How autistics process information differently
How autistics process information differently is, I suspect, at the root of most of the difficulties we face as we wend our way through a perplexing neurotypical world.
It can give rise to both amusement and frustration (even at the same time), but it can also be dangerous for us because we don't understand things as you do, and you certainly don't understand us).
Here's a classic example from yesterday.
Mrs EBG and I were out at the bottle bank in Timoleague, a small town in the South of Ireland.
The bottle bank is just below the cemetery, and just a short distance from the church it's attached to.
So there were were minding our own business, tossing bottles into the bins, when a car came by and slowed to a halt.
It was a Garda. He lowered his window and said, "There's a funeral coming through".
I looked at him for a long moment, mostly stalling for time because I didn't understand why he was telling me this, and said, "Sorry?".
He said more firmly, "There's a funeral coming through".
I said, "Oh. So?".
Fortunately Mrs EBG was there and jumped into the conversation and said, "It means we have to pay our respects, Jon".
The Garda seemed satisfied at this because he closed his window and drove off, shortly followed by the hearse and a long string of cars.
So we stood in silence until they'd all gone by before we quickly finished getting rid of the bottles, aware after the service in the church they'd all be coming out into the cemetery for the burial.
Here's the thing...
To me, what the Garda said was just information
To him and virtually any neurotypical it was a firm request bordering on an instruction. If Mrs EBG hadn't been there it's easy to see how it could have quickly escalated into a confrontation, with lots of very pissed off Irishmen expressing their displeasure at the bewildered Brit.
Over in the US autistics are shot by police on a frighteningly regular basis because they don't comply with instructions they don't understand, especially when the situation has escalated quickly to the point of sensory overload (this is one reason I wear my badge, so if I am ever in a confrontation with police or other authorities, I have some measure of protection from being unfairly treated because I'm not exhibiting "appropriate" behaviour).
In hindsight I can fathom out what he meant and why it would have been important to him and the funeral goers. I don't share the feelings, but I can work out people do have them and kind of understand them.
In short, I have virtually no affective empathy but I do have (some) cognitive empathy. And because I also have compassionate empathy I'm happy to observe the strange neurotypical social norms because I wouldn't want knowingly want to upset people for no good reason.
Here's the thing: I can't figure out this kind of thing in real time by myself.
If Mrs EBG hadn't been there, someone else would have had to explain why what I was doing was wrong in their eyes. It's only with time and the luxury of analysis I'm able to work out what it all means.
Unfortunately, life and social interactions happen in real-time, and that leaves me and those like me at a massive disadvantage.
Some things to note
- I cannot change this. This can't be "fixed" by a "change of mindset".
- We autistics tend to take things literally. We don't get nuance, or have a massive catalogue of unspoken but firmly enforced rules to refer to. Most people will take the view it's "obvious" what the problem was, but everything's obvious when you know it.
- We are often perceived as being "rude". But that's necessarily predicated on the idea we are knowingly breaking social norms and conventions. If we don't know or understand the rules, we are no more "rude" than a baby is "dirty" when it shits in its nappy.
- My behaviour in these things is not objectively wrong. It is merely wrong in the eyes of the majority who have arbitrarily decided how people "should" behave. Judging me negatively for it is bigotry, plain and simple.
If you want me or other autistics to do or understand something, you have to be clear.
I don't mean obvious because what you think is obvious isn't.
Don't assume we know what your words mean because everyone knows what these things mean.
Don't assume we can read your facial expression and body language, place it all into the social context of the moment, and then read your fucking mind so we can figure out what you really mean.
So be clear and unambiguous, and remember information is not an instruction.
Jon McCulloch, The Evil Bald Genius
Author, speaker, business owner, and autism advocate