I did half a Post Graduate Diploma in Education after I finished my English degree. Only half because I dropped out at Christmas…probably due to anxiety (and whilst that might seem relevant due to the title of the post, that’s not why I’m telling you this).
I don’t really remember any of the lectures I had except one, which was all about how ‘context matters’. The lecturer showed us a photo of a small child crying and asked us who would instinctively want to pick that child up to offer comfort. Pretty much everyone in the hall put their hand up. She asked how many people would change their mind if they knew the reason the child was crying was because they’d just been sick. A few people put their hands down. She added that just out of shot the child was still holding handfuls of the vomit. Almost everyone’s hand came down.
She gave other examples and the last one was that, as a teacher, if you asked a class full of children what they did over the weekend and one swore at you most people’s reaction would be anger towards that child. If, however, you knew the child had spent the weekend cowering in the corner whilst his dad beat his mum and his sister took drugs in her room you’d likely be a lot more sympathetic.
So, yeah. Context matters.
That lecture has stuck with me.
The thing is: autism and anxiety go together like Amaretto and milk (which probably isn’t something most people drink – actually – but it’s really good…for any new readers, I’m a bit crap with similes). I suffer from anxiety. Tyger is a very anxious child. And anxiety, as you probably gathered from the title of this post, turns you into a jerk.
I’m actually quite a nice person, I think. I care about other people. I like to be kind and helpful. I hate to ever think I’ve upset anyone or made their life harder. But…I’m not sure it always seems that way.
I’m sure some of my social shortcomings are just down to ASD but it’s the anxiety (possibly caused by the autism) that really makes me flounder around people.
For instance, I don’t ask people much about themselves because I’m always worried they’ve told me before and I’ve forgotten. This feeling I ‘should’ know things means I daren’t ask in case I offend someone by implying I didn’t listen the first time they told me. I end up not knowing what jobs people do, what their kids names are, even what their name is sometimes, where they live, what their partner does (or even whether they have a partner), why they were in the hospital last week, whether they’re going on holiday in the summer…anything. And I can never find out because…because…I just can’t.
This makes conversation a little difficult. Having to largely avoid asking questions (unless I make a massive effort) and being unable to talk about any common ground (because I don’t smegging know if we have any) means I just talk about myself. Now, I’m – clearly – no expert in social communication but I’m pretty sure that’s considered self-absorbed and rude. Yup, I’m a jerk.
I also rarely volunteer to do anything in case I do it wrong. I’m not just talking about big stuff like helping out at fund raising events but even getting tea and coffee for people at kids’ groups. What if I use the wrong mugs or forget what someone wanted and give them coffee instead of tea (horrifying) or tea instead of coffee (to be fair, tea is superior) or I put too little sugar in or take too long or I put the teaspoon in the wrong place when I’m done…in fact, should I wash up the teaspoon up as soon as I’ve used it or just leave it in case people make more drinks later? And should I run a proper hot, soapy bowl of water to wash it in or will that seem wasteful and excessive? But if I just run it under the tap that might be considered gross and slovenly.
You know what, I forced myself to do it the other day. After all, I make myself at least four cups of tea a day at home. That’s 1,460 cups of tea a year minimum (plus the tea I make for Wolf and Colour Blind Sister) and I often make coffee for Wolf and my parents. I’ll be 30 next year, for frack’s sake!
So, I did it. And you know what?…It was awful. I don’t know if it was the old teabags or if I didn’t run the water long enough or the cups needed rinsing but it tasted disgusting. So, I probably won’t be making tea or coffee for other people outside the house again for another 20 or 30 years.
Then there’s text based communication. You might think I’d find that easier and in some ways I do but…see, when I’m face to face with someone I have to respond to them then and there. When someone texts/messages/emails/tweets me or comments on my blog I want to reply. Often, when I get the message, I can’t reply immediately because I have Bear on my lap (he’s a bit of a limpet at the moment) or I’m getting the boys lunch or I’m in the middle of reading an important article on the five ways my cat is trying to tell me she’s gay or something.
So, I think to myself, ‘I should give this message/comment my full attention. I can’t do that right now but I’ll come back to it later.’ Later, though, I’ve left it a bit and I’ve promised myself to give it my ‘full attention’ so I feel I need to write a proper reply. Not ‘Haha, thanks.’ So, I stress myself out trying to think of a worthy response: something detailed and long and maybe witty and thoughtful.
Of course, this leads me to delay further…which makes it worse. ‘I’m great, thanks. How’re you?’ is fine as a reply within a day of receiving a message but is completely inadequate three weeks later. Half the time I just don’t reply and that has the same result as my face to face communication: I appear to be self-absorbed and uncaring…you know, a jerk.
Tyger’s anxiety also makes him a jerk, though far less because of tea and coffee making and more in the sense that it causes him meltdowns where he shouts at me, tells me I’m not his mum anymore, throws things at me, pushes Bear over and tells Bear to go in the bin so the rubbish truck will take him away.
The one good thing about it is it reminds me constantly to remember that lecture. I try to always give other people the benefit of the doubt. If they seem ‘off’ with me
I assume I’ve done something awful and have inadvertently offended them I try to remember they have their own life, own baggage and own insecurities and try not to be annoyed.
Context matters and we rarely know the full context around other people’s lives.