.

It’s quite difficult to write about, because the situation involves two directly competing urges in a single situation. One urge is to stay, socialise, enjoy the company of the other person – because I like them. The other urge is to alter the situation to make the other person happier – because I care about them.

In reality, I almost always end up choosing the second option. The first option might seem appealing but I know that I would find it difficult and uncomfortable anyway. I won’t know how to help, I’ll feel bad about that, and I’ll end up unable to enjoy any interaction with the person in the end. So I choose the second option. I give up my own chance at an enjoyable interaction (because I know the chance of it actually being successful or enjoyable is very slim), in order to make the other person happy without me. The options are either: both of us are unhappy and uncomfortable, or: one of us (me) is unhappy, and the other is (possibly) cheered up.

It’s taken me a long time to see that this is a thing that I do, and to be able to actually describe it to myself. I’m not sure what I should do now that I recognise it, though.

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Lying

Lying is one of the few autistic stereotypes that actually fits me quite accurately. I’ve always found it very difficult to lie, and I get really angry if other people do it. When I was younger, it was even a struggle for me to understand that other people were able to lie.

I think that part of my experience of lying is partly related to the way I interpret rules. When I was a kid, I was taught by the adults around me (like most kids are) that “lying is wrong”. Most people seemed to easily understand the implicit message about the situations where lying is acceptable (e.g. “if it would hurt someone’s feelings”, “if it’s an inappropriate topic”, “if you don’t want to talk about it with that person”). But I only learnt the rule as it was taught. Lying is wrong.

So I didn’t lie. And I assumed everyone else would never lie either. Realising that other people lied was like a betrayal –they were breaking the rule without even worrying about it. But knowing that other people lied wasn’t enough for me to do it myself. I couldn’t break the rule, even if other people were doing it. Whenever I had a fight with my ‘friends’ in primary school (which happened pretty often), the teachers would ask us what happened. I would tell the truth, and the other kids would lie, and I’d be the only one to get in trouble as a result. For some reason, even my honesty was less believable than someone else’s lie. (did someone say atypical communication?!)

Nowadays, I have taught myself to lie very occasionally. I can handle lying when it’s part of social scripts (things like answering “Fine, thanks” when someone asks how I am). I can tell small and fairly unimportant lies if it means I can get out of an uncomfortable situation or conversation (like saying I’ll be busy if I want to decline an invitation to something, or saying I have somewhere to get to when I want to leave). I can sometimes manage a lie when I want to avoid telling someone about something that is private or personal (like telling my friends I feel ill and need to go home, rather than admitting that I’m panicking).

I still find it extremely difficult. When someone asks a question, I don’t interpret it as “give me the information I want, or a lie that will make me feel better” – I interpret it as “give me the information I want, or an explanation for why you can’t”. I can sometimes get away without lying, by simply admitting I don’t want to say something – for example if my friends ask why I’m upset, I just answer “I don’t want to go into it”, or similar. That lets me stay within my interpretation of the question, by giving an explanation for not answering.

My rules of communication also make it really hard for me to deal with being lied to. If I ask someone a question, I don’t want them to lie to me rather than answering. If they can’t or don’t want to answer, I want them to simply explain that. I’d much rather someone said “I don’t know you well enough to talk about this with you”, rather than outright say something completely false just to get out of the conversation.

If I find out that someone has lied to me, I feel like my trust has been completely broken. It’s very difficult for me to recognise a lie at the time. So if I know someone lied to me, I have to assume than anything they ever say could now be a lie. Which makes it pretty hard to trust anything they say after that. I’m trying to work on teaching myself that when other people lie, they do it for a reason – even if I don’t understand the reason. But it’s pretty difficult. I tend to deal with it by simply surrounding myself with people who have the same rules for lying as I do, so I don’t have to feel like I’m constantly on guard around them. It works well enough for me.

Decisions

People often tell me I’m a very decisive person. My parents say that when I was a kid, I would carefully choose the toy I wanted to buy, and then that was it – decision made. No further questioning or deliberating, and I would never change my mind.

