The hazard of combining my brain with a two-part post should have been obvious. When I sat down to write the second part, I immediately knew that I had long lost track of what part two was supposed to address. But, when I opened the section of files on my computer to do the actual writing, I saw that I already had a tab labeled “Geek Club Books: September.” Color me amazed that I actually had the wherewithal to think ahead and make notes to myself a month in advance. I must have known I would forget. I’m not quite sure if I out-smarted or out-stupided myself.
At some points in my life, my autism was more externally-noticeable. But, at this point… it isn’t (unless you know what to look for, that is). There are two big reasons for that: One, people are really distracted by all my medical equipment, and autism is more of an afterthought. That is, because autism is so much more a part of my identity than my medical situation, which is the real afterthought for me. But people are also totally unacquainted with the way autism presents in a very verbal young adult woman. It’s less about the fact that I don’t present like the autistic young woman I am–someone once said that “I could be the Asperger’s poster child!”–and it’s more about the fact that people are clueless. I can be holding my ears, freaking out about a sock seam, unable to pick these crackers or those from the store shelf, saying, and lecturing about the history of toilet paper sans even a whit of eye contact, but, wow–YOU’RE au-TIS-tic?! More often, I just get asked what grade I’m in (nine weeks till I finish my Master’s, thankyouverymuch).
But another, smaller reason that people don’t catch on if I don’t tell them is because I’m slowly learning to add little NT-isms into my social communication so as to present in a more typical way. Now, okay–the fact that I just described it that way should show you pretty clearly that it’s a very rote process and not at all natural. I’m the girl who asserted her working knowledge of the common practice among young adults by saying, “I know enough hidden curriculum to know that there’s some unspoken code about things that happen under conditions in which one’s blood alcohol level exceeds one’s ability to rationalize staying within the confines of the environment in which said impulsive excess actually occurred.” Much of what I know of NT social norms, I know in a very academic way. Speaking your language is no different. Do you remember middle school French or Spanish classes? Darn those obnoxiously difficult “r” sounds! Getting your mouth to form that shape felt, well, foreign.
It feels exactly like that when I try to converse in a manner that serves only to establish a social relationship and not to actually exchange any significant content. The how-are-yous and the what-is-little-Sarah-up-to-these-days and, most especially, anything to do with the weather are conversations I could do without. People think it’s odd when I walk up to them and say, “Hi, how’s your cat?” because it’s a script. Many kids are redirected from these attempts at connecting to others.
I stand to ask you, though, how it is any different when you prattle about weather… because that’s also a script. There is no more logical benefit in speaking about weather conditions than there is in chatting about cats. Besides, cats are furry, and they meow, so, clearly, cats come out on top.
When I ask a question of a person not in order to garner further information but instead as a means to create some social something-or-other that makes the person feel something-else-or-other (but I know it’s good), I have to do think: Is this question appropriate? Is it rude? Is my timing right? Oh, wait, the conversation has shifted a bit–is my question now off topic? Is it a time to return to the topic or do I forget about that question and listen again and try to come up with another one? Did I miss my chance? Does this person want to talk about this subject or will my question encourage the subject to continue even beyond what the person desires?
So many questions. The worst part is that it’s very hard to tell whether I’ve hit or missed by the person’s reaction. I know I don’t engage in enough reciprocation, but when I have to consider so many variables every time I try, well, I can’t do it as much as NTs do. I tend to ask one, and then return to my comfort level for a few minutes, and then try again. My comfort level, and that of many adults on the spectrum, is to share personal stories or experiences or especially information that relate to the topic. NTs often say we’re being self-centered, but the things we share are often meant to say, “Oh, I kind of know how you might be feeling!” or “This bit of information relates to this subject it might change how you think!” But people aren’t interested in that, and we get really upset and confused when we’re constantly told to converse the “right” way. It’s fun to chat with one of my closest autistic friends. We often sound like we have two totally separate conversations going on, each sharing unrelated stories at the same time. I hear her. She hears me. Sometimes, after we’ve processed each other’s stories, we go back around and offer support or encouragement, if needed. But there’s never bit a whit of, “You aren’t listening to me!” I know she is–always.
So, for all the times autistic people are called rigid… I think NTs are mighty rigid in the way they expect conversations to run! Sometimes, I try to speak NT, especially if I’m working at the autism center or if a parent needs assistance. But, even when I do, I speak with an autistic accent, as if I’m speaking a foreign language. I don’t do eye contact, and my voice is too loud, and my timing is rotten. And even if I come to speak NT flawlessly, it won’t change the fact that I am autistic, just like someone from Spain who learns fluent English wouldn’t suddenly lose her Spanish identity. Neither less, just different.