How lack of expression can lead to assumptions of ignorance

Today I was reading a blog post written by a mother of a child on the autistic spectrum. She was saying for several years she thought her child didn’t ‘get’ Christmas, but recently her child said something that made her realise that she had ‘got’ it all along. The child had simply never before expressed the fact that she’d got it, so the mother didn’t realise that she actually had.

This made me think about my life, and how there have been quite a few times when I’ve said something, and people have looked surprised and expressed in some way (either through words or behaviour) that they now realised that I had a lot more understanding and insight than they’d thought.

I imagine it has happened a lot more than I realise, especially when I was a child and I had less awareness of how people were reacting to me. The first example I can think of is when I was 14. I didn’t understand physics lessons at school. We had a rather dithery physics teacher, who was nearing retirement, and who had difficulty explaining physics and difficulty controlling the class. I will call her Mrs Short, which is not her real name.

Mrs Short would spend ages doing experiments which we had to watch, and then nothing would happen, and she would tell us they hadn’t worked. I would be completely confused, because I had no idea what was going on or what I was supposed to be learning. I didn’t pretend to be interested in the class, because such pretending had not even occurred to me at that age.

Mrs Short found me stupid and rude. She’d found a piece of paper on which another pupil and I had been exchanging written notes, and I’d written that I found physics boring. Mrs Short, having found the note, interrupted what she was teaching us and announced to the class that I apparently found physics boring.

‘Is that right?’ she asked me, in a loud dramatic way. ‘Do you find physics boring?’

Totally oblivious to any implications of my answer, I answered truthfully, ‘Yes.’

The class was amused. Mrs Short was not. She said with a tight voice: ‘Well, I’m sooo sorry that the class isn’t interesting enough for you.’

Looking back, I imagine she’d been expecting me to be embarrassed and to deny it and apologise. However, at the time, I was unaware of any such expectations, and also unaware that I’d done anything wrong. I wasn’t embarrassed in the slightest, because I didn’t see any shame in being bored.

After this incident, Mrs Short went out of her way to try to humiliate me in physics lessons. She would mock me whenever I asked questions, whenever I did anything wrong, whenever I didn’t understand what I was doing (which was most of the time). I observed this, and tried to analyse it in order to understand it. I worked out that Mrs Short must hate all students who write notes to each other in her class – but then that didn’t quite make sense, because Mrs Short was being quite friendly to the other girl who had written notes to me. So maybe my note was worse in some way – maybe because my handwriting was messier or something. Or maybe she hated people who didn’t understand physics.

Then one day, in a physics lesson, a girl from the other science group knocked on the door and asked if I could be excused and come to the nurse’s room, because my sister was there and asking for me. Mrs Short said yes, so off I went. This girl told me that my sister’s best friend had died, and my sister was upset, and she had wanted me to sit with her. So I went and sat with my sister for a while, and talked to her and said things to help her calm down and to comfort her. And then, when my sister was calmer and had stopped shaking, then I was sent back to the physics class. I went back into the classroom and sat down in my seat. It didn’t occur to me that anyone would want an explanation, but then everyone was asking if my sister was all right. So I explained to them what had happened, and that my sister was upset, but that I had spent some time with her and she was doing a bit better now.

And after that, Mrs Short stopped making fun of me, and was friendly to me. Not just in that lesson, but in all subsequent lessons. I observed this change in behaviour and tried to work it out logically. My first logical deduction was that Mrs Short liked people if their sister’s best friend died. But I observed too that she was extra nice to a girl in the class whose mother had died, so I expanded this interpretation and wondered if having some connection to death made Mrs Short like you more. Maybe she was quite a morbid person, I decided. (See how it is very hard to understand people when you are on the autistic spectrum and you have to analyse each behaviour like this to work out a pattern! As an adult you have more understanding from more experiences, but as a child, you have no wider context from which to understand such things.)

Then, on parents evening, I found out the reason for Mrs Short’s change in behaviour. My mother went to parents evening and reported back to me what the different teachers said. Mrs Short apparently told my mother that she’d originally thought I didn’t care about anyone or anything, and that there wasn’t much going on in my head, but then something had happened which surprised her and showed her that I was a responsible, caring person, and she was very impressed with me.

I was quite astonished by this. I didn’t understand why my behaviour was so surprising – of course I would go and sit with my sister when she was upset. And besides, my relationship with my sister had nothing to do with physics lessons. So I still had a lot of confusion with cause and effect here.

But in retrospect I realise that it was one of many occasions where people assume that I lack understanding or feeling, because I haven’t actually explicitly expressed to them this understanding or feeling. With Asperger Syndrome, body language and facial expression tend not to be very revealing of what is going on inside – I know for myself, I have to make a conscious effort to express appropriate reactions and feelings in my face and voice. And this is something that for many years I simply didn’t know I had to do.

So if my face and body are not expressing anything, and I’m not verbally telling people what I’m thinking and feeling (because it doesn’t occur to me that they want to know unless they ask a specific question) then people may assume that not much is going on inside my head. And if an autistic person never realises this, then the assumptions can last their whole life.

In fact, recently I’ve really been coming to understand more clearly the importance of expressing my awareness and understanding and feelings to people, because people feel more comfortable with you and can trust you if you have conveyed who you are and what you are thinking and feeling, and how you make decisions. I will probably write more about it in future blog posts, because there are many more examples.

I realise that this example here actually illustrates more Asperger issues than I’d originally realised. These are different from the main issue I was trying to illustrate, but I’ll list these too. I think this example also shows that people with Aspergers can have difficulty with:

  1. realising that people don’t always want you to tell the truth (it took me a long time to work this one out, because no one actually ever admits that they don’t want you to tell the truth)
  2. understanding why being bored could offend people (how I saw it was that being bored was simply an experience inside my head – the idea that anyone would take it personally was beyond me)
  3. trying to understand other people’s behaviour and motivations when they don’t explicitly tell you (if Mrs Short had taken me aside and explained exactly why she was upset with me – well, if she’d explained numbers 1 and 2 of this list – then things would have been much easier for both of us)

So there are a lot of potential confusions when you are on the autistic spectrum.

On the one hand, if I don’t let people know in some way what I am thinking and feeling, they will assume that I am not thinking or feeling, or that I am thinking and feeling something quite different, and potentially quite sinister.

On the other hand, if people don’t let me know what they are thinking and feeling (and in a far more explicit way than they may think necessary) then I get confused. I don’t assume, which is the difference. I try to work out logical patterns.

So in conclusion, I’m realising that there is actually a need for both sides to be more explicit. But since I am the ‘different’ one, I probably have to take the initiative, and as well as sharing my own thoughts and feelings, I also need to explain to others that they need to be more explicit and direct than usual in explaining their thought processes to me, and not to assume I will understand things that they haven’t said.

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