Y’all neurotypical people are kind of amazing. I never knew how much.
Like, don’t get me wrong. I love who I am, I love the things that make me different, and I wouldn’t change myself for the world. I have no inferiority complex in that respect. But I’ve learned some things in the past couple of years that have made me think, Wow, check out that neurotypical brain. I had no idea.
For four decades of my life, I thought everyone did stuff, and some people were just good at it and there was something wrong with me. People, getting it right; me, struggling. I couldn’t understand it, although I eventually came to just accept it. It took an autism diagnosis and a lot — a lot — of reading thereafter to realize that wait, no, neurotypical people aren’t good at working through that problem, they just don’t have that problem. It blew my mind.
Our brains are literally different. They do different things. And I gotta tell you, yours can do some pretty impressive things. Like, I mean,
You mean other people can actually hear conversations in noisy rooms?
I do recognize that noisy rooms can make it challenging for anyone to have a conversation. But apparently (who knew?) neurotypical brains have a way of filtering out some of the background noise, so that the conversation in which they’re engaged comes to the foreground. I don’t even know how that would work, neurologically, but apparently you can. (I am extremely curious about what it sounds like to you, incidentally.)
It’s kind of incredible. Because my autism comes with sensory issues, and crowd sounds are a big one. For me, pretty much every sound in the room is the same volume. If I’m at an event and there’s a band and a bunch of different conversations going on and the caterer is over at the edge of the room switching out the chafing dish of ham rolls and the organizers are setting up the microphone to make an announcement and you’re trying to talk to me, I’m hearing you plus the band plus the conversations plus the… You get the idea. And no amount of effort will enable me to hear you more.
I had no idea how other people managed it. It turns out, you don’t have to. I mean… wow.
You mean other people just, like, make eye contact?
It’s very important, apparently, eye contact. It’s respectful. (In western culture. Elsewhere, it’s a sign of disrespect, so don’t get too proud of yourself.) It conveys confidence. It conveys honesty. It means you’re listening. And if you don’t make eye contact, you’re a disrespectful, unconfident liar who isn’t paying attention. So you gotta do it.
So I do it, and it goes something like this: Make eye contact. Gotta do that. Oh, shit, which eye? Left eye? Right eye? Bridge of the nose? No, that might make me look cross-eyed. Flip a coin. Okay, we’re going with right eye. Now, how long do I hold it? Is this too long? I think this is too long. Shit, what did they just say?
There have been a lot of conversational chunks lost while I tried to mentally work out policies and procedures for making eye contact. But apparently, y’all just do it? There’s no mental process? Conversation is happening, your eyes, their eyes, no problem?
You mean other people don’t care that much about being right?
Not to be snide or superior or anything, but… that. In my adulthood, I have to force myself not to speak up when I hear someone defining something inaccurately, or pronouncing something wrong, or using the wrong word, or whatever. That’s because when I was growing up, I didn’t force myself not to do that, and it pissed people off a ton, and I learned to not do it. But it didn’t make sense. Don’t people want to be right? It’s important to me to be right — not in the sense of, like, winning an argument (although I don’t hate that), but in having all my information be correct. If I’m wrong about something, I love it when people correct me. That allows me to be righter than I was before. I’m not trying to be pedantic or superior or something — I’m trying to give them a gift that I myself would love to receive.
Clearly, everyone doesn’t feel that way. It has been expressed to me in very explicit terms.
I’ve found out, of course, that literalism, black-and-white thinking, and a pressing need to be right — to have comprehensive data, to know what the rules are, to know what’s expected of me — are all traits of autism. I have no idea what it feels like to not feel that compulsion. Y’all do, though. You can just let stuff go. Again, I love myself just as I am, but I would love to be able to let stuff go. That must be pretty cool.
You mean other people make friends by just, like, doing that?
I have tried to make friends.
A common misconception about autistic people is that we don’t want friends. And for some, that’s true, and for others, it’s not. For many of us, we very, very much want friends — we just don’t know how to go about getting them and maintaining them. And we get this advice — “Join a club! Volunteer! Meet people! Make friends!” And I do join clubs, and I do volunteer work, and there are other people around, and I even try to talk to them, and yet no friendships are established. Clearly, there’s a step between “meet people” and “make friends” that people are leaving out, every single time they give that advice.
Except apparently, there isn’t. And I know that. I’ve asked. I’ve asked several neurotypical people and gotten several blank looks, because apparently, y’all can go straight from Step 2 to Step 3 without needing any intervening instruction. Just… do it. I mean, I know autistic people have trouble reading people, and I know we’re kind of bound to instructions and specifics and such, but I’m pretty sure there’s some dark magic involved on this one.
I do have friends, for the record. Well, to be perfectly frank, I think I have friends, but history has shown that my judgment hasn’t always been accurate there. But at the very least, I’ve had friends. And I honestly don’t know how that happened. I’m pretty sure that in a couple of cases, the new friend did the heavy lifting, which is flattering that someone would go to that effort. In other cases, I have no idea. Did I manage to do something without knowing it? I know it’s not because I thought, Okay, here goes Step 2b, I’m going in, let’s do this shit, let’s make some friends, because apparently, THERE IS NO STEP 2B.
How? How, you fucking wizards, tell me how you do it.
You mean other people just, like, go places?
Or just get up in the morning and get dressed? Or go to a new restaurant without checking it out on Facebook beforehand to know how fancy it is? Or pack for a trip without a four-page template to complete with every bit of travel information and outfit plans for each day and each event and a packing list based on that outfit grid plus other known travel essentials?
I’m told neurotypical people can just throw things into a suitcase and head out. And getting dressed in the morning? Check out the weather report and put on clothes, with no analytical process determining what that temperature feels like, what I have to do that day, and what clothes would be appropriate for it. Going to a new restaurant? Just… going to a new restaurant.
It’s actually fun for me to fill out that template, because it gives me an opportunity to think about the trip we’re about to take, and I love doing that, and I love picky organizational stuff in general. But also, I kind of can’t feel comfortable traveling unless I do that. What if we forget which hotel we’re going to? What if I misjudged travel time from the hotel to the restaurant and don’t leave at the right time? What if I need my strapless bra but didn’t pack my strapless bra?
How do you not worry about your strapless bra? I mean, obviously, it’s because your brain is built to not worry about your strapless bra and mine is built to worry about my strapless bra. But I didn’t know that until recently. I thought everyone else went through the same process, but it was quicker and easier for them, and I was just stupid.
Y’all are magic.
And that’s kind of the deal for me (or it was, at least): feeling stupid. Throughout my childhood, I always felt like the weird kid — the one who couldn’t do what the other kids do. The one who was slow. I was super-smart — I got good grades, I did my work, and the teachers loved me, which definitely contributed to some other kids hating me (although I acknowledge that my ostensible pedantry didn’t help there) — but when it came to non-academic areas, I felt stupid. Not a great mindset for navigating your grade school years.
By the time I hit adulthood, I’d managed to work my way from “stupid” to “confounded, but whatever.” And then I started doing some research, and I found a person, and I got a diagnosis, and I did more research and… shit, y’all. It turns out, I’m not stupid, and I never have been. Y’all just have magic for brains.
I mean, I hate it for you that you miss neat little details, and you don’t get obsessively interested in things that are cool, and you don’t know how relaxing it can be to be able to rely on a daily ritual, but you definitely have something special going on upstairs. Kudos for that.