Throughout this post, I will refer to people with Asperger’s as “Aspies.” This is not considered a derogatory term; it’s simply how we refer to ourselves.
First, we are not stupid. We also are not trying to be difficult when we say we don’t understand you. We don’t have a disease, and the vast majority of us would refuse a “cure,” if one were discovered, for such a development would be seen by many of us, myself included, as an attempt to commit genocide. Like other groups of people, we want to stay alive, as individuals, and as a culture.
We are, however, different from most people. Our brains are hard-wired in ways that are not typical, with the result that we do not think in the same manner as others. These differences give us certain advantages which we value, but the trade-off comes in the form of problems involving communication with non-Aspies. You can see this in fiction, to get used to the way we think, simply by watching (or reading) Star Trek stories which feature Vulcans, or the android named Data. The difficulties those characters have, when trying to communicate with the humans they encounter, are very much like what happens when Aspies and non-Aspies attempt communication. Why is this the case? The answer is simple: Star Trek was written that way.
Here are some specific questions, and phrases, which many Aspies find particularly baffling. In each case, I will attempt to explain why this is so.
1. “Who do you think you are?” — Ask an Aspie this question, and you’re likely to simply be given his or her name, in response. Apparently, this offends some people, but please don’t ask me why, for I don’t understand it myself. If a person were to ask me this question, my first guess would be that the questioner simply forgot my name, and needs a reminder. The meaning of volume, voice tone, and body language are mysteries to us. Sometimes we can figure out these mysteries, but it doesn’t happen automatically — we have to reason our way through it, and that takes time, especially for nuances of communication which are based on emotions.
2. “What do you think you’re doing?” — My likely response to this question would be an honest one: “I’m trying to understand what you’re saying, but it doesn’t seem to be working very well.” However, that’s an answer from an Aspie in his fifth decade of trying to understand other people, so I’ve had a lot of practice. An Aspie teenager, in school, might simply say, “I’m walking to class,” “I’m taking notes,” or something like that, and then get in trouble for “backtalk,” as it is called — when the student was simply answering the question, without intending any disrespect whatsoever. Whatever answer this confusing question gets, from one of us, that answer will be both literal, and honest. It is not in our nature to lie, but it is definitely in our nature to think, listen, speak, read, and write literally, and logically.
3. “Do that again!” / “Say that again!” — If we have done or said something which you don’t like, and you actually don’t want to witness a rerun, why would you demand one? We think, speak, and interpret what we hear in terms of the actual words which are spoken. There’s nothing wrong with thinking literally, and, frankly, it puzzles us why so many of you think in other ways, so much of the time. If you ask for, or demand, a repeat performance of something you didn’t like, from one of us, you’re quite likely to get one — and then you’ll get angrier, we’ll get even more confused, and absolutely nothing of value will have been accomplished. If, on the other hand, you refrain from using “x” to mean “not x” (since it doesn’t), and simply tell us exactly what you mean, communication will become much easier, for all concerned.
4. “Don’t get technical with me!” — As far as I can tell, this means that the speaker wants us to refrain from choosing our words with precision, but I could be wrong, for this is the most baffling item on this list, so far. Clarity of language is desirable, for it facilitates communication, and sometimes, technical terms are needed for this purpose. I don’t know what to suggest as a substitute for this phrase, since I don’t understand it, but I can assure you that using it, with an Aspie, is a complete waste of your time.
5. “What’s wrong with you?” — This is another baffling question. If asked very loudly, the most likely answers Aspies will give are “I have a headache,” or perhaps “Sudden-onset tinnitus,” with the cause, in each case, being simple: from our point of view, the questioner is trying to deafen us, by yelling things which make no sense (at any volume). Do you like being shouted at, from close range? No? Well then, this is one way that we aren’t so different from non-Aspies, for we don’t like it either. Also: it’s quite likely that we don’t see anything wrong with us at all, for, in this situation, we are not the ones shouting nonsense-questions, so you might even get this response: “Nothing. What’s wrong withyou?” In such a situation, that isn’t backtalk — it’s a perfectly legitimate question, and we are not responsible for any emotion-laden, irrational response the non-Aspie questioner might display.
6. “I need this done yesterday!” — Many of us can explain, in detail, why time travel into the past is not permitted by the laws of physics, as they are currently understood. Those who request, or demand, reverse-time-travel, from an Aspie, should not be surprised to hear such an explanation. Ask us to flap our arms and fly, and the response will likely be similar.
I could give more examples, but I think the point has been made. We aren’t all alike, so the examples of hypothetical responses I gave, above, will vary from one Aspie to another. What isn’t likely to vary, though, is the confusion each of us experiences when things are said to us which make no sense, if interpreted literally. That’s the key to communicating with us: when we hear something, we automatically use logic, and rational thought, to attempt to understand the literal meaning of what has been said to us. For many of us, that is the only meaning we can understand.
In my case (and probably in the cases of at least some other Aspies), this goes a little further: rational, literal, and logical interpretations of language are the only ones I want to understand. This is a self-protection mechanism, for the idea of losing even part of my ability to think clearly, and rationally, is extremely frightening to me. To pour a lot of effort into trying to think in non-Aspie ways, I fear, could damage my mind — if, that is, I was successful in the attempt. I don’t want to risk turning into a person who considers “x” and “not x” to be interchangeable, for one doesn’t equal negative one. To change, in this way, would effectively kill the person I am. It wouldn’t stop my heart from beating, of course, but some things are even worse than physical death. If such a change ever happened, I would look the same, and would have the same legal name, but I would no longer be RobertLovesPi. It makes perfect sense for me to be absolutely unwilling to risk something so dangerous.
In addition to the central importance of the fact that we think in literal terms, while others often don’t, Aspies have some other difficulties (or the rest of the world does, depending on your point of view). I attempted to describe these difficulties, which involve coping with the emotionalism and irrationality of numerous other people, in the examples of confusing phrases and questions given above. Emotionalism and irrationality are, to us, severe impediments to understanding anything, and we live our lives in a state of near-constant bombardment from both, since Aspies are outnumbered by non-Aspies by a huge margin. On this planet, to borrow a book title from Robert Heinlein, I live my life as a “stranger in a strange land.” I know that many other Aspies see life in a similar way, for that idea is embedded in the name of the largest online community created by and for Aspies, as well as others on the autism spectrum: www.wrongplanet.net. If you are curious about how other Aspies view the things I have described above, or if you are, yourself, an Aspie in need of an temporary escape from social interaction with non-Aspies, you can find a great many of us at that website. (Also, if you want to find me there, just search for me, using the name of this blog — my not-at-all-secret identity, all over the Internet.)