It’s easier now for me to look back on my life and realize how many things shaped who I was through the lens of my autism. One of those traits is literal thinking.
“Typical” children eventually learn to differentiate between literal and figurative language, along with the nuances of humor and its many states, something I still struggle with doing even now as an adult. As a child who didn’t know any better, however, it had the power to wound me deeply.
I remember asking my father one day, “Daddy, am I pretty?” and he said, “Yeah, pretty ugly.” Then he laughed, as did everyone else, as if it were the funniest thing they had ever heard.
The first time he said this I burst into tears and he told me he was just joking, but it didn’t matter because I took him at his word. The damage caused by his statement was done — and I knew I was ugly.
While difficult to conjure a specific time when I made a mistake, there is one specific thing I said that my mother hated: “It was an accident.” Thing is, in my mind, whatever happened to get me in trouble was an accident. I never did anything on purpose to cause trouble or break things or whatever. The last thing I wanted was to make my mother mad yet it seemed that’s what always occurred no matter how hard I tried to avoid it. I always tried to do whatever would please her and keep her from being mad.
It was through those failures to please that I learned how stupid and lazy and half-assed I was. The more these things were said, the more I believed them literally and the more I messed up, eventually not even trying as hard because I knew there would be trouble for me later anyway.
Yes, I realize I wasn’t any of those things, but it’s not like I had anybody telling me I wasn’t stupid or lazy or ugly. There wasn’t anyone in my life “building me up” in any form except at school, where I didn’t need it because my grades were great. That’s probably why I enjoyed it so much and focused on how doing well in school would change my life as an adult. I might be ugly and stupid and lazy elsewhere, as well as needy and weird to my peers, but not at academics.
And this problem with literal thinking has followed me all my life.
As a child, we were in the car and at the mention of its name, I asked, “Why is it called Dead Man’s Curve? Are there dead men on the curve?” My whole family laughed at me while commenting on how stupid I was at not knowing why it was called that. Then, there was me stepping on a crack every chance I got and wondering why my mother’s back didn’t break as it should.
Later, it was trying to figure out social cues and not realizing most things others said weren’t what they actually desired; they were just being polite. It was a long time — roughly about five years ago now — before I learned “we should hang out sometime” wasn’t typically an actual invitation to spend time together. Or that someone might not want to truly know how I was when they asked me — it was just a greeting and you are supposed to say you are fine or good before tossing the question back their way, especially if you aren’t well acquainted.
This blindness extends to sarcasm. While I have cultivated the ability of sarcasm myself to ‘give it’ to others, my inability to understand it when directed at me continues to this day. I know it is because I am not really able to tell the tone of others no matter how they are talking, unless they are clearly laughing or angry. These extreme emotions are ones I can easily identify, but many of the others in between look the same to me — in fact, on most ‘what expression is this?’ tests, I fail miserably in identifying a majority of them.
Until I understood these failings, life was rough for me, and although it’s easier now to state what I need, most people don’t want to put with the ‘rules’ involved in being my partner or friend. Such as social niceties, for example.
To me, “be back in five” or “I’ll call you at (insert time)” is a promise. “Be back later” is vague, as is “talk to you soon,” and I will usually ask for clarification because I need to know, to prepare for talking to the person next time.
If they don’t say, come back in five like they said, or call at the time they said, my first thought is to wonder if something happened to them. Then, I wonder if I did something wrong or if they are mad at me.
And sure, I tell myself maybe they just got distracted, maybe they got busy, maybe they just forgot… but that’s always the worst. All of those attempts to rationalize them not doing what they said mean nothing to my brain, which can’t understand why someone would say something and then not do it, and it’s an extremely destructive pattern that puts people off even though I can’t help myself.
In many of the groups I’m in with other autistic people, this issue is one discussed a lot, because we’re wired to take people at the words that come out of their mouths or fingers due to our social blindness.
It is progress, of course, to recognize other reasons for the person not following through, but in the end it comes back to realizing people just don’t understand how many inadvertent promises they make without thinking them through. And for me, it erodes my trust in people, friends and family alike, because if I can’t take someone at their word, how can I trust them at all? This has become an issue and is only the beginning of how communication is a big hurdle, especially in relationships.