Keeping My Cool

Snow-covered hemlock trees with the morning sun behind them

I hate conflict. Really, seriously dislike it. I always end up feeling terrible after (and during) an argument, even if I feel that I was completely in the right. Part of it is that I always do want to consider other perspectives; I want to be fair, and hear the other side out. But what this feels like internally is this: I absorb the other person’s viewpoint, and really take in what they’re saying. It can even feel like I am adopting their point of view, “trying it on” to see if it makes sense to me. But then I end up getting defensive, because it feels like my own perspective is being overwritten, and I’m afraid of losing my own viewpoint. I feel like I have to claw my way back to my own thoughts and feelings, and that can be scary.

On top of that, I generally don’t feel like the other person is doing the same thing, so I end up feeling like I am losing ground, wavering in my conviction by even pausing to consider the other point of view. But I really do think this ability to take on other perspectives, to suspend judgment for a moment and really try to see where they’re coming from, is a strength, and that society would be a lot better off if more people did this. So it’s not that I want to close myself off and stay dogmatically attached to my own opinions — but I do want to avoid that feeling of defensiveness that arises.

What I try to come back to is this: people are free to disagree with me, and I am free to disagree with them. I don’t need to convince everyone to agree with me, and in the end it’s not possible to get everyone to agree on everything. This is freeing to remember, and allows me to step back from seeing an argument as a battle that can be won or lost, and instead think of it as an interaction that might show me something interesting.

I’m not always able to remember this, but when I do, it calms me down immensely. I am not responsible for single-handedly “fixing” the world, or for changing everyone’s minds. Even when the issue is something I consider extremely important, even vital for people’s well-being, this is still the case. Often it’s just not the time or place for a particular argument to be accepted, but I also know that very often people hear and dismiss things that they later come back and reconsider. So maybe I’m planting a seed that will bear fruit later — I may never know. The only thing I can control is how well I make my case; whether that changes the other person’s mind is up to them.

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Interpreting Regulations

When I was in Air Force ROTC in college, we had a month-long training period in the summer between sophomore and junior year, called Field Training. This was roughly our equivalent to boot camp, so it was a fairly harsh environment with a lot of demanding activities and constant scrutiny and evaluation. Strict adherence to regulations was expected.

At the time I went to Field Training, I had very short hair, similar to how I wear it now. This allowed me to stay within regulations without a lot of fuss; if I’d had long hair, I would have had to braid or otherwise bind it so that it stayed above my collar, and given how little time we sometimes had to get ready in the morning, it was nice not to have to worry about that. But somehow I still got into trouble for it.

Now, the regulations around women’s hair are different than those for men, even beyond the fact that women are allowed to have long hair in the first place. Men’s hair has to be trimmed to stay above the top of the shirt collar, whereas women’s hair only has to remain above the bottom of the collar. That’s only about an inch of difference, but it matters when you have a lot of hair that you’re trying to keep up in a braid or a bun.

But I didn’t have to worry about that, right? My hair was trimmed right to the hairline in back, so I didn’t give much thought to keeping it off my collar; it just was off my collar. Or so I thought.

The cadets in Field Training were divided into flights; two flights made a squadron, and all the squadrons combined into a group. (This mirrors the organizational structure of the US Air Force as a whole.) There were cadet officer positions within each of these levels, most of which rotated to give everyone experience with command, but each level was also commanded by an actual commissioned officer who was supposed to provide guidance and discipline while overseeing our training. My flight commander was a woman whose name I can’t quite remember, so I’ll call her Captain Jones.

Capt Jones had short hair, too, although she kept hers longer on top than I did. I recall it as one of those wedge-shaped hairdos with longer, wavy hair on top, and very closely trimmed sides and back beneath. In any case, about two weeks into Field Training, she pulled me aside and told me I had to get my hair trimmed because it was touching my collar. “It still counts if it’s touching the inside of your collar,” she said. “It has to be above the collar, period.”

