I am an intelligent autistic woman. I manage my own business, have raised three great kids and interface with the world around me with a fair amount of success. Not too shabby considering I lived in an institution as a kid, was homeless as an adult and used public assistance for some years.
Today I am content in my life. It is intentional. I have decided not only to be content, but how to intentionally let go of some things that used to bother me. I hope to get better with this over time because it is great feeling content most of the time and I would only like more of this good thing in my life!
Last week I was at a get together with a few of my closest friends. I think it is fair to say all of us in the group adore one another. None of us would ever intentionally say anything hurtful to any of the others. I know this without needing to wonder or question it. These particular friends would go to bat for me if I needed it. They are people I can count on.
Even though we have strong bonds of reliable friendship and even though these friends understand autism better than most people I know they do not share my autism neurology. Thus, just like I see the world through my lens of autism, they see the world through their lens of neurotypicality. This isn’t good or bad. It just is. We all see the world through our own perspective.
In this group of friends I told the story about a Facebook post from last winter. Just looked up this post and here is a screen shot of it.
Initially I had just posted the first line. Within a few minutes I received a phone call about my post. Once I explained I was told I had better put the explanation on Facebook because “Can’t screw worth a darn and then the rubber broke” has a totally different meaning for most folks. As soon as I heard this I immediately knew that different meaning! I hurried to Facebook, deleted my original post and then reposted with the meaning attached. And that is why last week, when Facebook came up in conversation, I told my friends about that Facebook posting – it was funny!
After hearing the story one of my dear friends said that everybody knew I was smart enough to have understood what those words meant when I posted them. In the moment, it felt awful to know my friend didn’t believe me and, like usual when a too-big emotion is triggered, I shut down and did not have any words. It took a week for me to be able to share that I really did have only the literal meaning of the words when I first posted. And yes, once reminded, I did know the social meaning.
Understanding social meaning has nothing to do with level of intelligence (Myles, Endow & Mayfield, 2013). It has to do with how my autistic brain works. Literal is my first language. My brain automatically does business in the literal mode. I must translate into social meaning because my brain does not automatically pick up the alternative (to literal) social meaning. In fact, I developed a strategy called Pause and Match around this and if you are interested you can read about it in Learning the Hidden Curriculum: The Odyssey of One Autistic Adult (Endow, 2012). I don’t always take the time to translate simply because I don’t always know which words are in need of translation.
It turns out everyone else has a shared social meaning for “can’t screw worth a darn and then the rubber broke” and it was nothing like my literal meaning! Once I am aware of the social meaning I can laugh at the funny picture people made when they interpreted my literal remark with a social meaning. And that is why I was telling this story – the literal/social play on words made it funny.
At this point in my life I am able to inhibit most mannerisms of autism when in public. People tell me I no longer look autistic. Even so, I am autistic. I have an autistic brain. It is hard to hide my true self all the time, but doing so has given me opportunities. One unintended effect is that people sometimes make assumptions about me when I make social errors, assuming intentionality (and sometimes rudeness) because after all, they think I am smart enough to know better (Endow, 2013).
When this happens I try to remind myself that just as I see the world through my autistic neurology so do my non-autistic friends see the world through their own non-autistic neurology. If my hurt feeling was caused by no ill intent on their part I determine to let it go. Just like people cut me some slack, I can cut my friends some slack.
Sometimes, at a later time, I might bring up the situation and explain the whole idea that intelligence has nothing to do with social understanding because I believe it is important for people to understand this concept. I especially do this if I experience a reoccurring hurt feeling over the incident. Because my emotions are often huge I can have a difficult time reigning in a too-big emotion, even if I cognitively understand that the situation wasn’t as huge as the ongoing recurring emotion – again nothing to do with intelligence, but in this case everything to do with my autistic difficulty in emotional regulation.
One thing that helps me is to think of something positive and meaningful that I admire about the particular person. I get something to concretely represent the positive connection I had with this friend during our time together when the too-big negative emotion was triggered. Sometimes I get an actual object. Other times I create a piece of art. For me this concrete art object solidifies the positive connection, making it bigger than the negative hurt feeling.
Then, each time the hurt feeling surfaces I look at the art work or object – either in real time or in my mind if I am not home to actually see it. Seeing a concrete object of positive relationship representation each time my brain replays the hurt feeling, after several instances, allows the positive feeling attached to the concrete object to become larger than the negative feeling that is not attached to something concrete. It is one way I have found to work with my autistic literalness in a positive way that serves me!
Once the hurt feeling has diminished I sometimes give the object or the art to my friend. This means that I no longer need it. Sometimes I explain my hurt feeling and how it is no longer there. Other times I do not. The giving of the object helps solidify the feelings of positive regard and caring I have towards my friend.
All in all, friendships are wonderful. Autistics want and can have friends. I have found it helpful to work with my autistic neurology rather than to try to make friendships work for me in a neurotypical way – the way that most social skills and friendship groups are taught.
I have learned over time that it is a plus to be able to use the strengths of my neurology to handle the huge negative feelings that get triggered in friendships only because we view the world differently – each of us having the point of view delivered to us through the lens of our own neurology. We all have to find our way in making friendships work. Good friends are important. We all want and need meaningful relationships. And in this way I am more like the rest of humanity than my autism can ever make me different!
Endow, J. (2012). Learning the Hidden Curriculum: The Odyssey of One Autistic Adult. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.
Endow, J. (2013). Painted Words: Aspects of Autism Translated. Cambridge, WI: CBR Press.
Myles,, B. S., Endow, J., & Mayfield, M. (2013). The Hidden Curriculum of Getting and Keeping a Job: Navigating the Social Landscape of Employement. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.