Neurotypicals Have a Communication Disorder

I generally disdain the very idea that ignorance is bliss, but I may have come across an example of where it is most definitely true.

It is one thing to have everyone constantly misunderstand you and misinterpret what you do or say, but it is quite another to understand that everyone is doing that while also knowing there is almost nothing you can do about it. How do you control unconscious behaviors? If someone brings your attention to them, you can practice not doing them, but even that will only get you so far when it’s a natural reaction to you.

It is remarkably easy for someone on the spectrum to get into the flow state. The flow state is one where you are mentally completely committed to what you are doing. The rest of the world drops away when you are in this state. And for me at least, it is a state of happiness.

Pop my bubble, and I can literally feel my brain cringe in annoyance. I may then immediately appreciate your popping my bubble (if, say, the house is on fire), but you’re still going to get a flash of annoyance from me. I cannot help it. And even having it pointed out to me that I flash annoyance at you probably won’t do anything to help me fix it. It’s a gut reaction.

In the past, if you popped my flow state bubble, that was guaranteed to result in me having a meltdown and chewing you out. The fact that I have moved from that reaction to a momentary flash of annoyance means I have in fact improved in my reactions. I am sure my wife appreciates the fact that I had stopped having the strong reaction years before I met her. But I’m equally sure I have annoyed her with my look of annoyance at being brought back to the real world.

The problem is that people don’t understand why I have the reaction I do, and they misinterpret it to mean that I’m annoyed at them. I’m not. I’m momentarily annoyed I was broken out of the flow state. If they did it to help me, I’m grateful and appreciative–and I try to let that be known. But all too often people care only about the nonverbal communication and not the verbal one. I cannot help the former one, and the latter one is always going to be honest. But people take it the opposite way.

Because of this, autism is considered to be a “communication disorder.” However, if I was in a flow state and I was brought out of it by someone on the spectrum, they would understand my look. And they would accept my expression of appreciation as honest. We would communicate to each other quite clearly. It becomes disordered when it takes place between an autistic and a neurotypical person. And the disorder works both ways. To me, neurotypical people have a communication disorder. They do not communicate well, or even honestly, most of the time. You think you’ve smoothed things over with them, and they are still harping on it the next day. I supposed they communicate clearly enough to each other, but to me, they can’t communicate jack squat most of the time.

If I weren’t completely aware of all of this, life would perhaps be less frustrating. I would go through life unaware of all of these things, occasionally confused about why something has fallen apart socially, but mostly being blissfully unaware that there’s anything wrong. I got by in that state for 40 years.

But now I know. I know, and there’s little I can do about it. Unless I manage to educate every single neurotypical about autism and the fact that there are a whole lot of people out there with whom they are constantly miscommunicating. But I supposed that’s the Sysiphian task set for me. The world is less because of this lack of understanding.


Non-Verbal Communication and Autism — Some Personal Consequences

Autism is considered to be a communication disorder. It is of course much more than that, and the definition of dis-order depends on one’s standard of order, but in a world dominated by neurotypicals, our differences are considered to be disorders. And given the consequences, we might as well call them that.

When we think of a communication disorder, we are typically thinking of language as communication. However, much human communication is non-verbal, and here autistic people face a number of hurdles as well.

It was a few years ago when I came to understand the degree to which this is true in a recent situation in which I was being correctly redirected to do something other than what I was doing. When the person redirected me, I realized she was right and that I should be doing something else, so I immediately complied. A bit later, though, she asked me if it annoyed her that she had redirected me.

When I am concentrating on something–as I was in this case doing–I tend to get “in the zone.” If you do or say something to get me out of the zone, I feel immediately annoyed. I cannot help it, but I can often get over is as immediately as I feel it. What I didn’t realize is that I also showed that annoyance on my face. Which is just as immediate and something I can’t help.

Now imagine that I have been doing this all my life. Which I have. Without realizing it. Which I have. How do you think people will react to me? Or think of me?

For my regular readers, you may remember that this is not the first time this has happened to me where my attention was drawn to the look I was giving.

But I do have to wonder how many times something has gone awry because I was giving a look that I was unaware I was giving.

This just ends up on my growing list of things I seem to have to tell people about me so they won’t misunderstand my words, actions, and now facial expressions. Meaning I’m almost certainly going to have to always tell everyone I’m on the spectrum just to create the conditions under which I’ll be less likely to be misunderstood. Meaning I’ll get all the fun and pleasure of being directly discriminated against when people know I’m on the spectrum.

So those are the choices: open discrimination against me for being on the autism spectrum or have people decide they don’t like me because of my “attitude.” I’ve decided to take my chances with the former.