Now, this was patently false, as I’ve explained above. But there is a far-reaching commandment in the military: thou shalt not interpret the regulations to a superior officer. This includes quoting a relevant regulation to argue with someone senior to you, as well as quibbling with their interpretation of the same. It is considered insubordinate and disrespectful, as well as a form of making excuses.

I really hated this prohibition. If someone was wrong about something, it shouldn’t matter whether they were above me in rank or not: I should be able to (politely, of course!) point out their error to clear things up. Both my memory and my attention to detail were exceptionally strong, and since I worked very hard to make sure I learned all of the rules, I typically knew the regs that applied to me inside and out. So when someone else got them wrong, or (worse) accused me of getting them wrong when I knew I hadn’t, I wanted to be able to correct them. It was a matter of fairness to me, as well as accuracy; if I was actually getting something wrong, that was one thing, but being told I was wrong when I wasn’t was another thing entirely.

So biting my tongue was always hard, but it was frequently expected during my time in the military; strict hierarchies tend to require that. I did find ways to raise issues, however, and it’s a skill that has benefited me in the rest of my life as well. I’ll call it the Question That Isn’t a Question (QTIQ). In Capt Jones’ case, it went something like this:

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” I told her. “Was I wrong that it just has to be above the bottom of the collar?”

See, by phrasing things this way, I can bring up my understanding of the issue in a way that’s not confrontational. The hope is that this will jog the other person’s memory that, oh yes, that is the case, or at least open the door to further discussion that might lead to actually looking things up for clarification. It’s not really a question, because I already know the answer, but it allows me to challenge factual errors that I could not otherwise correct due to power imbalances. It might make me sound like I’m uncertain or timid, but I’ve been in enough situations where I really had to avoid pissing off powerful people, and it has worked well for that.

In this case, unfortunately, it didn’t work to change the situation. Capt Jones informed me that, yes, I was wrong, and I needed to go get my hair cut asap. So there was nothing else to do but say “yes, ma’am,” and try to figure out where the hell the barber was.

But she was still wrong.

Putting In The Effort

I’ve written before about how much I’ve been enjoying my sociology class, and that enjoyment has continued as the semester has progressed. There are only three weeks left of classes, and while I’m looking forward to having a break, I’m going to miss this one. The readings were well chosen, and we’ve had some great discussions about them.

I haven’t liked my psychology class as much, but I attribute that primarily to the structure of it as an online class, and to frustrations with the textbook. It’s also a little too basic, given my earlier familiarity with a lot of the material; a psych class in high school got me hooked on learning about how humans work, and it’s been a fascination for me ever since.

That’s mostly because explicitly learning about this stuff has really helped explain so many things that didn’t make sense to me intuitively. I feel like I’ve always been something of a social scientist, making observations, forming hypotheses, and testing out different approaches. Other autistic people have expressed similar feelings; perhaps the most famous is Temple Grandin’s description of herself as being “an anthropologist on Mars,” trying to figure people out. Many of us analyze our every interaction, looking to crack the code.

The thing that strikes me most about that right now is how much effort we put into this whole human interaction thing. And it really is a ton of effort: the amount of processing that goes into even casual social interactions can be exhausting, and the mental strain that results is often a big factor in autistic burnout. Plus the time it takes to get things “right” can easily lead to social anxiety, as the cumulative weight of failed interactions starts to add up.

So why is there still a pervasive stereotype that says autistic people are not interested in social interaction? Certainly, some of us aren’t; we’re a varied bunch, after all. But as a generalization, it falls far short of the reality, and I think the sheer volume of effort we put into every interaction gives an indication of how short it falls. And given that some new research shows that neurotypical people are less interested in interacting with autistic people based on superficial first impressions and social judgments, it’s past time we stopped placing all the blame for social difficulties on the autistic side of the interaction. We are putting in the effort. I think we should get some credit for that.

Mixed Messages

When I was young, I received constant messages that I didn’t belong. I was weird, and I said things others didn’t understand, largely because I was making intuitive leaps that they couldn’t follow, or because I was working off of detailed information they didn’t have. I didn’t grasp that at the time, of course. I mean, I was a little kid and they were grownups — of course grownups would know more than I did! But when it came to my interests, they often didn’t. They weren’t the ones spending long afternoons reading the encyclopedia, after all.

