I have a very clear memory of overhearing a conversation in the bus when I was a teenager. Two teenage girls were sitting in the seats facing mine and they were talking about something. While the scene is very vivid in my memory, I can’t actually remember what it was they were talking about. What I do remember is that they were wrong.
The reason this memory is so vivid is the thought process it initiated in my mind. The moment I realised the two girls were saying something wrong, I had a powerful urge to correct them. An instinct to interrupt them and tell them the truth. I couldn’t stand that they were saying something wrong – that something erroneous was ‘out there’, co-existing with – and contradicting – the truth. I wanted only one truth to be out there.
However, fighting with my instinct to correct these two girls was my habit of silence. I barely spoke to people I knew, let alone people I didn’t know. I had learnt over the years to be almost silent at school, because my behaviour seemed to elicit such unpredictable responses. Apparently, most kids learn appropriate behaviour by suppressing the behaviour which gets a negative response and continuing the behaviour which gets a positive response. However, such learning requires the ability to generalise. People on the autistic spectrum have difficulty with generalising because we see every little detail, so it’s hard to see what is the constant factor. For instance, as I talked about in my previous blog post, I couldn’t understand why my screaming ‘I don’t want to play in the playground’ elicited a different response the second time I said it – and so, because it seemed totally random to me, I gave up trying that particular communication. And so, over the years of my schooling, I learnt that the safest thing to do, with the most predictable response, was to say nothing unless spoken to.
So my mind was in conflict. The thought process that was going through my head as I watched the conversation between these two girls on the bus went something like this: ‘Why do I want to correct them? I don’t know them. They don’t know me. It would be terrifying to speak to them. I have no idea how they would react. And yet I want to correct them. It is very very important to me. I don’t want them to be saying something that is incorrect. But why? Why do I care what two strangers say?’
I didn’t correct them. But it bothered me for several days afterwards. Bothered me that they’d said something incorrect, and bothered me that I didn’t understand why I cared.
Oddly, I didn’t connect it with the corrections I’d frequently made in the past. When I was younger, before I’d learnt to be mostly silent, I would always interrupt teachers at school to correct them. I remember when I was five, our teacher started to read us a story about an old man who was talking to the sun. The moment the sun talked back at him, my hand shot up.
‘Suns don’t talk!’ I stated. It was very important to state this, because books couldn’t go round claiming that suns talked when they didn’t!
‘This one does,’ said the teacher. And that was that. I had no evidence to the contrary. But it bothered me.
At 6 years old, we moved house and I went to a school where the other children and the teacher spoke wrongly, as I saw it. They would say ‘I haven’t got none’ instead of ‘I haven’t got any’. Whenever anyone said ‘I haven’t got none’, I would inform them that what they’d said really meant ‘I’ve got some’. They scoffed at this and went to tell the teacher that I was talking nonsense. The teacher, who also said ‘I haven’t got none’, changed the subject, so I figure she must have known I was right!
At ten years old, I was at boarding school. I remember that the house mother put a notice on the boarding house notice board about ‘towells’. I informed her ‘There is only one “l” in “towels”.’
The house mother didn’t like me much. She looked at me and said ‘So?’
I took her ‘so?’ literally and replied, ‘Well, you’ve put two “l”s here, so it’s wrong. You need to take an “l” away.’
‘So?’ she said again. ‘Does it matter?’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘You spelt it wrong.’
‘What difference does it make to your life?’ she said, in quite a hostile way. ‘Can you understand what the message means?’
‘Yes,’ I said.
My class teacher at boarding school was more open to corrections. One day he taught us about primary colours and the secondary colours, and he got them the wrong way round. I had read about primary colours and secondary colours and I knew that what I’d read was different from what he’d said, so I went to talk to him after the class (being far too fearful to speak in front of the whole class). I remember being quite astonished at his response to my correction – he said that he said he’d have to go and check the book to find out, and he’d let me know the next day. I’d assumed all this stuff must be in his head. It was in my head from reading it once, so why wasn’t it in his head? But the next day, he told the whole class that he’d got it wrong, and that the colours he’d called primary colours were in fact secondary colours, and vice versa.
I give all these examples because I realise this is quite a common Asperger behaviour – to correct people. It’s also very misunderstood, and causes a lot of difficulties for people on the autistic spectrum. In general, people don’t like to be corrected. Particularly if the correction is irrelevant to the message, as with my house mother and her message about ‘towells’.
I think the main difficulty comes in misinterpretation of intention. I observe that it is not only autistic people who correct people. However, when non-autistic people correct people, there seems to be a different sort of intention – a bit of arrogance, and wanting to prove oneself clever and superior. Because of this, people often assume that all people who correct people have this intention.
For myself, I have no desire to prove anything, because who I am is who I am, and isn’t changed by other people’s views. People may think I’m clever or stupid, but that makes no difference to who I am. I imagine this attitude is quite common amongst people on the autistic spectrum, as we don’t tend to have the instinct to impress others. The desire to compete and to impress requires quite a bit of social awareness, which doesn’t come naturally to people on the autistic spectrum, and hence is unlikely to be an instinct.
I would say that the impulse to correct people is purely a reaction to contradiction and discord. I find it confusing and distressing to observe incorrect things being put ‘out there’. I want them put right. Whether it’s me or someone else who does the correcting makes no difference to me – I just want the correcting to happen.
As for irrelevant correction, people on the spectrum often have difficulty seeing the wider context, because we focus on the detail. At ten years old, I saw the word ‘towells’, being different to the word ‘towels’, and I knew I’d seen the word ‘towels’ many times and never the word ‘towells’, so the extra ‘l’ was wrong and had to be removed. That was the one thing my mind was focused on. I didn’t simultaneously see the big picture – the fact that everyone would understand the message, and that the house mother might feel undermined by a ten year old correcting her message.
As an adult, I have become a lot more aware of the importance of context. I worked for a while as a teaching assistant in a school. I would support children in classes, helping them understand what the teacher was teaching. When the teachers made mistakes on the board, I would automatically say so, there and then, to the teacher, in front of the whole class. This caused the teachers to act in an irritated way towards me, which I didn’t understand, because surely it was good that they were being corrected. It would stop them teaching anything wrong. However, one teacher specifically asked me not to do this, because it interrupted his flow. I didn’t really understand what he meant, but in retrospect I can see how annoying my interruptions must have been – not just in terms of interrupting flow, but also in terms of keeping control over the class, and the importance of not being undermined.
I think one difficulty I have is that I don’t see making mistakes as a personal thing – if I make a mistake, I’m happy to be told, and I will openly state when I’ve made a mistake. I don’t associate it with myself, but with a body of information that is ‘out there’ and which needs to be represented correctly.
I have taken part in many online discussions and debates on various forums, and one thing which always confuses me is when people’s aim seems to be to prove themselves right rather than to attain a more accurate understanding. This method of debating actually seems to be the norm – most people seem to see it as a personal thing, about themselves needing to be right – and so over the years I’ve gradually lost interest in debates, because this is so alien to my way of thinking.
As always, I’m not sure how to conclude this. My intention for this post is to explain why people on the spectrum might have an instinct to correct people. I want to minimise misunderstanding. I think it is easy for people to respond in a hostile way to being corrected, so I wanted to put across the autistic perspective to show that it’s not necessarily a case of being an arrogant know-it-all. It’s possible for people on the spectrum to learn what is appropriate, but this never comes naturally, and thus it takes a long time. So my message would be ‘Be patient with us!’