What people in the corridor look like.
When people want to know what it’s like living as an autistic, I’ve found the film I, Robot to be one of the most useful metaphors. For me, people are like the robots in this film. Imagine a room full of them; you enter and make polite conversation. They talk back to you. And after some time you leave the room, and you have no idea what the robots actually thought of you. They may have smiled or frowned, but any subtleties of expression simply don’t exist. Their thoughts are hidden; and you learned a long time ago that those basic expressions are used to hide as much as to reveal.
Even with your closest acquaintances you can never be sure. You try to use their actions as a guide – for example, Ella accepted an invitation for coffee, does that mean she considers me a friend? But she was complaining about feeling obliged to go for a coffee with Sally last month, so clearly accepting an invitation from me could be because she feels the same kind of obligation. How do I know what’s genuine? I can’t tell if she likes me or if I drive her mad. Perhaps I’d better not ask her for coffee tomorrow. She could be annoyed and feel I’m putting her under some sort of obligation. I wouldn’t want her to feel even more annoyed with me. It’s probably safer not to ask again.
So I don’t. I never ask again. I realise the refusal might be for genuine reasons, the prior engagement really impossible to break. But I can’t be sure. I can’t tell if you are politely easing out of socialising with me and hoping I won’t ask again. So as not to be thought rude, or annoying, I tend not to ask a second time. Better to be alone than to be actively disliked.
I don’t know when you should ‘follow up’ with someone. I have no idea where the line is between being standoffish and being demanding. I open conversations with [the fact I need to discuss], and get in trouble for not saying ‘good morning, how are you?’ first. I’ve even got in trouble for failing to add all the little social curlicues to an email when someone asked me to send them my address.
And when I get it wrong, I don’t have the social knowhow to smooth it over. Often I panic, and keep talking, aware that things are going wrong but trapped on the railway tracks, hoping someone will switch the points for me before it ends in disaster. Or I make a clumsy apology, to be met with the if you weren’t such an idiot, you wouldn’t have done this reply. Or I simply withdraw. Withdrawal is safest; I’m less likely to make the situation worse.
I’ve just been in Brisbane for a week, a locum job in a big, busy department. People seemed to like me – I know how to be helpful and social in that kind of environment. But then I’ve had nearly twenty years of enforced practice at it, and inevitably I’ve picked up some skills. I just wish I could have learned the same stuff for the rest of my life.