The other day, I was in the city centre, and ahead of me I saw a young woman who was literally leaping out at people with outstretched arm to shake their hand, and saying with forced cheeriness: ‘Hi! How are you today?’ Of course people were leaping out of her way, so she looked rather like a frog leaping about from one person to another and being rejected each time.
Seeing that she leapt at every single person passing her, I realised my turn was approaching, and was about to leap out of her way myself. However, then I saw that her t-shirt said ‘National Autistic Society’. So I felt some affinity for her, or at least for the cause she was representing. So I changed my mind and took her outstretched hand and shook it when she leapt at me with her forceful ‘Hi! How are you?’
‘I’m okay thanks,’ I said. ‘How are you?’
There was a pause, as she looked rather taken aback that someone had actually taken her hand and replied to her greeting. Then she said, ‘Hello. Er… have you heard of the National Autistic Society? You probably haven’t, because most people haven’t, but-‘
Her voice had taken on the tone of a person reciting a long chunk of information that they have to convey, so I interrupted, ‘Yes, I’ve heard of it. I have Asperger Syndrome.’
She paused, looking rather taken aback, and then, in amazed tones, she replied, ‘Oh wow! That’s so amaaaaazing! Because you, like, actually approached me and shook my hand!’
In retrospect, I am amused that she interpreted my not leaping out of the way as she leapt towards me as my ‘approaching her’, but at the time I didn’t even think of this – I was too busy trying to work out what was amazing about my shaking her hand. Plenty of autistic people shake people’s hands – it’s a formal social convention that is quite a bit easier to understand than all the more informal nuances of small talk. So I just replied, ‘Yes.’
‘Did you have support to learn how to do that?’
‘Um, no – I taught myself.’ I wondered what sort of hand-shaking support course she imagined I’d been on!
‘That’s amaaazing. Do you get support?’
‘I’ve taught myself strategies over the years.’
She then returned to her memorised speech. She started telling me about the tragedy of all the autistic children that people aren’t aware of, and how some of them go through school without even making a friend. She made her voice hushed and her eyes look all big and tragic when she said this.
‘Because we all know how important friends are when we’re in school, don’t we,’ she said, looking at me imploringly. ‘I mean, if you think back to your school days, you know friends are essential – we wouldn’t get through school without friends, would we? We all need the support of our friends to get through school.’
I looked at her a bit blankly. I couldn’t exactly nod, as I’d got through school with no friends, so she wasn’t saying anything I could relate to.
‘Did you have lots of friends when you were at school?’ she asked me, in a sort of confiding voice, as if we were best friends.
I didn’t want to be a killjoy, but hey, she’d asked directly, and I don’t do lying. ‘No, I didn’t have friends,’ I said.
She didn’t seem to know what to say to that. There was a pause, and then she embarked on another part of her memorised speech – this time about all the autistic people who were depressed and suicidal, and how autism makes people commit suicide. Again, I looked rather blankly. At this point I wasn’t sure if this was supposed to be a warning to me – that suicide was to be my eventual doom! – or whether she’d once again forgotten that I was on the autistic spectrum too, and was trying to get me to feel bad about all those poor autistic people out there!
I think she eventually realised that her speech wasn’t having a lot of impact on me, so she then said that her main point was that she wanted people to give money to help autistic people, and that I could just give a small amount each month.
I told her that I’m a student and so not in a position to give any money, but that I do my bit for autism awareness in other ways, like writing a blog! She thanked me for my time, and we went our separate ways.
I must confess, I found it rather amusing! I wondered exactly what sort of training these fundraisers are given, and whether the possibiliy that someone they approach may actually be on the autistic spectrum is ever addressed!