I was waiting in the drive-thru line at Starbucks recently. A young man in the car ahead of me was placing his order. Except….he had no order. He just wanted to check on the status of his job application.
From the drive-thru.
That guy is not getting the job. He definitely made the employees working the window that morning laugh, but I bet he didn’t get the joke- because he wasn’t trying to be funny. He thought he should follow up in person, and figured it made no difference whether he showed up inside at the counter or outside at the window.
I guess it kind of makes sense. But couldn’t he have ordered a coffee or something? Then maybe casually asked about his application while paying? Thinking about it now, I don’t know exactly how I know not to do things like that. It’s one of a million things most of us just seem to understand. I typically know what others expect me to say or do in any given situation. I have at times pretended not to know, but I have never actually felt unsure about another person’s expectations or meaning- in person, on the phone, or in print. For most of my life I assumed everyone else understood these things, too.
In at least one way, my daughter has it easy. She doesn’t say hello or goodbye unless someone tells her to do it. Even then it’s hit or miss. Anyone who encounters her will know immediately not to expect much social interaction- and that expectation will be met. No one is typically going to judge her for it, either. This is where kids higher on the spectrum have it much harder.
The more “just like us” someone else appears, the higher the expectation is for social performance. This isn’t just about autism. It’s about all of us, and our very different positions on the social spectrum. People make the assumption that others think like them. Every day we interact with people who seem to mirror us; people who follow the rules of personal space, laugh at our jokes, and know all of the usual small talk. We don’t even think about it. It’s a ritual that was imprinted on our subconscious long before we can remember.
And of course, once in a while we encounter someone who doesn’t quite click with us. They seem awkward. They don’t get the punch line. They say the wrong thing. Sometimes it’s obvious, but often it is subtle. It is human nature to like other people who “get” us, and we form even smaller groups of friendships based on the degree in which others think like us.
But some people will find they are unable to connect with the larger group. They are a minority. And even within that minority group, they may not find common ground with anyone.
The thing is, no one is really doing anything wrong. Not usually. I can be accepting and nice to anyone, but I can’t fake that deeper connection. I can’t even define it. But that connection is often what we are demanding of each other. Not connecting can be hurtful, but it is not always in our control. So, what are we supposed to do? I thought I was good at reading people. The truth is, I am only good at reading a mainstream type of social interaction. The people who don’t understand me- well, I don’t really get them, either. But I’m learning.
For example, I have a difficult time with people who are unable to read sarcasm. Sometimes they are completely unaware of their inability to understand it. I have a sarcastic sense of humor, and to those who read sarcasm well- we connect through that sarcasm. If someone jokes around with me sarcastically, I don’t get offended. It actually forms a better bond between us. We get each other’s meaning and intent. If someone who doesn’t read sarcasm gets offended by our well-intentioned remarks, they sometimes expect an apology.
The solution is always, “well, just stop using sarcasm.” But….I don’t think I know how to do that. I do it without thinking. Also, I don’t want to stop. It is a social connector between me and others who think like me. Now, if you could just let me know that you don’t get my meaning, I would be happy to step back and explain it. But seriously, you are going to have to let me know, because I won’t have a clue.
If autism is a part of your world, you may be familiar with someone who takes things literally. You may be aware of how two people can interpret social situations in completely different ways. You may also feel as if you spend a lot of time explaining this. But it’s not just an autism issue. Where do we draw the line between unacceptable behavior and forgivable social misunderstanding? When is it appropriate to change a behavior, and when is it better to let everyone just be themselves?
I let Teghan do all sorts of (usually) unacceptable behavior because I believe things work differently for her. She needs to tear things, so I may hand her a phone book and let her go. When she gets excited, she often runs back and forth in a systematic way. I let her do it, sometimes in public. I let her tap on whatever she wants for as long as she wants. I understand her differences, so I go against my own social instincts and just let her go nuts. Some people would disagree. They would say I should force her to conform to normal social behavior. Whatever that is.
The funny thing is, I am not so forgiving toward the other people in my world. I make fun of my coworker because she makes her boyfriend sit on the same side of the table with her when they are dining alone. And because I keep having to explain to her that Stephen Colbert is not really a Republican.
Sometimes I run into acquaintances out in public and get stuck talking too long. Just when it is clear that the exit is coming- the other person misses the cue and starts a whole new topic.
I am not even on speaking terms with Dave’s brother. If I use sarcasm around him, I might get a letter four years later about how it made him feel. When I send a “Happy Holidays” email and mention how I bet they have lots of winter activities in Colorado- somehow he will read this as meaning that he isn’t participating in enough of those activities. Which is weird, since I have no idea what activities he is participating in at all. I hardly know him. And I know him even less now that I have taken him off my Christmas email list.
I know there is something deeper going on with him. I have always known that. But he seems to function normally in society, so I feel no guilt over simply not allowing this in my life. Who is wrong? Maybe I should be more understanding…. but what about him?
At what point is someone so socially dysfunctional that they can no longer be held accountable for their own words and actions?
I am trying to be more understanding, but when it comes to social behavior- we all have our disabilities. You can teach me the ways of how somebody else processes information and struggles with literal meanings- but requiring me to always respond with that in mind is like telling me to start expressing myself through drawing pictures instead of writing words. I am not going to be great at it. I feel like there are so many expectations all around, and not a whole lot of forgiveness.
This rambling offers no answers. I over-think human social behavior a lot. I notice all sorts of things that don’t matter, because nobody else is looking that close. No one wants an explanation of why they say or do something; they just want the reaction that meets their immediate need. At this point, figuring out how to communicate with someone who has autism or Asperger’s is easy. Everyone’s social cards are already laid out on the table.
It’s navigating the rest of the population that gets tricky.