Reflections on Being a Student on the Spectrum

Having taught 2nd grade summer school Reading and Math, and now working as a sub, I cannot help but reflect upon my own elementary school education. I was always considered to be a very intelligent child by pretty much everyone, including my teachers. Any bad grades were considered to be laziness on my part.

One area in which I struggled throughout my years as a student was math. I particularly had a very hard time with word problems. I also had some problem with certain areas of multiplication, and fractions made no sense whatsoever to me until I took high school chemistry. I failed 8th grade math, made a C in Algebra 1 (Freshman), Cs and Bs in Geometry (Sophomore), a B in Algebra II (Jr), and an a in Calculus and in Trigonometry and Analytical Geometry (Sr). In college, I made a C in Calculus I, and I failed Calculus II so miserably that I managed to make a fairly low F even doing all of the extra credit.

Math in elementary school has now gone almost completely over to word problems. When I was in elementary school, tests would have almost all numerical problems, and only about 2 word problems. That meant I could miss the word problems (which I almost inevitably did) without failing the test. But today, the quizzes I have had to give involved nothing but word problems. Meaning there’s a very good chance that I would have been failing math well before 8th grade.

While there is no question that we need to teach children how to formulate problems (which is what word problems do), it doesn’t make a lot of sense to teach formulating math to children who cannot add, subtract, multiply, or divide. That is, you absolutely must have the mathematical skill in place before you can move on to mathematical reasoning and formulation of problems. The latter may be most important overall, but you cannot skip establishing the foundation.

Now it may be that this way of doing things is the best way for certain students. I won’t deny that possibility. But it’s coming at the expense of other children. And if this is true, then the way I was taught it came at the expense of the kinds of students who do well in the way math is taught today. There are trade-offs. In this particular trade-off, I would have been the one traded, from doing well enough in math to pass to failing very much earlier on.

Another thing I have noticed about education today is that it’s designed to be much more social. There’s more group work and “shoulder partners” and sitting together on a rug and so on. None of this is exactly inviting to anyone on the spectrum, and I certainly wouldn’t have liked school nearly as much if it had been run like it is today.

Indeed, though I was perhaps seen as highly intelligent but quirky (to put it nicely) as a child in the 1970s, I think there is little doubt that in the current school environment that I would have been identified as having something “wrong” with me. I would have been seen as refusing to participate and I probably would have had some quite negative reactions to a lot of this forced sociality (something perfectly fine for neurotypicals, who don’t find it forced at all). I would have likely been identified as having ODD, if not Asperger’s/autism. I probably wouldn’t have been identified as having ADD/ADHD, because I was never outwardly hyperactive (inwardly, I’m in a dead run almost all the time), but I would have likely been sullen and I wouldn’t have liked the classroom environment at all.

In other words, I think I would have done worse in school today than I did in the 1970s.

If it’s true that I would have done worse under the way teaching is done today, then we may have some explanation for why none of the education reforms we’ve tried have ever worked to improve scores. It’s because while the reforms help some children learn better, it ends up acting as an impediment to others. It also may explain the “rise” in ADD/ADHD and autism, since the way students are taught today seems to draw out many of their identifying factors.

But we ought to be a little disturbed that someone like me would probably no do well in today’s system. The system I went to school in put me on the path to succeeding in college and graduate school. I fear that this system would have had me identified as a problem student and perhaps even having the autism I do in fact have. That is a problem because even though there is a lot of rhetoric around people with disabilities being able to succeed, the fact is that nowadays we are put on a pathway to “succeed” outside of a college trajectory–mostly because we are left unprepared to go. My brother, who has dyslexia, was discouraged from going to college in high school–and he now has a B.A., an M.A., and an M.F.A. You cannot tell me that autistic children aren’t discouraged, directly or indirectly, from going to college.

What is worse is that, if I am right that the majority of advancements in the world were made by autistics, then we are doing a terrible disservice to the world at large by creating an educational system that educates perfect copiers well, but leaves reformers/inventors/creators on the sidelines.

In the Interest of Justice

About a year and  half ago I had to go to court because I had forgotten to put in a bulk pickup request in a timely manner.

If you are on the spectrum or if you know someone who is, you are likely familiar with the issues with short term memory. I can intend to do something, and forget completely that I need to do it. I can see the limbs or bulky trash set out on the curb as I turn into my driveway, think to myself, “I need to make the bulk pickup request,” and forget between getting out of the minivan and opening the front door (everything is behind me, so out of sight . . .). And naturally, I will remember to do it when I’m at Starbucks, a week later, randomly.

I had received letters telling me that I need to make the bulk pickup request. I was not sure how many, though I learned it needed to only be one before they would issue a citation.

