A friend was just about to abandon a picture she’d been working on for hours.
“It’s not right, and I can’t work out why.”
As she dropped her paintbrush, and carried the canvas through to another room, I struggled with a dilemma. I could see exactly what was wrong with the picture, but I’ve been in situations like this before. When you point out the answer to something that someone has been trying to work out, especially if you’ve had only seconds to spot it, the reaction is likely to be negative. Usually to your face, but as often behind your back.
It’s the weirdo factor.
Coincidentally this was highlighted in the first episode of Sherlock, which I watched that evening. Holmes picks up all the clues about Watson’s background, and explains how they all fit together while the two of them are in a taxi on the way to a crime scene. There is a long pause. Then Watson says that’s amazing. Incredible.
That’s not what people usually say, Holmes replies.
What do they usually say?
And there is the life of the autie in a few brief sentences. Simply demonstrating a skill, something you can do without thinking, is seen as acutely threatening by neurotypicals.
I have a couple of autie skills; the first is symmetry spotting. I didn’t realise it wasn’t a NT thing until I read this paper. And it never occurred to me until I saw that picture that a neurotypical artist could fail to spot something that was so obvious to me.
The faces of two of the three people simply weren’t symmetrical. More than just the asymmetry of normal human faces, they were unbalanced, and it skewed the whole picture.
I stood there, running through pros and cons in my head. The picture had been commissioned as a gift, so clearly it couldn’t be abandoned. It would be put where people could see it, and people who look at pictures can be very harsh on the artist. I would rather lose a friendship than let someone be exposed to that kind of criticism. Art is very close to the heart for many people, and judgements can be painful.
Conclusion: better to point out what’s wrong, as I would rather she was critical of me than other people were critical of her.
“Um, I think I can see what the problem is? Possibly?’
(This is neurotypical-speak. It took me a long time to learn it. Now you have to wait, to see if the person wants to hear your opinion. It doesn’t guarantee that they won’t get angry, but if the pause here goes on longer than a couple of seconds, then they probably don’t want to know. However, changing the subject at this point is extremely difficult, because my mind is full of the problem, and I can’t refocus. I usually blurt out something weird or inappropriate instead.)
“It’s an autistic thing.” (It’s not me, it’s my autism!) “I can spot symmetry really easily, and those faces, they’re not quite symmetrical.’
The painting was carried back out and the faces measured.
The conversation went elsewhere from there, leaving me uncertain. I know NTs sometimes get angry about things later, so it was a relief when, on Saturday, she told me that everyone needs Asperger’s friends, to spot these things for them.
Isn’t that what Holmes and Watson just figured out?