Perhaps because of things like this, I also began receiving messages that I was gifted. I was praised for being very smart, and for picking things up faster than other kids did. I was admonished for getting impatient with other people, and told that not everyone could learn as quickly as I did, or remember as much, or connect as many dots. Essentially, I was told that I couldn’t expect everyone else to keep up with me.

So I started trying to incorporate this perspective into my understanding of the world. Instead of assuming other people had all of the knowledge I did, I would share some of what I knew as part of making my point. For this, I was called a know-it-all. When someone asked me if a math test had been easy, I would say it had been easy for me but I didn’t know how it was for other people. For this, I was told I was conceited and that I shouldn’t act superior.

I’m sure I did come off as pedantic at times, especially before I learned how to moderate the level of detail I included in conversation. Most of the time I was just excited to talk about something cool I had learned. And I know lots of people saw me as aloof, maybe even condescending, but the truth was I felt anything but superior. There was still that constant drumbeat of judgment, telling me I was weird and wrong and no one could understand me. But trying to acknowledge that I wasn’t like other kids never seemed to help, so I learned to stop even hinting that I was anything special.

BUT.

All through my life, right up to today, when I try to generalize from my own experiences to suggest what other people might need or want or enjoy…I am told that I’m an exception, that most people are not like me. This happened just a couple of weeks ago, and it’s happened my entire adult life. If I act like I’m different, I’m being egotistical. But if I assume I’m the same, I have unrealistic expectations of other people.

Has anyone else out there experienced these kinds of mixed messages?

Sticking to Small Talk

It’s often remarked by autistic people that we don’t “do” small talk. We’d rather not talk at all, or talk endlessly about one of our interests — there is no middle ground. We’re all different, of course, so this isn’t an absolute, but it does resonate with me. But I’ve been thinking about one way in which I sometimes prefer small talk, because it’s more comfortable than self-disclosure.

I don’t necessarily mean disclosure of my autism; I just mean any kind of revelation of who I am and what is important to me. Small talk isn’t my strong suit — I’d much prefer a deep, intense conversation about one of my passions — but it’s safer to stay on blander, neutral ground.

And that’s because all too often my excitement or intensity about a subject has put people off. I’ve learned how not to totally monopolize the conversation, so it’s not that; it’s just that a lot of people seem to get “spooked” by too much enthusiasm. (Their definition of “too much,” that is.) Similarly, the specific thing I’m enthusiastic about has often led to rejection: it’s too nerdy, too arcane, too incomprehensible. I’ve learned to introduce those parts of myself slowly and deliberately, and only to people I expect to (read: want to) interact with again in the future.

So I get impatient with small talk in a social setting, but I also get nervous that someone will ask a deeper question and try to get to know me when I’m not ready for that. The specifics of the setting matter, too; I am very conscious of people around me who might overhear what I am saying and take things out of context. There’s also the question of whether we have enough time (and enough mutual interest) to really get into the subject and truly understand each other, because most of my interests, beliefs and opinions do not make good soundbites. They need some shared context, in many cases.

But mostly it’s about trust, and that takes time to build. In the meantime, I’m likely to stick to small talk until I figure out where we stand.

(Addendum: I should add that I do have some go-to subjects that function well as small talk with most people, but are also strong interests of mine. I can talk about my dogs all day, for example, as well as just about any aspect of nature. Luckily this includes the weather, which is a common topic most people bring up. 🙂 This makes it easier to handle these sorts of conversations while feeling out what else I could go into detail about.)

Too Many Voices

If you’re like me, you probably know how it feels to get overwhelmed when too many people are talking at once. Maybe it’s a relaxed group conversation, or an animated classroom discussion. Maybe you’re trying to have a conversation in a crowded restaurant. But whether or not the majority of voices are directed at you, just the sheer volume — both the volume of noise and the volume of words/thoughts/ideas — begins to overwhelm any single voice, any single unit of information being conveyed.

