An autistic rules the world (and vice-versa)

ambiguousthumbEarlier tonight I asked my wife a if she needed anything from me before she went to bed.  She was brushing her teeth at the time and gave me a thumbs-up gesture which I took to mean “No, I’m good.” I parted the long hair falling across her shoulders and kissed the nape of her neck before heading back to my office for some late-night coding.

Except that on later reflection I remembered her arm went about 45 degrees past horizontal and it was kind of a quick jerking motion, so now I’m wondering if she was giving me the thumbs-up, or miming “get the fuck out of here.”

After 35 years of marriage and despite my autism and partial face blindness I can now usually distinguish correctly between gratitude and annoyance in her face.  (Everyone who has NOT been married to me for 35 years should not expect this level of facial fluency from me, by the way.  This means you.) Brushing of teeth obscures all the usual facial clues. She hasn’t given any overt indication she’s annoyed with me tonight but that can be an unreliable indicator.  The thumb went just far enough past horizontal and jerked just fast enough to be ambiguous.  Either she appreciates the consideration or  wants to throttle me and I have no idea which it is.

Now that she’s asleep I’m pretty certain I know what the answer will be if I wake her up to ask.  Annoyance. Definitely.  Even I know not to do that, no matter how anxious I get.  By tomorrow she probably won’t even remember making the gesture though.  Now I’m not sure what the hell just happened and thinking I never will.  This bugs the crap out of me.  It’s gonna be a long night.

Trying to make the most out of it, I’ve updated my internal rules engine to factor in tooth brushing as a confounding factor in spousal mood interpretation. I wonder whether she will at some future point realize that I don’t talk to her while she’s brushing her teeth anymore, even to the point that I actively avoid the bathroom during that activity? I wonder whether there are intimate moments we have during those times that I’ll miss and, if so, do they offset the risk I’m eliminating with the new rule? I re-read this and wonder if I’ve turned into Don Tillman?

Though I suspect the answer is “yes,” building and tuning the internal ruleset for the last several decades is how I dug my way out of isolation and became socially functional.  Talking to clients, attending and speaking at conferences, navigating airports and train stations, all depend on it.  It took a long time and lots of rules and tuning before I was able to live full-time in the neurotypical world and now I need the rules engine like other people need oxygen.  Sitting here trying to convince myself to not enable this prohibition about talking to her while she’s brushing her teeth is like trying to convince myself not to breathe.

“Have faith,” the sensible voice in my head tells me.  “Even if she was telling you to get out, this has never happened before, probably never will again, and if she was really peeved about something she’ll eventually talk to you about it because that’s how you got this far together.  She’s the one person in the world you can be fully authentic with and you cannot afford to lay any bricks in a wall that would rise up between you.  Don’t make a new rule for this.  Trust me.  Better yet, trust her.”

“Fuck you!” says the keeper of the rules engine.  “I made you who and what you are and if you get overconfident and decide you don’t need me, you’ll crash and burn.  I put this rule in place to protect you from yourself and you’ve trusted me all these years because it’s the only thing that’s ever worked.  If she is mad then she went to bed that way and you do not want to start going to bed mad at each other.  That’s another one of our rules and because of it your mixed neurotypical-autistic marriage has lasted far longer than an average marriage these days. You ignore me on this and you’ll be sorry.”

After 50+ years of autism, I’m still amazed that I don’t have a better system to be functional in the world.  My instincts tell me that these all-or-nothing rules I build to avoid ambiguous or bad outcomes are clumsy sledgehammers whose margin of error far exceeds the fine adjustments I’m trying to make.  They were useful when I was completely dysfunctional and spent no more time in the company of humans than I was forced to, but they only get me so far.  But the system arose organically.  I didn’t plan it and I certainly didn’t stop to think of how I’d know when I needed something better.  What I do know now though is that I either need to come up with some new tools to explore subtle nuances of social interaction or else get used to the idea that this is as good as its ever going to get.


