Reading People and Responding Correctly

waiting for trainPhoto by Hans G Bäckman via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.

I’ve read that people with Asperger’s have trouble reading people. This is one of the things that used to make me question if I really do have Asperger’s, because I don’t have any trouble reading people unless I’m already experiencing sensory overload. Maybe I’m deluding myself, but I think I’m actually pretty good at it. However, I think a casual observer might assess me as not being able to read people at all, because I don’t necessarily show outward signs of that ability.

Even though I can read people, I usually have no idea what to do about it or what the correct response is. Even if I do know the correct response, I can’t always make it happen. So in a nutshell, it’s knowing how to respond, and being able to perform or manifest that response, that is my number one social problem.

I will give you an example. As I have mentioned in the past, I live in an apartment building that has frequent fire alarms. One time when my husband, cat, and I were out on the front lawn of our building, waiting for the all-clear from firefighters, we noticed another couple with an agitated-looking cat sitting across the lawn from us. I had a package of cat treats in my bag, and my husband suggested I offer some to the couple for their cat. I began walking across the lawn toward them. As I approached, the young woman looked at me with this look on her face like, “Oh no, who is this weirdo approaching and what does she want? Please make her go away.” Her expression was as clear to me as if she had said the words. She was suspicious and wary and not friendly or welcoming in the least. I could see that. But I didn’t know what to do. Maybe I should have just left her alone, but it’s like my course was already set. I was obviously walking toward them and I thought it would have looked even weirder if I’d abruptly about-faced. If I kept going, at least I could explain my intention. If I turned around, they would be left wondering what I was up to, and might imagine negative motives. I get misunderstood and suspected of negative motives a lot. So I kept going, but felt more and more humiliated with each step.

So you see, a casual observer might have concluded that I couldn’t read that I was unwelcome. Why else would I have continued my approach?

(The outcome was anticlimactic. I offered them some treats for their cat, the woman visibly relaxed but said they already had some, and I turned around and walked away.)

Another example is when my mother-in-law called to say that her brother had died. I felt incredibly saddened by the news and felt for her because she was grieving, but when I said, “I’m so sorry for your loss,” I could hear that my voice came out in a monotone. I don’t always speak in a monotone, but for some reason the more pressure I feel to convey emotion or warmth, the less I actually do. I am incredibly embarrassed by this. I know my mother-in-law thinks I’m cold, but I’m not cold on the inside, I just can’t convey it on the outside. The more it’s socially required, the worse I perform. In this case, I understood and empathized with her grief, and I even knew the correct response, but I couldn’t make it happen in the correct way. I failed, and there are no re-dos on something like that.



Empathy for the People and Animals of Fort McMurray

For the last couple days I’ve been reading the news and watching video about the Fort McMurray fire, and I have been repeatedly brought to tears, thinking about what the people of that town are going through. One incredibly dramatic video shows flames right next to cars as people tried to flee their neighbourhood. Another shows footage from someone’s security camera; this person remotely watched his house burn and there was nothing he could do. This is deeply emotionally affecting me. Anyone who thinks Aspies don’t have empathy is very mistaken. I absolutely do have empathy; I just don’t always know what to do about it and I can rarely think of the right things to say.

My feelings also run deep for the animals affected by the fire. It breaks my heart thinking of people who had to evacuate straight from work and weren’t able to pick up their pets because their neighbourhoods were already inaccessible. I think about how awful those people must feel, but I also think about the sheer terror the pets must have felt as flames engulfed their homes, or how hungry and scared left-behind pets must feel right now in houses that are still standing. I’ve been glad to read that there are efforts being made to rescue these pets. Of course, I also think about the wild animals in the burning forests; I pray that their instincts have kicked in and they have been able to flee to safety, but realistically know that not all of them were likely to make it out.

