During a recent training day which focussed on the presentation of girls and women with Autism, Tony Attwood discussed what he calls ‘the Italian traffic lights.’ Just as Italian drivers often seem to fail to recognise the red light, so autistic girls and women often don’t see the signals to stop. I have been thinking about this and can’t really decide which way to see it. Should autistic girls and women be pressurised to stop just because it is expected, or more acceptable to do so? Or should neurotypicals learn to expect, encourage and embrace more? I think that part of the problem is translation. And when I say problem, I simply mean the reason that so often there seems to be a misunderstanding or miscommunication. The result of which leaves the autistic girls confused, bewildered and often hurt and rejected. I know that I can only speak for me and so I will. But in my reading and research I have found that there are many similar traits of behaviour, thought patterns along with mental and physical symptoms which to some extent we do all seem to share.
The red traffic light.
Well, until I started reading and learning about autism, I never knew that there was such a thing as oversharing or over disclosure. I always thought that everyone was like me and that everyone would like me. I thought that bouncing into situations and asking loads of questions was the perfect way to make friends and to make them feel wanted and needed. I didn’t talk about me. I presumed that they would ask next. They never did and I spent hours and days and months which became years asking myself why. After every encounter with anyone I have to disect every word that was said. I write everything down as extra protection because I can then read and read and re-read. I want to check if I have said anything wrong or bad. I want to try and understand why my efforts have not been well received.
I presumed that everyone was the same, more or less. I presumed that I was just a little bit more confident and capable and that my drama classes were helping me with my amazing ability to talk to anyone, everywhere about everything. To find out, at age 50, that there are rules about this is unbelievable. Why did no-one tell me this?
When I asked my daughter why this was never pointed out to me, she said that they all thought I knew the rules but that I loved defying them and breaking them. For over 50 years I thought that I was trying my best to fit in but all the time I was actually making sure that I would always fit out.
So if I am understanding this correctly – the expectation of the majority of neurotypicals is that there are stages of friendship and of conversation? Apparently it is not acceptable to start at stage 5 then? Hmmm? I realise that because I am in the minority it is unlikely that this will ever change and so I realise that understanding this earlier in life might have been helpful, but I am still left wondering why my way isn’t better? Why waste time on meaningless small talky chit chat when you could dive in and talk about the things that matter to someone straight away?
I am not trying to annoy you, or intrude upon you, or encourage you to reject me. When I over-share and disclose too early, I am simply trying to be your friend. You don’t have to want me, but it would be nice if you knew this.
The problem for autistic people who over share too early is that this seems to expose them to users, abusers and narcissists. The more ‘normal’ neurotypicals just run away but the personality disorders hang around because they can smell a gullible, naive, lovely loyal demeanor.
Asking a question.
I don’t know how often I have to say this. I ask a question because I want to know the answer. How is that so difficult to understand? See what I did there – just then? When I said, how is that so difficult to understand, what I meant was – how is that so difficult to understand. It was a genuine question to demonstrate something that I don’t understand and by way of a question, I hope to learn more as I hear an answer and explanation. But, if my new research is correct, I now realise that when handed over to neurotypicals, my simple question could have been interpretted in a myriad of ways with levels of purpose and intent more complicated than a Dickensian novel.
Is it rhetorical?
Firstly, there seems to be a belief that I am being rhetorical. If I now ask how it is possible that when someone asks a question it is easier to presume they already know the answer rather than realising that they just want an answer, would that be rhetorical too? Blimey being NT is jolly difficult. Can’t you all just ask a question, receive an answer and move on with life?
Please let me be very clear. If I ask a question it is because there is something that I don’t understand and there is something that I would like to understand better. It is in many ways a compliment to you because I have entrusted my ignorance to you and am waiting for your words to help me learn. I have not asked you a question because I don’t like you or because I want to offend you or because I want to suggest something else!
Am I being sarcastic?
Next, the presumption of the type of question as discussed above, is that I am being sarcastic. Again. Why?? If I wanted to be sarcastic then I would tell you that. The benefit of an autistic friend, family member or colleague is that we will tell you the truth. If I wish to be sarcastic then I will use my clever words to patronise you and I will tell you why. If I wish to ask a question then I will ask a question. Please stop confusing the two.
Is it because I don’t like you?
Ok so here goes. Now I am being sarcastic and rhetorical – why yes of course, naturally I would ask you a question because I already know the answer and in some way want to offend you. No!! I wouldn’t do this and why would anyone even think this could be a thing. And, before any muggles tell me that I can’t possibly be autistic because of my marvellous use of irony and wit – don’t! Read my blog and stop believing all of the myths and misconceptions.