Writing these as though someone else will read them forces me to look at my issues differently.  In the process of explaining it to you I end up explaining it to myself.  You didn’t need to read this far but since you did you are my hero.

On the other hand I can assure you I definitely needed to write this far, and I know that is so because I can breathe again.  My heart rate is settled.  Now I believe this was nothing more than one of those panic attacks I get when the veneer of social functionality is ripped away and I’m forcefully reminded of just how blind I am when it comes to the kinds of non-verbal communication most people take for granted. Past a certain level of social fluency it’s tempting to slip into believing  I’ve become natively good at this stuff, and a bit of a shock when the world occasionally slaps me in the face with the truth.

Oh, in case you were wondering, somewhere toward the end of writing this piece I told the keeper of the rules engine “No, fuck you! If I can’t be authentic with her I can’t be authentic with anyone so rule == rejected. Vetoed. De-nied.”

In the long run, building a wall between us would cause more pain than it could possibly prevent, but it took telling you to convince me.  So thanks for that, hypothetical reader!  Easiest random act of kindness you will have committed all day. 😉

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7 Responses to An autistic rules the world (and vice-versa)

  1. danjodea says:

    This speaks too me.

  2. piper says:

    i use the same kind of system to navigate socializing which is a big part of my job. it makes me feel a little better knowing someone else out there tends to panic when they cant read a situation. i sometimes panic at work and everyone else can read *my* face – so i’ll get asked what’s wrong…. i just have to change the subject :/

    • T.Rob says:

      For a long time I had these under control. In fact my wife used to get panic attacks and I was the one who talked her down. I think in part I suppressed them because I needed her to trust me as we worked through hers. But I had a pretty violent childhood and watching the entire country turn into the people from my old neighborhood is opening up old wounds and causing a lot of anxiety. I’m thinking that’s a big part of why I’m suddenly having panic attacks again.

      But for what its worth, I use that technique too. In fact I try to avoid going to dinner with clients or prospects because the conversation drifts into topics unrelated to my tech specialty and I get lost. At work or in a work context I can at least keep the topics in areas I’m qualified to respond. Ask me about “the big game” though and I freeze up. “Game? What game? Did you decide to use certificate authentication or passwords in the new comms system?”

      Thanks for the read and comments. Wish I could make the panic go away but glad to know you feel a bit better about it at least.

  3. autisticook says:

    I can identify with so much of this! Like how I’ve learned to interpret facial impressions… only with people I’ve known long enough and intimately enough, and then only if they’re also very open about their feelings so I can link their facial expression to what they’re saying… and it only works for that particular person, I can’t extrapolate it to other people. I’m not prosopagnosic because I can easily recognise people even out of the usual context I see them in, but reading emotions? Not a chance.

    • T.Rob says:

      Back when my wife was still my fiancee I once didn’t recognize her after a haircut. Admittedly she had quite a bit of length taken off but we were engaged and she didn’t take it very well when she walked up to the counter I was manning at the camera store and I said “Hi, how can I help you today?” Skip ahead many years and now I’m a consultant who sometimes doesn’t recognize people he’s worked with all week if their office observes casual Friday. Swap out the business clothes for casual attire and I’ll recognize 20% ~ 30% in a large group. When I run into people at the store, no clue. So I have strategies like swapping out the specific “nice to meet you” with the more versatile “nice to see you” in meetings or getting my point of contact to make introductions. “T.Rob, you remember Sally from the requirements meeting Tuesday?” If I do it smoothly and people don’t notice, I often get the “No! You can’t *possibly* be autistic!” thing later on.

      Thanks for reading and the comments. I’m always fascinated to hear other people’s experiences and compare and contrast. Half the time it’s because I’m struggling with the “Is this my autism or my non-autistic eccentricity?” thing and hearing about others helps me decide. So thanks for that too!

  4. Morag says:

    .. and not so hypothetical readers. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Kristine Arai says:

    Thank you so much for an honest and intimate peek into how an Aspie brain works. My daughter (age 27) struggles with this and it helps me understand her better. You rock!

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