Communication confusion

If someone were to ask me to briefly summarise Asperger’s Syndrome – not that they often do – I would put it like this:

– Difficulty reading faces and body language
– Difficulty interpreting things people say, especially instructions
– Poor physical skills
– Above average IQ
– Detailed long term memory
– Good at learning – and correctly using – spoken language

But in a specific situation where I have misunderstood something and fallen short of expectations, I can’t explain what I’m confused about, or what went wrong. Other people will ask me why I struggled with something that they probably see as blindingly obvious, and so often I’m left feeling stupid because I just can’t explain.

Often it’s the same with smaller, more mundane things. Why do you not join in with the group conversation? Why are you so easily startled? Why do you still need help finding your way there? In response, it would be so easy for me to reply: How do you find so many things to say to all those people? Why aren’t you startled when someone behind you pats you on the shoulder? How can you memorise a route you’ve only taken once while following other people? But these aren’t answers, because – apart from “I’m autistic” – I don’t have any.

In these situations, people asking about Asperger’s is fair enough. The hard part is answering those questions. How do you explain the way you are? It’s like trying to explain what your own accent sounds like! And when people expect you to communicate why you’ve misunderstood someone, the irony is that you have a communication disorder, and can’t explain any better than they can. Because part of being autistic is struggling to see how you come across compared with others.

One of the things I find hardest is unspoken expectations. Despite the autism stereotype, empathy has never been a struggle, and I have even learned to use it to pinpoint people’s emotional needs. But when I’m in a situation where there’s pressure to perform well – practically or socially – and pick up things that haven’t been explained, I’m completely lost without clear guidance on how to manage the situation.

And that’s not to say that AS renders you incapable of communication. We just process things differently, and who’s to say “differently” means “worse” anyway? We take in information in a concrete, logical manner, accompanied with a lot of careful thought, and in a world where most people instinctively know what’s expected when given ambiguous information, we are in a minority. So while we power through that world, and keep honing our non-native neurotypical* language skills, please bear with us!

 

 

*Non-autistic

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Face blindness – do I know you?

I am a very visual thinker. Generally. When it comes to analysing a person, or a situation, I’m all for common patterns and the bigger picture, but when doing something that requires memory, I will often rack my brain for relevant visual details. Recalling a past event? I’m on it. Learning a new route? Stored images of all the places I pass – if in the correct order – may be my only saving grace. (Saving Grace, gettit? I amuse myself…)

Unfortunately, my visual memory draws the line at faces. Plenty of people are bad at faces. Some are worse with names. And some people, often on the autistic spectrum, are notoriously bad at both. Has anyone ever ended up making small talk with a (non) stranger who recognised them from an event that happened years ago? Bet you have.

But how often do you fail to remember someone you met earlier in the day? Like when I went to Blackpool with the Navigators in 2015. I spent the afternoon in town with Jonny and the guys, and got into a long conversation with a lad from Birmingham. Come quiz night that evening, I introduced myself to one of my team mates, who, by some unfathomable miracle, was the same person. Don’t you just hate it when new people do that?

Except they’re not doing anything. And according to a radio talk and related article (here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-36651390)  that my mum discovered, there is a name for this: face blindness. Or prosopagnosia. Which, apparently, is common in people with Asperger’s, and other forms of autism.

When you think about it, this makes sense. Asperger’s Syndrome basically means that, despite the lack of developmental delay seen in more severe autism, you are not fluent in facial communication. And recognising messages portrayed by the face is only one step forward from recognising the face itself.

When I first read the article and listened to the talk, I was sceptical. Unlike the woman featured, I have no trouble recognising my own mother. Or my friends. Or people I interact with at length regularly. And if I’ve properly seen you at least once in the past, that doesn’t necessarily mean I won’t remember you. It’s just that that also doesn’t mean I will remember you. But, like autism, face blindness probably has a spectrum. Or maybe I’m just face-shortsighted.

I think this is partly why I have quite complicated boundaries when it comes to touch. You might feel like you know me well enough to tap me from behind or hold my arm without warning, but if we’re not close friends or immediate relatives, I can’t promise I won’t react as if a complete stranger is crossing my personal boundaries. Like at church when we were sharing the peace, and a woman whom I’d apparently met before moved in for a kiss on the cheek, nearly giving me a heart attack. It’s honestly nothing personal. I just need a gentle reminder.

Although if you know me well, and you still give said reminder, I will quite likely pretend I have no memory of you. Just a warning.