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?

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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).