Max's shop of horrors

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Tag: social skills

The Obligation to Lie

Humans are a strange lot. Our social customs can be so convoluted and bizarre that for those on the spectrum, trying to navigate them can be like trying to unravel a mating ball of snakes, or the wires behind your TV, if they had holes in their insulation and you were standing in a tub of dishwater.

One particular custom that a lot of us find very difficult is knowing when we are expected to lie.

In our society, people often ask questions not because they want an honest answer, but because they want to hear a specific response. Similarly, people often make statements for the sole purpose of being contradicted. “Am I ugly?” “That speech I gave today was so terrible.” “I look dreadful tonight.” “Did I mess that up?” “I’m such an idiot.”

Very often, we spectrum folk don’t realize we’re supposed to lie, and respond with a brutal honesty that can get us into trouble. It’s not that we’re being intentionally hurtful, but rather that we’re misinterpreting “Does my bum look big in this?” as a genuine request for feedback. It may not even occur to us that what’s really being asked for is reassurance.

Now, if you’re not on the spectrum, these kind of ‘white lies’ may seem so obvious and natural that it may be hard to imagine how they could be so confusing. Try to think of it this way; in some countries, the ‘thumbs up’ gesture is considered extremely rude, equivalent to a middle finger. If you live in one of these countries, you would know this instinctively, but if you come from a country like Australia where it’s a positive gesture, you may not realize this, and have no idea why you’ve caused offense. Many of us on the spectrum perceive social protocol through a similar lens; it’s like a foreign culture to us.

If you’re on the spectrum and want to err on the side of caution, a general rule is that if somebody makes a negative comment about themselves, they want to be contradicted, and if they ask for an opinion about themselves, they don’t want negative response.

Honesty, it turns out, isn’t always the best policy. Openness, on the other hand, can go a long way. In time, those of us on the spectrum can learn the nuances of social protocol, just as a person might learn a second language, or the customs of another culture. It takes time and practice, but it can be done. In the meantime, I’ve found that being open about the fact that I’m on the spectrum and find social skills challenging has helped to defuse many a misunderstanding.


This week’s topic is a sensitive one, and I realize that by addressing it I’m playing with fire, not to mention a big damn powder keg. And so, in the spirit of Wile E Coyote, I figure I’d light it up and see what happens. All jokes aside though, I will attempt to be as considerate as possible.

“Creepy” is very commonly applied label, and there’s a good reason for that; a lot of people truly earn the title with their disrespectful and malicious behaviour. As somebody who is generally not the target of such conduct, I realize I’m not qualified to tell anybody how they should feel about it. In fact, I applaud the courage of those who deal with this crap, and I feel we should all call this behaviour out when we see it.

Having said that, I think it’s very easy for social awkwardness to come across as more sinister than it really is. People on the autism spectrum, for example, can find it very challenging to understand social etiquette and boundaries. They may be trying very hard to socialize appropriately, and may not realize that their behaviour is being interpreted as rude or “creepy”.

Now, I’m not saying this should get anybody a free pass. All I’m suggesting it that, in the case of someone who genuinely means well but may not be expressing themselves appropriately, all it can take is to explain their mistake to them. They may very well stop immediately, take this feedback on board, and be very apologetic.

Of course, you’ll get some who will refuse to accept they were in the wrong and try to blame the person calling them out; sadly, there are unpleasant people both on and off the spectrum. But while I firmly believe in taking a stand against “creepy” conduct, and that nobody should have to put up with it, I don’t think our first line of defence need always be unmitigated hostility. By giving somebody the chance to recognize that they are in the wrong and correct their behaviour, we can potentially de-escalate the situation, and address the problem without crushing those who may genuinely have meant no harm. Education can often get better results than punishment.

Conversational Tennis

I don’t know about you, but when somebody asks me about the things I’m interested in, they might as well be opening a vigorously shaken beer can. Few things make me as happy as talking about Godzilla movies, Nintendo games, or my stories, and I can get so excited and fixated that I could literally talk for hours.

Unfortunately, that may not be how the person I’m talking to would rather spend the next few hours of their life. As I have trouble reading social cues, I would often miss signs that they were becoming uncomfortable or bored and would rather change the subject. This led to a lot of one-sided conversations that were a real drag on my attempts to develop my social life.

In order to avoid this, I came up with a set of rules to stop myself from monopolizing the conversation. Firstly, I make sure to never stick to the same subject for more than a few minutes, unless the other person is clearly very enthusiastic about it too. Even if it’s something I really love talking about, I keep a conscious tab on how long I’ve been talking about the same thing, to stop myself from settling into a monologue.

Secondly, I try to remember to ask lots of questions. This is helpful on multiple levels; not only does it keep the conversation flowing and makes the other person feel included, but it also means the burden of driving the conversation is shared between us. Instead of doing all the work myself, I can hand over to them for a bit and take a breather.