I’m still much the same now. I sometimes take a long time to make a decision – especially if it’s something very important, but also for seemingly small and insignificant things. I take great care to weigh out pros and cons and work out the logical reasoning to make the right choice. But once I’ve made the decision, it’s final. The other possibilities get deleted from my thoughts and are no longer up for consideration. I never wonder whether I should have made a different choice, or what might have changed if I’d decided differently.

I think this could be something to do with imagination. I have trouble making decisions because I can’t imagine the outcomes very well. I can’t just ‘intuitively’ know what I want or what is best, I have to use logic to work things out. But that means that once the decision is made, I still can’t really imagine the alternative outcomes. Obviously I can think “If I’d chosen to cook pasta then I would be eating that instead of noodles right now”, or “If I had applied to Bath University then I would be searching for accommodation in a different city”.

But beyond that, I can’t really imagine myself in the alternative situation. That means there’s no real way for me to imagine how the present or future would be different if I made a different choice in the past. There’s nothing to regret, so I can’t really worry about it.

Unfortunately this doesn’t translate into being free from anxiety. The fact it’s hard for me to imagine myself in future situations means I worry about them more. I try to plan and prepare for all eventualities, but I can’t actually put myself in the future in my ‘mind’s eye’, so I never feel like my preparation is sufficient.

Ways of thinking

There’s often a lot of talk about the way autistic people think. Anyone who’s heard of Temple Grandin has probably heard that she describes ‘thinking in pictures’ – her thoughts flick through her mind like photographs. Other autistic people say they think in words – with no visual element at all.

I’ve thought about this a lot, because I wasn’t sure whether I was a words or pictures thinker. I eventually decided that the reason I had trouble figuring it out was because I’m not a words or pictures thinker. I know that I don’t think in pictures, because I don’t visualise photo-real images of things. Not every thought has a visual element attached. I know I don’t think in words, because I have to translate my thoughts in order to communicate using words  – which is sometimes difficult to do.

I guess the best way to describe my thoughts would just be… concepts? My thoughts take the form of maths, logic, spatial relationships, sets, diagrams, graphs, and other non-verbal things. They aren’t visual in the sense of being perfectly accurate or precise images. The visual element (when it’s there) is just a way of representing the relationships between things.

This is why my thoughts are sometimes easy and sometimes difficult to translate. Certain types of concept are a lot easier to express in words. For example, we can easily say something like “there is more of this than of that”. Others are almost impossible to translate – at least not with any language I know (perhaps if I was fluent in advanced mathematical logic I would be able to express myself better!).

When I was first talking to my dad about autism and the inaccuracy of the linear spectrum, I ended up drawing endless graphs and diagrams to try and make my point. It took weeks before I was able to find the words to really explain myself, and even now I’m not sure I’ve quite said what I wanted to.

I often resort to using diagrams to express myself. Sometimes it works well enough to communicate my point to someone. Other times, just making the diagram concrete allows me to ‘read’ it and form a verbal description. And sometimes the thoughts are so abstract that I can’t find a way to visually represent them – it would require a four-dimensional graph or a moving animation or something else I can’t do with a pen and paper.

Routines

I’ve talked about my trouble with edges. This is one of the reasons routine and familiarity is so important for me.

Sameness allows me to stop worrying about my edges. If I’m anxious and I feel like I’m losing them, I use familiar routines to keep hold of them. Familiar things work like signposts to the reality of my existence. Even when my internal self is in chaos, I can check on my consistent surroundings to keep hold of things. Routine also allows me to protect myself from unnecessary input. If I’m in a situation that I know is safe and familiar, then I don’t need to be on alert for danger or threats.

If I’m overwhelmed after a loud party, I can retreat to the safety of consistency. I can sit on my bed and turn on my laptop and use the familiarity around me to re-draw my edges after they’ve been overwritten and erased.

If I’m stressed and anxious and I feel my edges starting to disappear, I can try to protect myself by using routine to reinforce them. I deliberately avoid unfamiliar or new things so that I have the best chance of staying calm.

If I’m too tired to figure out how I feel or what I want, I can keep myself going and save decision-making energy by relying on sameness. I return to what I know – eat the foods I always like, do the things I always enjoy – and save my cognitive energy for the essentials.

