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.

Perseveration and difficulties with change

It’s been a while since I wrote a blog post. It’s not that I don’t have anything to say – I’ve thought of all kinds of topics to write about, and planned them in my mind, but somehow the actual act of getting myself to sit down and writing them seemed hard. Not that I find it hard to actually write blog posts – I like to write them – but what is hard is the actual switch from whatever I’m doing to something different.

As this is a common aspect of Aspergers, I decided I might as well write a post about it – as a way of both explaining my absence and illustrating why people on the autistic spectrum have difficulties with organisation, and why the ‘perseveration’ thing happens.

I’d never actually heard the term ‘perseveration’ until I started reading about autism and Asperger Syndrome, and then I immediately knew what was being described. I can illustrate in by talking about the past couple of weeks.

Once I started doing the ‘100 things’ strategy described in my last post, I became focused on organisation. I started planning my meals for the week too, which got me thinking about health, and starting to plan exercise. I started keeping a journal to keep track of all I do each day, dividing my life into various categories, such as ‘house’, ‘food’, ‘exercise’, ‘finance’, ‘relaxation’, etc. This became the focus of my life for a few days – I had to be constantly aware of it for it to work, and in order to be constantly aware of it, I had to focus my mind on it to the exclusion of all else.

Then I started going for walks in the woodlands and in the moors. This seemed a logical way of combining the categories of enjoyment, relaxation and exercise, because I really enjoy such walks. Once I started, I would walk for hours and hours, so walking became the focus of my days. I started taking photographs of the trees, because I love trees – their shapes fascinate me. My days became totally focused on woodland walks and capturing them in photographs, and then collecting these photos onto my laptop, cropping them and resizing them. I completely forgot about all other aspects of organisation, and the journal I was keeping. I just remembered it yesterday, and realised I hadn’t written in it for six days.

When I stand back from this, I feel frustrated, because although I love walking in the woodlands and the moors, I don’t want my whole life to consist of that. I also love reading novels, and had actually planned to do some reading. I always took a book along on my walks, thinking I would sit down at some point and read it. But somehow my mind just wouldn’t switch from walking mode to reading mode. I was walking and I would keep on walking. I would sit down sometimes on the walks, to have something to eat, but I wouldn’t read, because reading seemed like a completely different world. The switch from focusing on the walk and the trees to focusing on a book seemed like a vast chasm.

This isn’t to say that I can’t read when on a walk – but to do that, my whole focus would have to be on reading. I’d be oblivious to the beauty of the woodlands and countryside around me. When I was a kid, my focus was often entirely on reading. Wherever I went, I would bring a book and I would read it – read it while walking along, reading when stopping anywhere, etc. – because reading was what occupied my mind.

I’m trying to think of an analogy so people can understand the difficulty switching from one thing to another. It’s kind of like moving to another country on the spur of the moment. For most people who have lived in the same country all their lives, this would be an enormous and difficult transition – because your mind is accustomed to your own country. You have learnt to take many things for granted which would all change if you moved to another country – it would be a huge transition, and would be very difficult to just switch from your life here to moving there. Not just in practical terms, but in mental adjustment.

Interestingly, I moved to Canada for five years when I was 21, and many people said how brave I was, but to me there was nothing unusual about it, because all changes are huge for me. Moving to Canada was no different. Obviously, in practical terms, the actual act of switching from walking to reading is nothing like the act of moving to Canada. There were all kinds of complicated things involved in moving to Canada, like applying to be a student at the university, getting a student visa, organising accommodation, booking a flight, etc. – whereas switching from walking to reading just involves sitting down and taking a book out of my bag, opening it and reading it. But the difficulty is not in the practicalities of the act itself – it’s in the switching of mindset.

This is why people on the autism spectrum often develop special interests. Once we are focused on one thing, it is so much easier to keep focusing on it than to switch to something else. Something else may arise from it, as a side thing, like woodland walks arising from my focus on organisation, but it arises because of a link. It’s much easier to switch naturally to something that is somehow linked than to switch to something which is unrelated. For instance, when on my walks, I started thinking about how I’d like to read some reference books about trees and flowers and insects and birds. If I were to do that, then I would probably start focusing on reading, and then may well start reading novels again. But if I were to just pick up a novel and read it today, I may enjoy it but it would feel disjointed from the rest of my life, unless there was a central theme of my life to which the book related.

This is why life can feel fragmented for people on the autistic spectrum. We often lack a sense of overall cohesion – ‘central coherence’ – so we find one thing to focus on, and somehow everything else needs to relate to this.

