More thoughts about autism...


Categories: Personal Autism

My friend Dave commented on my post about autism, using his own blog… madness!

He said something interesting:

He’s also absolutely, completely non-judgmental, which makes it easy to be yourself around him. He’ll never consider you a bad person; there’s no such thing in his world. Though he’s discovered the hard way that there are people who shouldn’t be trusted to not steal, or who can’t be expected to be honest, or who otherwise aren’t good to have around for a particular activity for whatever reason.

This is an interesting description. It’s pretty fair, I think. There’s a second side to it, mind; I don’t consider people “good” either, in the sense that apparently other people do. I may like them, or consider them quite reliable, or whatever, but the idea of them being “good people” is incoherent. People are much too real to be good or bad.

This helps me understand something that’s long mystified me. I have, essentially by definition, a notable lack of social skills. I’m not exactly a sympathetic listener. And yet, complete strangers pour their hearts out to me. They tell me what they are struggling with, what they wish they could be, and so on. And I’ve never been able to understand why. I like it, I think. It is a neverending delight to me to see all the ways in which people can exist, and the things they can value or love. But it seems awfully odd. Why do people do this? What makes them do it?

But it occurs to me… The lack of judgement is probably something that, by and large, comes through. I have certainly seen people carefully refraining from expressing their contempt, and I suspect people can see that, and distinguish between that and simply lacking any contempt. There are exceptions; I’ve met a very small number of people who are firmly convinced that I think I’m “better than” other people. Whatever that means. I think this comes from my lack of status cues; I always treat people as though they are separate from me, and thus fully independent of me, just as I’m independent of them.

People who expect deference see this as arrogance, and people who expect to be bullied see it as kindness, but they’re both wrong. I just think they’re people, neither “better” nor “worse” than me, or anyone else.

So I’ve got that sorta figured out. Now if we could just figure out why even cats who don’t like people allow me to pick them up and treat them like kittens.

This reminds me of a story I heard, I don’t remember where, in which some people were discussing the Gospel stories of Jesus associating with sinners, and one of them claimed that Jesus never saw a prostitute. Well, of course, people were quick to point out that prostitutes were among the people Jesus interacted with. The point being made, though, was that the speaker thought that Jesus never saw “a prostitute”, but rather, a person who at some times engaged in prostitution. This struck me as an eminently sensible realization, and one I wish more people would have about the world. No one is really just a clerk, or just a waiter, or just a mother; they are people, full of multiple roles and identities, and you ignore the others at your peril.

I think there’s a bit of irony here; lacking the ability to see others as fully human means that I see them all as human, even when other people tend to filter them into functional roles. I don’t see a waiter, or a cashier; I just see a person who happens to be waiting or running a cash register. (This, I think, ties back into that identity/attribute distinction.) This, too, seems to be something people pick up on; either that, or the world is chock full of people who inexplicably give me preferential treatment for some other reason.

Comments [archived]

From: Dave Leppik
Date: 2010-12-02 16:37:00 -0600

I think you nailed it… the fact that you neither judge people nor appear to be judging them makes them trust you to listen. And part of it is a lack of emotional response: just like a therapist, you don’t look shocked when people tell you something shocking or angry when they tell you they did something bad. But at the same time, it can work against you if you don’t feign happiness or sadness for their joys and concerns. (And yes, you do feign those emotions at socially appropriate moments. And we can tell because then your mind wanders while everyone else is still contemplating the joy/concern. But your response is good enough to acknowledge the need for emotional response, while not seeming insincere.)

From: Peter Seebach
Date: 2010-12-02 21:37:51 -0600

Huh, interesting. To some extent, I’m not sure that it’s “feigning” those emotions — it’s just that I’m having them in response to thinking about other peoples’ state, not in response to perceiving that other people are in a particular state. Which is why I can get distracted from them. But it’s certainly possible for me to forget to do that processing. I guess the distinction I’m making is, it’s not that I’m showing an emotional response I don’t have, it’s just that I’m only having that response if/when I am actually thinking about what people say or express. So if I’m not paying enough attention, I’ll have no response to show.

This can in turn be helpful occasionally, because it allows me to discern times when the “wrong” response may be helpful. In some cases, I’ve been able to helpfully provide “inappropriate” levity which was what someone actually needed to help break a mood. In others, I’ve been an insensitive jerk. I’m still not always sure how to tell those apart.