Monday, August 22, 2016

Being Autistic, Part 47

I used to wonder whether my life would have been better if I'd made a different decision in this or that situation. I no longer think that way: Now it's not a matter of "if," but of "how much, and in how many unsuspected ways." Of course my life could have been better if I'd made better decisions.

And I'm autistic, which compounds the whole thing. It means that I constantly misunderstand people. It means that they constantly misunderstand me. These misunderstandings can go on for years before they're straightened out. And of course that's not counting the misunderstandings which I never even notice. I sometimes notice a misunderstanding years after it happened. Who knows how many I've never noticed?

A very significant sub-category of these misunderstandings is humor. I think I do okay, generally speaking, in understanding humor having to do with 3rd parties. But when someone makes a joke about me, suddenly things become very mysterious. What is the intent of the joke? Is it friendly or unfriendly? Does it come from affection for me and mean to make me laugh, or from frustration with me, meant to make others laugh at me? There seem to be very frequent misunderstandings when I make a joke about someone else too. A group of us may be joking around and laughing our heads off, and then I chip in with a joke and suddenly no-one's laughing any more, and I'm all, Oh no, I did it again. And explaining that I was just trying to joke around, and really meant no harm, can be much easier said than done.

Maybe that's one of the reasons I'm so interested in history: no matter what I say about Julius Caesar or Charlemagne, I know that it's not going to bother them.

I know that there are a whole lot of things I understand as well as the average person or better. I realize that many misunderstandings happen all over the place all the time which wouldn't have happened to me, and wouldn't have happened to others if I been there to explain things. But then there's this other category of things, where most people are operating at a level of communication that's way over my head, and always will be.

All my life people have been talking about how intelligent I am. For most of my life it was very hard for me to believe that they meant it. Now I realize that they usually do. However, now I also realize that very often, the context in which people pay me these compliments is some situation or occurrence which has made it seem as if I'm pretty stupid. They're saying that I'm very intelligent in spite of something which would suggest that I'm not. And even more than that: now I realize that they may be referring to something of which I'm completely oblivious: for example, I may have just said something which seemed really stupid. And the person paying me a compliment is saying, implicitly -- sometimes just to me when no one else is around, sometimes to a third party: "Yes, if you'd just met Steven this minute, and were judging him just from that, you might reasonably conclude that he's an idiot -- but he's actually very intelligent." Except that they just say the last 4 words.

The rest of it, they say non-verbally. Maybe they implied it by clearing their throat and doing something with their eyebrows, or with the tone of their voice, or in some other non-verbal way which most of you never give much thought to, because for most of you it's all instinctive and it all works. And if they don't know me well, or if they don't know I'm autistic or understand very much about autism -- or even if they do -- they may have no idea that there's a very good chance that I will miss most or all of the non-verbal part of the statement.

The truth, the part of the truth which people seldom say to my face, is that I actually am an idiot. That's seldom said to anyone's face. The truth is that I'm brilliant part of the time and an idiot part of the time. That's how an autistic person can seem to most people. You might be confused because you've known me for just a little while and up until know I've seemed pretty smart, and now suddenly it seems like I'm 5 years old. Or maybe for most of the time you've known I've behaved like a 5 year old, and now you're confused because I've just said something which sounds very intelligent. That's autism. Some of the time, if you want me to understand something, you're going to have to explain it to me like I was 5 years old. And of course, that means that I'm just not going to be able to understand some things no mater how they're explained to me. Other times, I'm way ahead of you. And there's no clear set of signals to tell you whether you're dealing with the genius or the 5 year old at any given time. There's also no clear set of signals to tell you that I get what you're implying non-verbally. Maybe there's something going on which ordinarily you wouldn't have to spell out, and maybe spelling it out is extremely uncomfortable for you. But if you don't spell it out, maybe I'll never understand what the problem is. And it's exhausting for both of us sometimes, and I'm sorry.

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