If I’m anticipating something difficult or overwhelming I can plan and prepare to make things as predictable and familiar as possible. I make sure to have whatever safe and reliable anchors I can gather around myself – books, toys, people.

All of these things might look like irrational rigidity from the perspective of a neurotypical person. But they’re actually coping mechanisms. The world is scary and overwhelming a lot of the time, in ways that people don’t always understand. The best way for me to handle that is to impose order wherever I can.

Functioning labels and non-linear spectra

In the last few weeks, I’ve talked to a lot of people about autism. Most of my family have heard about my diagnosis and everyone seems very interested. I’ve been doing a lot of explaining things to an ignorant but open-minded audience: the ideal students!

The one most common piece of misinformation I’ve encountered is the idea of a linear autistic spectrum. Things like “You’re obviously high-functioning”, or “I guess you’re fairly mild”. These are understandable things to say for people who know very little about autism. I can speak, I can do things independently, I’ve (more or less) managed to get through school, and I obviously wasn’t diagnosed as a kid. If autism was a linear spectrum, I would be placed at the ‘mild’ end. But… it’s simply not.

The main source of the problem is the fact that most people are not autistic. And so, most people who study or think about or talk about autism are not autistic. That means that most information about autism comes from the perspective of non-autistic people. That’s why lists of traits contain things like “inappropriate eye contact”. If you asked most autistic people, they’d say it’s neurotypical people’s eye contact that’s inappropriately intense and demanding!

The point of that example is just to show that autism from the inside is very different to what neurotypical people see from the outside. And that is still very true when it comes to the idea of a linear spectrum. Neurotypical people look at all autistic people and try to find ways to divide up and make sense of autism. But their interpretations are based on how autism looks from the outside.

It looks like there are some people who can speak most of the time, and some people who can almost never speak. Surely that factor is the most significant and relevant one – for a neurotypical person the ability to speak is incredibly important. But for autistic people, it’s not that simple. Speech is not the only way to communicate, and it’s often not the best way. I can speak well most of the time, but I can generally express myself far better in writing – and I know a lot of other autistic people feel the same way.

So am I really all that different from someone who can’t speak, if we both communicate better in writing anyway? Trying to put a major distinction between us does nothing for anyone involved.

The only real reason to try and divide up the autistic spectrum is to be able to support and understand everyone individually – which is perfectly reasonable. But dividing us up with a straight line from “speaks a lot” to “doesn’t speak much” is focusing way too much on something insignificant, and ignoring many other important factors.

What about the fact that I have no innate sense of direction? Or that I can’t eat foods with mixed textures? Or that I panic if I stray too far from home? Or that I can’t tell when I’m being bullied and manipulated? Or that I can’t sit still and pay attention at the same time? Or that I am unable to study in a class full of other people?

Why are all of those things considered so much less significant than the fact that I can usually use vocal words to communicate with other people pretty well? The answer is probably just the fact that vocal words are a bit more noticeable to outside observers. But just because something is more noticeable from the outside, it doesn’t mean it’s more significant on the inside.

Pedantic

I am frequently called pedantic. It’s usually in the form of a minor insult or an attempt to make me shut up about something. I get it when I’m trying to pin down the real meaning of what someone’s saying, and they think I’m being deliberately difficult. I get it when I correct someone when they make a small mistake. I get it when I take too long trying to explain my own exact point.

Recently, a discussion ensued about the actual meaning of ‘pedantic’. According to Google, it means:

excessively concerned with minor details or rules; overscrupulous

So… why is that such a bad thing? I’m straining to try and understand why it is completely unacceptable to be ‘overscrupulous’, when scrupulous just means “diligent, thorough, and extremely attentive to details“. Those sound like excellent qualities to me!

I guess the point is that most people easily identify the situations in which precision is and is not vital. But for me, there aren’t any situations where precision isn’t vital – correctness and accuracy are always the most important thing. Things should be accurate at the expense of being brief, or simple, or holding someone’s attention. If something is worth communicating, then it’s worth communicating in full and to the best of my understanding. I don’t see the point of anything in between.

So, go ahead – call me pedantic. I’ll take it as a compliment, and it won’t stop me getting my point across if I have something I want to say!