Sometimes the internet feels like that to me. Especially when it comes to social media, and particularly when it comes to Twitter: whether people are directing their words toward me or not, there are just too many voices for me to process.

And when that happens, I lose my own voice.

I lose my voice because I have to pull back. Otherwise I get lost in the forest of other people’s words, and that makes me lose track of what’s important in my life. Sometimes I really want to reach out, but I can’t figure out what to say. I don’t always want extensive interaction, or help solving a problem — I just want some connection. But then I pause, because I don’t want all the voices focused on me, even though I dread being ignored as well.

So all of this is to say that I have been pulled back lately. Right now I am starting to reconnect with Twitter after nearly a week off, but I am still not feeling ready to share very much. I am woefully behind on reading all of the wonderful blogs I follow, too, and the thought of trying to catch up is daunting. I will be visiting family this weekend, which has its own trials, and we’ll see how “peopled out” I feel after that.

I do want to say, though, that generally things have been going well. 🙂 In fact, that’s probably part of why I’ve needed to pull back from online interaction — there has been a lot going on, and my focus has been pulled into new projects and areas of study. But I’d like to find a balance that allows me to maintain the connections I’ve made in the online world while also not getting overwhelmed by the flood of voices.

April and Accuracy

I think one reason April (at least in its guise as Autism Awareness Month) is so stressful and aggravating for autistic people is the sheer amount of mis-/disinformation bandied about: since many of us like things to be correct, we feel the need to correct it. This often leads to friction, because, well, people don’t like to be corrected, even politely. Beyond that, I think there is often a mismatch in the intent of communication when it occurs between autistics and allistics.

I realize I’m generalizing here, but this is a fairly common trait; I think it’s one reason why autistic people are often said to “take things literally.” (But we could just as easily call it an allistic failure to say what they mean and/or mean what they say.) When someone says something, autistics tend to see it as an informational statement, and evaluate it as such. But for an allistic person, the main point of the statement might have been something entirely different — sharing something that was (unknowingly) inaccurate about autism, for example, might have been meant primarily as a social signal that the person cares about autistic people, not specifically as a sharing of facts. A lot of communication is meant this way: social sharing that signals virtue, for example, or reinforces the speaker’s place in a particular group.

Evaluating and correcting these statements on their factual content, then, tends to put the other person on the defensive — what they hear is a rejection of their social declaration, rather than a more neutral offering of more accurate information. Then we might get defensive, because we were just trying to help, but the other person reacted in a very negative fashion. And then we end up in a widening spiral of miscommunication that is very hard to get out of, because neither person realizes they are not having the same conversation at all.

As an aside, I think this is also what lies behind the phenomenon of person A getting upset about something they believe is true, but only getting more upset when person B tells them that it isn’t. On the surface this is confusing, because if they were really upset about that thing, wouldn’t they be relieved to find out it wasn’t true? But they’re not. I see this all the time, particularly when it comes to people sharing information of…shall we say…questionable origin. Sharing that “news” is often less a matter of informing others and more a case of declaring one’s allegiance, and challenging its accuracy is seen as questioning that self-identity. Plus, again, people generally don’t like to be corrected, even when your intention is to help them feel better by pointing out that the thing upsetting them isn’t really real.

Anyway. I’ve come to realize that this mismatch is actually one of the primary causes of miscommunication in my life. I will focus on a factual detail in someone’s statement, and respond to that, when that wasn’t the point of the statement for the other person. I am slowly starting to be able to notice this before I respond in a factual manner, but at least I’m usually able to recognize it now once a conversation has started to go off the rails. 🙂

P.S. Some of us also tend to take statements literally in the sense that we don’t “get” sarcasm or metaphor, but this is another way that it manifests, and it is the primary one for me. I think this is also related to the “social (or pragmatic) use of language” that is said to be difficult for autistic people (but which, again, could also be characterized by an allistic insistence on unnecessary communication).