Monday, November 10, 2008

Missing the Obvious Cues

Over the years, I've developed a steadfast belief about human interaction. Based on my experience, I decided that it's next too impossible to anticipate how any other person will react to any act or statement another person will make. I firmly believed this was a universal concept, but now I'm coming to understand that it's not universal at all -- it's a peculiar aspect of me!

Throughout my life, I've seemed to be a lightning rod for controversy. If there's a tempest or imbroglio in any group I happen to be a part of, you can be fairly certain that this here Rambling Taoist is in the middle of it. In fact, more often than not, I'm the one who sparked it.

This, of course, begs the question of why. Why are people continually thinking I'm attacking them or insulting them or offending them in some fashion? And the honest answer is that I view the world and the act of interpersonal communication far differently than most people.

This is very typical of the individual afflicted with Asperger's Syndrome (AS). For reasons no one yet understands, AS folks a) seem unable to understand the mores of social communication and b) to pick up on both verbal and non-verbal cues from others. In most cases -- and it's certainly true in my case -- there is no intent to come off as belligerent or mean. In fact, folks like yours truly are often dumbfounded and mortified when we discover that something we've said or done has angered or offended another person.

I can't count the number of times I've said or written something (usually in an email) that I consider really matter-of-fact that others take great umbrage with. It's the kind of thing that, if someone said it or wrote it me, I wouldn't give it a second thought and it certainly wouldn't upset me.

Just yesterday I said something to my wife that caused her to get upset. I couldn't fathom why -- I thought I was merely stating an obvious fact. Even when she went to great pains to explain WHY it upset her, I still didn't get it. Her reaction simply doesn't compute in my brain.

And this is what makes this particular aspect of AS so maddening and a bit scary. Throughout the years, many people have shown great patience by explaining to me why what I did or said elicited the negative reaction. In most cases though, the explanation doesn't lead to any greater understanding on my part. I hear their words, but it's like they're talking in Chinese. I try to listen intently to their explanation, but it simply doesn't make any sense to me which means there is a good chance I will unintentionally commit the same sin again.

The other side to this equation -- the inability to pick up on social cues -- is just as frustrating. Like most people with AS, I tend to take everything too literal and at face value. Someone can tell me that they agree with something I've said while giving off non-verbal cues that they really don't and I will go away thinking we've found agreement.

And then there are times that everybody under the sun knows what's going on in certain situations, but I'm completely clueless. Here's an example of what I mean.

During my first marriage, I worked as a state social worker in Monticello, AR. I had one quasi-close friend, Carla, a counselor at a Children’s home I served as a liaison for. It seems that everyone in our small town, including my then-wife, knew Carla had a “thing” for me and many people believed we were having an affair. I constantly told people that they were misreading the situation; we were just old friends from college who liked to hang out together.

After my wife & I divorced, I moved to a different town. On a trip back to visit Carla, she propositioned me. I was absolutely dumbfounded. I really had no clue whatsoever that she was interested in anything other than friendship. She, of course, thought that I knew because everyone else did!

We talked about this for nearly an hour. She explained the obvious clues that I should have picked up on -- the same clues that everyone else I knew picked up on. There was never a point in which I said to her, "Oh, I see what you mean. How dumb of me." In fact, re this particular situation, I'm as clueless today as I was back in 1983!

This is but one example, but I could fill this space with hundreds of others. My friends and colleagues are always amazed that an intelligent fellow like me continually misunderstands the intent and meaning of others. They don't understand (heck, I never understood it either) how I can miss such obvious cues.

Now I know the answer why. What is so patently obvious to the vast majority is not obvious at all to an AS individual whose brain is wired differently. It's not that we're lazy or so self-centered, but that what is logical to us is illogical to almost everybody else or, better put, what is logical for the rest of you is completely illogical to us.

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