Understanding this can help with devising strategies. For children on the autistic spectrum, who have various activities organised by adults, it would be helpful to find some way of linking the activities, so there is not the uncomfortable jolt of switching from one to the other. For instance, as a kid, I would never want to go to bed when it was bedtime. This was because my mind was focused on whatever I was doing, and couldn’t make the switch to going to bed, which was, to use my analogy, like moving to another country. What would happen is that my mother would get angry, which didn’t help, because it became a fight, which made me even less inclined to relax and quieten for bed.

It occurs to me in retrospect that if instead there had been some kind of link, and routine, it would have been easier. It’s hard to know exactly what would have worked, but it occurs to me that maybe if lights had been dimmed, and soft relaxing music been played, or maybe a scented candle burnt (out of reach, for safety) at a certain time, then this might have somehow prepared my mind to quieten down, and I would have started to associate these sensory cues with going to bed.

I probably could do something like that for myself as an adult too (as I still have a lot of difficulty going to bed at a regular time) – although then I’d be responsible for the cues myself, so I’d have to somehow find a way of making myself do them at the right time. I’m still trying to work this out in my mind, so I have no definite strategies, but I will experiment with trying to find something that works. Maybe having an alarm clock go off at a certain time in the evening when I want to start preparing my mind for bed time – and putting the alarm clock by my aromatherapy oil burner, as a cue for lighting it, and that could act as a cue for dimming lights. I will try this and if it works, I’ll write another post about it.

Messy things out there: the need for closure

In recent years, the term ‘closure’ has become popular. People want closure after a painful breakup with a partner, for instance. That seems to be the situation in which the term is used most often.

I can strongly identify with the concept of desire for closure – but for me, I seem to want closure in situations that other people wouldn’t think twice about mentally dismissing. The desire for closure thus seems heightened in me. I will give some examples of situations in which I find myself needing closure:

  • When someone snaps at me: I find myself then confused with this person, and wary of them, unless they explicitly explain that they’re in a bad mood and they didn’t mean to snap
  • When someone is rude to me: I find myself confused as to why the person doesn’t like me and it feels like something is ‘undone’ and needs doing up
  • When I start several projects that will take a while: although I like starting projects, I find myself overwhelmed, because these projects are all ‘open’ and on display in my mind, rather than neatly tied up

I think, with projects, part of the need for closure lies in the fact that I can only focus on one thing at a time. So if I have more than one unfinished project, then when I am focusing on one of them the others disappear from my awareness, but I know that there are unfinished, messy things ‘out there’.

Maybe with people it’s also to do with only being able to focus on one thing at a time – because if a person has snapped at me or been rude to me, but is at other times polite to me, then there is ambiguity, and there seems to be something unfinished – something I don’t understand – which is another ‘messy thing out there’.

For instance, yesterday my neighbour seemed to get a bit annoyed with me. I don’t know for certain if she was annoyed, but when I analysed the words she said to me, it seemed like she was. This confused me, because I normally get on fine with her. From observing people in general, I observe that people do often get a little annoyed with each other, and then it passes, and they don’t see it as a big deal. So I know in theory that this is normal. But in practice, I am confused, because I can’t judge exactly why my neighbour wanted to express annoyance with me, and whether it will go away or increase, and whether there might be other things that she was annoyed about but didn’t say, or whether actually she was just in a bad mood and it had little to do with me. So I feel uncertainty now about my neighbour. She is now unpredictable.

So, to use my analogy of my mind being like a library, with a desk on which only one book can be open at a time , I can’t simply close the book that is my neighbour, and put her back in into the shelf she sits on, as a closed book, all neatly filed and ready to take out when I see her. It’s like she is open, and no longer fits in, because she’s changed, and there might be something wrong. Logically, I know that most probably there isn’t anything wrong, but still, the possibility is in my mind, because her behaviour wasn’t quite the same as usual. So she is a book, left open – a ‘messy thing out there’.

Obviously life involves many ‘messy things out there’. There are always tasks to be done – if I wash my dishes today, I know that I will have to wash them again tomorrow, for instance, so there is never any closure on washing dishes! And of course, in any relationship, whether with friends, neighbours or colleagues, people get annoyed with each other sometimes. In theory, I can analyse this and know it’s normal, but there is part of me that finds it very difficult – the feeling of being in the middle of unfinished and confusing things.

Perhaps this is also because being on the autistic spectrum involves what is known as ‘weak central coherence’ – a difficulty with seeing and making sense of the ‘big picture’. If you can understand life in terms of the big picture, then the small details are less important, and closure is only seen as necessary for things that fall into the ‘big picture’ category. But if you can only make sense of the world by seeing the details and building up from them to eventually see the big picture, then the details are incredibly important, becuase they are the building blocks on which understanding is formed. If you are confused by a detail, then you are confused overall.