I find it helpful to think of a conversation like a game of tennis; somebody asks me a question, (serves) and I “hit” it back to them by answering the question, and asking them one in return. The focus of conversation moves back and forth between us, like the ball. Sometimes we might mess up and it goes “out of bounds”, but that’s okay, just grab a new ball and start again.

To be honest, I still find conversation difficult. It moves so fast I feel like I don’t have enough time to properly process my sentences before I have to speak them, so I’m always analysing if what I just said was appropriate and proper, while also trying to figure out what to say next and how to say it, and process what the other person is saying, all at once. My brain turns into a traffic jam of information, and I get flustered or lost for words.

But the more I practice, the better I get. Even the best tennis players in the world have hit the ball out of bounds a million times. The important thing is that they kept trying.

The Presumption of Subtext

You know what’s really hard? To say something without conveying unintended subtext. I swear, it’s like trying to do open heart rocket surgery while wearing boxing gloves.

I see a lot of talk about how difficult it can be for those of us on the spectrum to detect and interpret the implied subtexts in what others say, but personally, I find it just as challenging to communicate with others without them reading too much into what I say.

You know those assignments in High School where you’d be studying a book, and you’d get a homework question like this:

Page 113: ‘The Sky was a deep blue’. What does Darles Chickens mean by this?

  • He was filled with optimism for the future.
  • Forgiving Richard had restored meaning to his life.
  • He was still in love with Hilda.”

Well, when it comes to the way I talk, the answer is usually: (D) The bloody sky is bloody blue.

About 95% of what I say is intended as straightforward and literal, the other 5% of the time consisting of awful jokes and puns. I almost never make subtle implications, it’s just too much hassle. I say what I mean, and I mean what I say. If I want to ask you something, I will ask it. I won’t use subliminal signals where good old fashioned words would work far more efficiently. Similarly, if you want to know something from me, just ask. I promise I don’t bite.

Trying to read implied subtext into everything I say is a bit like listening for Morse code in the sound of rain of a tin roof. It’s an exercise in futility, and a bigger waste of time than making a belt out of wristwatches.

Mount Highschool and the Emerald Valley

If I was to draw a line graph of my life where the peaks are the tough times, my years in the secondary school system would look like Mt Everest… if Mt Everest were an active volcano and I was a scarecrow doused in lighter fluid.

I know I’m not alone here either. I mean, coping with puberty, algebra, (which I still haven’t used once in the 8 years since I finished high school) and the ever-present threat of bullying all at once is a tall order for anybody.

It can be particularly difficult for kids on the spectrum, where difficulties with socializing can add an extra layer of confusion. It can almost feel like you’re studying at a school in a foreign country where you don’t fully understand the language or the culture. Throw in the pressure of study and the increased attention from bullies that comes from being different, and it’s like trying to learn trigonometry in Norwegian while fighting off a pack of tiger sharks with a Styrofoam pool noodle.

But here’s the thing; moving passed this peak in the graph, there are certainly more mountains, but none quite as harsh. And the last few years in particular have been a broad valley of lush greenery.

In my work with high school aged teens on the spectrum, this is one thing I always try to emphasize; things might be tough now, but it gets better.

I know that when you’re climbing the volcano, it’s hard to imagine that things could ever improve; when I was in high school, I thought my future looked bleak indeed. But my life now is better than I ever dared to imagine back then.

High school can be a trying time for young people on the spectrum. But high school doesn’t last forever.

Dropping hints

I love that the sound of nature is basically a bazillion birds and insects trying desperately to get laid. Where am I going with this, you ask? Well, think of it this way; how many of the sounds and even smells around us are vital communications to other living things, but mere white noise to us, which we barely even notice much less understand?

For some of us, including myself, subtle “hints” in tone and body language can be similarly indecipherable!

For example, sometimes I forget that I’m even supposed to be examining body language and facial expressions. It doesn’t come naturally to me; it’s learned behaviour that I have to consciously remember to do. And even if I’m paying attention, sometimes it just doesn’t register; I don’t notice somebody’s rising tension or anger until they finally explode, which takes me off guard because to me it seems to come out of nowhere.

I can see how it might seem like I’m being insensitive, but the truth is that “hints” simply don’t show up on my radar most of the time. The best policy is just to come out and tell me things directly. And if you must hint, drop that sucker like an anvil dropped from a low flying space shuttle.

As ever when I write about autism, I’m merely speaking personal experience. I can’t speak for everyone; the spectrum is broad and diverse. But for me, and many of the people I know, “hints” mean about as much to us as a tap dripping in Morse code during a rainstorm.

It’s not that we are stupid or don’t care, we’re just not on the same wavelength.

A dingo in the wolfpack

I confess a certain ignorance as to how much people from other countries know about Australia,  (after all, apparently I get a fair few views from countries like the Netherlands, Denmark, and Mexico, and I know about as much about those places as I do about the sex life of stick insects, something I really should fix) so if you haven’t heard of a dingo, it’s a kind of large wild dog that predates European colonization.