I have written about institutional discrimination against people with autism before. This is the very kind of thing I was talking about in that post. Legislation that requires good short term memory from its citizenry is necessarily discriminatory against people on the spectrum. Worse, it ends up resulting in the harassment of people who already feel imposed upon by everyone. Unless the person goes to court and points out that they are on the spectrum and that they have short term memory problems as a result, a fine is likely to be imposed. To impose a fine on someone with autism because they forgot to do something is the same as fining them for having autism.

Either way, I had to go to court. When the judge asked me if I was going to plead guilty, not guilty, or no contest, I said, “Well, let me explain my situation first . . .” I then proceeded to tell her that I had Asperger’s and that meant that I had short term memory problems that affected my ability to remember to do things like put in requests. I then asked her, “What is the purpose of my being here? The purpose of imposing a fine is to ensure that I will remember next time, right? But imposing such a fine on me won’t have the desired outcome, because I simply cannot remember.”

The prosecutor suggested that my cased be dismissed “in the interest of justice.”

The judge agreed, but said next time I would be fined.

I was hardly going to argue with her, though the problem nevertheless remains. However, since I did in fact go read the ordinance (which oddly left out the number of warnings and any mention of a fine), there is a certain probability that my exceptional long term memory will aid my short term memory and I’ll actually remember.

To avoid an absurdly high $280 fine, let’s certainly hope so.

So the good news is that justice in this case prevailed. If I forget again (so far, so good), it won’t. And worse, how many people are out there on the spectrum who consistently forget such things and find themselves fined? My guess is very few if any have enough self-understanding and presence of mind to make the argument I did in court today. As a result, there are likely hundreds of thousands if not millions like me who are being fined for having autism. And that is hardly in the interest of justice.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m certainly not arguing that one should get a “get out of jail free card” for every and all expectations. If there is a job, for example, that requires one to have a strong short term memory, I would hardly argue that I should be given that job. However, when it comes to government, the law should always apply to equal people equally. But what about when you have a truly unequal situation?

There are situations where equal isn’t fair. If any law assumes that everyone is identical in every way, then that law cannot be fair. Exceptions certainly are made all the time to accommodate people’s disabilities.

In a case like this, one should ask whether or not my disability creates a danger for anyone. In this particular case, it clearly does not. No one is harmed if I forget to request trash pickup for a few days. Sometimes the trucks come by for other pickups, and there’s literally no reason they shouldn’t stop when they see something. I shouldn’t have to pay out an obscene amount of money because I have a bad memory. I don’t find that accommodation ridiculous in the least. I find the legislation itself ridiculous.

It’s not about excuses. It’s about the fact that my brain works in a different way from neurotypical people’s brains, and there really should be reasonable accommodations for that. I would even argue that it would be entirely reasonable for them to leave me alone and not harass me over this issue. Would they make an exception for a forgetful elderly person? I think they should, and I suspect they would. Because that, too, would be in the interest of justice.


The last several days there has been a cicada singing right outside our front door. The first two days, Daniel was complaining about it because it was so loud, but today he was okay with the cicada. However, after only a few minutes of singing, the cicada stopped singing.

Daniel: Hey! The cicada stopped singing. It must have gotten a girlfriend.

After a few minutes, the cicada started singing again.

Daniel: Aww! The female must have changed her mind!

When it comes to information about plants and animals and nature in general, that boy remembers everything.

A View From the Outside

I am wondering how many people would listen to a podcast were I to do one. I am thinking of titling it “A View From the Outside” because of my view that the autistic mind is sufficiently different from neurotypical minds as to be the closest to an “outside” view a neurotypical could get to a variety of topics.

While I would of course cover issues of autism–and in this sense and case the title would be ironic, since it’s actually a view of autism from the inside–I would also cover a variety of other topics as well. Many of my political views are themselves outsider views, so the title would work in that sense, but at the same time I wouldn’t want anyone to mistake my world view for being the world view of all autistics (that itself can be a topic).

While I suppose a few people here may have guessed my politics, I have generally tried to avoid any explicitly political positions because that’s simply not what this blog is about, and I believe that politics is and ought to be one of the tiniest portions of our lives. At the same time, on a podcast such as I’m suggesting, I likely wouldn’t avoid politics, economics, social issues, and so on.

Is it possible, do you think, for me to be political on a podcast and not hurt my brand here? What do you think? Were I to do a podcast, would you listen? And if I said things with which you disagreed politically, economically, socially, etc., do you think people could separate that from this?

A Proposal for Education Reform

All teaching should be structured so that autistic children can learn the material. Because if an autistic child can learn it, a neurotypical child will be able to learn is using that method as well.

That means anchoring language to images and repetition.

But it does not work the other way around. What works for neurotypical children won’t necessarily work for autistic children.

Coincidentally, both do best in a Montessori school.