Waiting for the answer.
As discussed above, if I am asking a question it is because I want to know something. If no answer comes then I am confused, upset and will worry that I have upset you. I love words because I can hear them and see them and can keep them as evidence. I can then use them in order to disect the conversation. If there is silence or sarcasm then I am left in a void of nothingness. I have to find something to fill nothingness and because I always fear the worst, I will fill it with negative thoughts and fears. If there is no answer to my question I will presume that you don’t like me and that you are rejecting me. You may well be doing this, or you may not, but I need to know. You could tell me that you don’t have time to answer right now, or that you need to think, or that you will answer later, but leaving me in silence is the darkness of not knowing and for me this a torture chamber of negative thoughts and fears and tears. If you think that this sounds melodramatic then please read my section on sensory issues and emotional meltdown.
You probably think that I am exaggerating. You will probably say that ‘we all have this.’
When I talk about the negative thoughts and fears you are possibly thinking that I am exaggerating. A very common response from lots of neurotypicals – muggles – to neurodivergent – autistic people – seems to be to say that it will all be ok and that ‘we all have that’ don’t we? This line causes a great deal of distress and dismay within the autistic community. It is the subject of much complaint and consternation. I have been thinking about this and talking to muggles to try and find out where this belief and misunderstaning comes from.
I think that muggles are trying to make things better. I really think that the words are well meant. Not helpful, but well intended.
I really struggle to understand this and I am not really the right person to try and explain. You need to ask a muggle. But it seems that they feel comfortable and in fact comforted if they think that lots of people have similar issues and that in knowing this it sort of makes them less painful and easier to bear. I know that I feel ‘better’ since learning about all of the amazing women who seem to come from the same planet as me. So, the issue is not that they feel like this, but more, that they presume to know how we feel. They are in the majority and most people they have met will have been the same so the presumption is understandable. The insult and issue is that we want them to understand that it isn’t the same for us and in many cases we are desperate to be accepted and undertsood for who we really are and what we really feel and see and hear and need and want.
But what I am trying to say is that in my experience they are not trying to be cruel. They think that they are being kind. Confronting differences or even being seen to get involved in something conrtoversial is uncomfortable for many muggles. This would be fair enough if only they could recognise the amazing ability of many autists who will happily stand up for you, your rights and for truth and justice.
It seems to me that they want a meticulous pilot and they value a surgeon with precision or an engineer who envisages the end before the start and ensures the bridge doesn’t collapse. Many autistic people and autistic skills build the foundations of society. But if you meet us in the pub then you hastily step away and are able to justify this by believing in the many myths which tell you that ‘we prefer to be alone’, that we ‘are not able to socialise’, etc etc.
Now that I have a diagnosis of autism I feel even more self-concious about socialising than I did before. But I love people. I love meeting new people and learning about people and am always looking for the next opportunity to help someone and to become their friend. If you think that that sounds quite childish, then you’d be right. If you make friends with me then you are rewarded with a loyal, admiring companion who waits for your kind words, believes everything you say and will accept your idiosyncracies as a valuable part of who you are. This naive and innocent approach to relationships seems to throw autisitc people into the pathway of bullies and abusers. It takes us far too long, if ever, to realise and recognise this. If more of the nice, kind and caring neurotypicals would hang around a bit longer then maybe these predators couldn’t make their way to the front.
I have never stayed anywhere later than 9.30pm and often offend dinner guests by insitsting they order an early taxi. At school I collapsed onto outdoor benches and in corridors during the lunch hour and at University I found a sofa in the back of the bar, put my coat over my head and went to sleep. I never understood what ‘was wrong with me’. I just presumed that I was always over tired. It is true that I am, but I didn’t realise that it is the stress and pressure and trauma of trying to fit in and trying to understand and to copy and learn and do the ‘right’ thing’. I have to think about what to say in advance, then disect and try to understand your words and then retreat and review everything in a retrospective panic and despair.
Imagine being the lead actor in a West End play. Day after day after day. Never being able to get off the stage. Trying to remember the words and to stay in character. Collapsing into bed each evening knowing that the same act begins again the next day. I am not asking for sympathy. Not at all. I feel sorry for myself now that I have a clearer reflection of the last 50 years but I’m not asking anyone else to. What I would love to facilitate is better understanding. I would love that some of the myths that autists and muggles have about each other could be explained, discussed and dispelled.