You can see what an adult looks like on Google, but here’s a photo of a friend of mine with a Dingo puppy he found while working with the Fire Department.


Photo courtesy of Jason Lewis.

Okay, now that cleared up, onto this week’s topic!

Almost all my life, I have tended to hang out and form friendships with people outside my own demographic. When I was 3-9, I used to like talking to older kids and adults. Then, from the age of about 11 to this day, I have mostly been friends with people a few years younger than me.

A theory I have about this is that these older/younger friends were at similar developmental milestones to me. As a kid I related to older people because, as a “gifted” child, I felt I had more in common with them academically. Then, as I entered adolescence, my social development was a bit delayed, so I related more to people a year or two younger than me. As I write this, I am 26, but a lot of my friends are 22-24.

Another curious trend is that, since my mid teens, the majority of my friends have been girls. I suspect a significant factor in this that I found them less intimidating; in early high school, I was bullied a lot by other guys, but not so much by girls. (Also, I could talk to them about cool stuff like movies, while most teenage boys only wanted to talk about bloody football!)

This seems to apply to a lot of people on the spectrum that I’ve talked to; their experiences don’t always align with those of their own demographic, leading them to seek friendships elsewhere.

Some people seem to think this is a problem, but personally, I don’t think it is, at least not necessarily. As long as these friendships are mutually beneficial, and are safe and appropriate for the younger party, I don’t see anything wrong with having friends from a different gender or age group as one’s self. Friends are hard enough to come by without placing arbitrary restrictions on who we can and cannot include.

Conversational Crossfire

There’s something uniquely unpleasant about two people talking to me at once. It’s like wearing a space helmet filled with cicadas.

Whenever I try to concentrate on one voice, the other gets in the way. My brain tries to process both and it just ends up an incomprehensible jumble, like a can of alphabet spaghetti dropped from a low flying space shuttle. Beyond the sensory discomfort, it also stresses me out, because I feel under pressure to understand and respond to both people.

A lot of people on the spectrum have told me they find this uncomfortable as well. For many of us, conversing with just one person can be a daunting task that requires our full concentration; dealing with two people talking to us at the same can be completely overwhelming. It can feel like a relentless onslaught on both a social and a sensory level.

Try to keep this in mind when interacting with people on the spectrum; if someone’s already talking to us, it’s probably best to wait a bit rather than join forces! 😉

Apologetics Anonymous

Do you ever just… kind of apologize for no reason? Like, there’ll be a lull in conversation, and you find yourself automatically saying sorry ? Does it add itself to the end of your sentences like some kind of compulsive punctuation, or just pop out of nowhere like you’re being haunted by the ghost of an extremely contrite ventriloquist?

Then of course there’s the timeless classic: “Stop saying sorry so much!” “Sorry…”

I’m trying to unlearn this habit at the moment, and it’s like trying to throw away a boomerang.

Reasoning that understanding it might help defeat it, I decided to trace it back to its origins. What I found was that it was rooted very deeply in my childhood.

Growing up on the autism spectrum, I was constantly breaking social protocol without meaning to, or even realizing I was doing it. As a result, adults were always telling me off for reasons I didn’t understand. I ended up being on edge 24/7, because it seemed like at any moment someone would start yelling at me, no matter how hard I tried to follow the unwritten rules of society. (I suspect this plays a significant role in the anxiety issues that plague me to this day)

After years of this, I started to just automatically assume that I being annoying and rude whenever I said or did anything, and that the safest thing to do was to apologize after every sentence or action, just in case. This habit became so strongly ingrained that even now, at 26 years old, I’m having great difficulty un-graining it.

Those of you who know me in person will probably have noticed this tendency of mine to spout “sorry” like it’s the f-word in a Tarantino movie. Well, now you know why, and I’d like to ask a favour: when I do it, please pull me up on it. I need your help to kick this bloody thing.

Homo Sapiens (Artist’s Impression)

Being a writer is a lot like being an actor. You have to get inside the heads of your characters, figure out how they think, what they’re feeling, and why. There’s just one little problem; understanding how people besides myself think and feel is like open heart Klingon rocket surgery to me.

For a long time, I’ve wondered if this means I cannot be an effective fiction writer; whether my characters will always come across as inorganic puppets that can’t be related to. Whenever I write character development, I feel like I’m poorly imitating something I don’t understand, like I’m waddling around a paddock in a horse costume, trying to convince real horses that I’m one of them.

I’ve written 8 novels and novellas to date, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt satisfied that I’ve created believable human beings. They always feel like Frankenstein’s monsters, stitched together from my observations of other people’s behaviour.

Still, there’s a bright side to the conundrum; I can never tell when my writing doesn’t work, but I’m equally blind to when it does work. I tend to be overly critical of myself and my work, and this could simply be another example of me assuming the worst.

In the end, it’s for the readers to decide.