Perhaps the most obvious issue people have with Aspies involves communicating with them. I’ve been told that I intimidate people, that I can be embarrassing to those I’m with, and that I’m too aggressive. All of these come from the fact that I have Asperger’s. The way I naturally communicate with people, I often come across as intimidating, arrogant, and aggressive. Those who know me well know better, but those who don’t know me well are likely to leave with a bad impression. Naturally, this is bad for social situations, including employment.
Among the handicaps Aspies have when engaged in conversation is an inability to look people in the eye. If we are far enough away and are looking at your mouth or nose, it looks like we are looking you in the eye when you talk to us, but if we’re much closer, it’s obvious we’re not. Now think about what this communicates to you, if you’re not on the spectrum. If someone doesn’t look you in the eye, you tend not to trust them. That’s a bad first impression, and the Aspie hasn’t even opened his or her mouth yet.
But that’s not the only problem with the eyes. Our peripheral vision is on equal par with our centered vision, meaning things around us catch our attention. While you’re talking to us, it’s not uncommon for us to look around, glance at other people and at things. It appears that we’re not paying attention, but in fact we are paying you attention — we hear everything you say, and we’ll respond to it.
Our visual egalitarianism also extends to our hearing. As a result, we hear everything around us at equal volume, while you neurotypicals can focus your hearing on the speaker. This means that your voice can be drowned out, meaning we may ask you to repeat yourself. This can be interpreted as us not paying you proper attention — being rude — when in fact you just got drowned out by whatever sounds there are in the room. Now, imagine you are in a situation in which you hear everything at the same volume. You would probably assume everyone else does as well (since you extrapolate others’ experiences from your own), meaning you would likely talk in a louder voice. If I end up talking too loud to you, that is why. Also, all of that noise can be overwhelming to us. So do not be surprised if, at least occasionally, we seek a quiet place to let things settle down in our heads.
Of course, all of this requires that we have actually engaged in a conversation in the first place.
If we’re introduced, I may or may not greet you. If you greet me first, or if whoever is introducing us is explicit that we’re being introduced, I’m fine. But any ambiguity will leave me just standing there.
Also, I don’t engage in small talk. I certainly won’t initiate it, and my contributions to small talk will be minimal. I don’t engage in chitchat for the sake of chitchat, and I’m not likely to engage in much gossip, either. If the topic doesn’t interest me, I don’t pretend to be interested. But if the topic does interest me . . . then we have a whole other set of problems.
If you say something to me–ask me a question or greet me or say goodbye–odds are it will take me a second or two to process what has been said to me and to then process a proper response. I’ve had people in that time I’m taking tell me that someone was speaking to me. I knew they were speaking to me, and I was processing the statement and an answer to that statement. At the same time, given the fact that I may not have noticed I was being addressed, it also helps if someone points out to me I’ve been addressed. Even knowing this, the former is annoying to me in the moment, though my knowledge of the latter dissipates that annoyance.
If I am given a platform on which I can speak at length on a topic of interest to me, I’m in my perfect environment. I am full of information on that topic, and I can go on and on and on and on and on and on and on about it. It will be less of a conversation than a lecture. If you are a sincere fellow traveler in the search for truth, you and I will have a blast together. If not, I’m afraid I don’t suffer fools very well.
Also, it is very important that you don’t be wrong. If you are wrong about something and I know it, you may rest assured that I will interrupt what you are saying to correct you. I cannot stand not to correct someone immediately, because I know that if you start with a false premise, everything you are getting ready to say is going to be wrong. To my mind, why on earth would you want to waste your time developing a false argument on false premises? I wouldn’t. I actually like being corrected when I am in fact wrong. And it bothers me when I am not corrected when I am wrong.
A good example of this involved my sister-in-law, who was a music major in college. She was with me when I was talking to a friend about music, and I was getting the difference between 3-4 and 4-4 all wrong. She let me go on and on, misinforming this guy, and then only told me I was wrong after my friend left. I asked her why she didn’t correct me — after all, she was the music expert. More, I figured if she wasn’t correcting me, I was right in what I was saying. Worse, there was now someone else out there as misinformed as I had been, and it was my fault. Given that I would welcome correction on points of fact, I have a hard time understanding why others wouldn’t. At the same time, I have come to understand that my sister-in-law was being polite in not correcting me in front of my friend, because politeness is an important social virtue. Being right rarely ever is. It is perhaps not surprising that Aspies fall short of the social virtues, even if we do tend to be deeply moral.
Finally, you will discover that I have a tendency to interrupt to say what I need to say. There are a few things going on with that behavior. One, I interrupt because I’m afraid I will forget what I’m going to say. And I have a great deal of experience to back that up. Two, the feeling I get when I cannot say what I need to say when I need to say it is equivalent to if you were trying to tell me something, and I kept interrupting you before you could get three words out — and I kept doing it and doing it and doing it. At what point would you interrupt me and talk over me? The problem is that I have that feeling immediately upon having something to say. And all too often I act upon it. Naturally, this is interpreted as being rude and arrogant.
For those of you who have engaged me in conversation, you probably recognize every single one of these traits. Social media no doubt tempers or eliminates many of these, and exacerbates others. So if you find yourself in conversation with someone and they are exhibiting all of these traits, they are not being an arrogant asshole — at least, not on purpose — rather it’s quite likely you are talking with an Aspie. Have patience with us. And don’t be afraid to take us aside and point it out when we are doing some of these things. It is natural for us to do them, but it’s not impossible for us to — at least occasionally — temper some of our own extremes.