I’m feeling bad that I bought those concert tickets a few days ago, because I would really like to send a donation to the Red Cross for the displaced people from Fort McMurray, but buying those tickets really stretched our budget for the month. I feel guilty that I am going to do something completely frivolous when I could have helped people instead. But I suppose that would have been true even if the Fort McMurray fire hadn’t happened. There are always people in this world who need help. It’s just that when dramatic things like this happen, and it’s all over the news, it really drives it home.

A Magnet for the Hurting?

Photo by Marg via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.
Photo by Marg via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.

My mom says one of my gifts is my ability to attract and be a comfort to hurting people. She says when I was a child, sad or traumatized children would be drawn by my quiet, calm demeanor and would confide things in me. She has pointed out that this pattern has continued throughout my life. It’s true that complete strangers will tell me their life story. I don’t know why. I don’t think I do anything to encourage it.

I do have great empathy for hurting people, but I don’t always know what to do about it. I’m not sure of the right things to say or the correct way to act. But it doesn’t seem to matter in these cases.

It’s the people who have it all together who tend not to like me. They see me as weak or too sensitive or a loser. They think I need to grow a thicker skin, go out of my comfort zone, make more of an effort to be like everyone else. Those are the ones who call me unfriendly or unsociable. But other people who are perhaps a little different, who have struggled in life, or who are currently hurting, seem to find me extremely approachable. Those are the people I’m here for, I guess. Or at least that’s what my mom thinks. I’m still processing the idea.

Behind Frenemy Lines

Photo by Hartwig HKD, via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.
Photo by Hartwig HKD, via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.

I had a friend growing up whom I’d known since birth, as our mothers were close friends. She was a year older than me and she was always in my life until we became adults. I never had siblings (that I knew of at the time, that is), so she was the closest thing I had to a sister.

If we’d met in any other way, I don’t think we would have become friends, as we had very little in common. Unlike me, she was extremely outgoing and socially skilled, and I met many, many people through her. Every guy I dated in my teens, I either met through her or through someone else I’d previously met through her. I absolutely would have been a virgin until age 31 if it weren’t for her. I was incapable of finding anyone to date without her, at least until the internet came along.

For a while, she and I called ourselves best friends and we spent time together every day. When other kids were mean to me, she comforted me and talked to me as if she were on my side. I later found out, however, that she mocked me behind my back and even once conspired with my bullies to get me to a certain place so they could beat me up while she watched. At the time I didn’t know why she wasn’t doing anything to help. I assumed she was scared. The truth was, she was in on it. That was a tough truth to face. But even after I found out, I forgave her and we rekindled our friendship. The thing is, I didn’t even have the capacity to be angry or to hold a grudge. I liked everybody, I was willing to be friends with anybody, and I would have forgiven anybody for anything.

But back to that day I got beat up. I remember walking with her to the gathering she’d invited me to and getting a prickly feeling on the back of my neck. I blurted out, “I have a feeling something bad is going to happen.”

“Me too,” she replied.

Yes, I bet she did. She’d helped to plan and orchestrate the evil that was about to be done to me. And why? Because I was uncool. A geek. A loser. To maintain her own social status, she had to prove to the other kids that she was like them, not like me.

I should have turned around and gone home when I got that prickly feeling. Why did I always walk into trouble like that, even when I obviously knew better? I trusted my intuition enough to voice it but not enough to act on it.

If I truly am autistic, it sheds a new light on the whole incident.

Congratulations, “friend,” you threw a younger autistic kid who trusted you to the lions.

Congratulations, bullies, you beat the shit out of a younger, literally defenseless autistic kid.

Nice human-being-ing. Good job.

It’s been said that autistic people lack empathy. Do the neurotypical bullies who beat up autistic kids have empathy? Should autistic people be “fixed” to be more like them?

See, I might be autistic (or I might not be — does self-diagnosis count?), but I have never deliberately hurt anyone in my entire life. If everyone were like me, there would be no fighting, no crime, and no war.

Who needs to change?