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Disrespect or disability? Take two

December 3, 2010

When I was writing yesterday’s linguistic dysphoria post, I managed to screw up in a way that is actually a pretty good demonstration of some of what I was talking about in the earlier Disrespect or disability? post.

I did hesitate to write about this, not wanting to come across even more badly. I hope it will become clear that I am not trying to be a drama queen, start/prolong any drama that may have already happened (I’m not even sure to what extent, even), come up with excuses (as opposed to more general explanations) for acting like a jerk, paint myself as the wronged party when I hurt someone else’s feelings, or any of the other stereotypical (mis)interpretations. I’m aware that the incident in question is only directly interesting to the person I unintentionally insulted and to me, and I am not trying to focus on that specific incident other than to try to illustrate a larger pattern. This post is not really about either of us, but has more to do with language, perceptions, and assumptions.

As readers have probably gathered by now, I am somewhere on the autistic spectrum. And, as per the descriptive (and sometimes deceptive) DSM-IV criteria, that means that my behavior does show the Big Three patterns of “(A) qualitative impairment in social interaction…(B) qualitative impairments in communication…(C) restricted repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests and activities”. This is how things frequently come across to other people, and yeah, my brain fart yesterday is related to all three.

It’s related even more to being a lifelong inhabitant of Intense World*, from my perspective. And I’m more interested in talking about that.

I got caught up in hyperfocus, writing about a subject that is very emotionally important to me. (Part of that hyperfocus was to try to prevent overwhelming feelings and other distractions from stopping me.) The linguistic dysphoria idea doesn’t only apply to gender, but to a lot of other areas of my life. I’ve been very aware all my life that trying to wrap words around concepts is a tricky, and necessarily approximate business (as described much better by Amanda–and we seem to have similar relationships to language)–but when there do not seem to be suitable words available to describe your experiences in interacting with the Real World? That happens more in areas in which those experiences do not seem to overlap very much with most other people’s, and it can be very frustrating. This has been a problem in communicating all my life, and I didn’t even have a handy approximate shortcut term like “linguistic dysphoria” to hang on it! And expressive language–figuring out how to wrap words around ideas, much less on the fly–has always been harder for me than receptive language. So, yeah, that was a pretty emotionally wrenching topic.

Hyperfocusing so that I could write about it led to a serious brainfart. Knowing full well that the importance of that kind of thing was the point, it did not occur to me to ask the person who had inspired the post (and overwhelming, PTSD-driven brainstorm–all me!) in the first place which pronouns describe them most closely. When that kind of detail was, indeed, part of the point. So I picked what I thought was the most likely to be respectful option, really not wanting to be disrespectful toward someone I like and think well of. And got it wrong because I was too hyperfocused to ask–and may well be interpreting the words very differently in the first place. And very understandably hurt the person’s feelings.

Yeah, that really frustrates me, and makes me feel stupid. And it’s part of a lifelong pattern. I just keep doing shit like that in social situations. And caring a lot about getting things right perversely makes me even more likely to open mouth, insert foot. At least now I know that it’s a very autistic pattern, and not just some deep character flaw. And that my abilities really are pretty uneven depending on overload levels, even from minute to minute.

But, if you’re based in Real World rather than in Intense World, you might think that if the person cared enough to even try at all to do better, it wouldn’t keep happening. Therefore, they must not care, and might not even have normal human emotions at all. (Rather than getting easily overwhelmed by both their own and other people’s–picture a fictional overloaded empath rocking and clutching their head–and expressing things differently.) This is a distressingly common interpretation, and hey, I internalized it a lot. (See also “[L]ook who they are and how many of them are saying it.”.) Get some more information, and it doesn’t make a whit of sense.

Then enter the drama queen and weird manipulative assumptions, BTW. Before I found out what was really going on, and started doing a lot of work on mindfulness and emotional regulation, I’d have probably catastrophized like mad over screwing up yet again in spite of what seemed like superhuman effort not to. (Not an unintentional pun, either, since this was one of the things that made people think bipolar.) I’d have spent two or three days crying and feeling like some kind of unfeeling monster who was somehow totally unwilling to try not to hurt other people and usually had poor enough insight not even to know this was so (yeah, that makes very little internal sense, but I kept hearing “oversensitive”, “uncaring”, and “lack of insight” in the same freaking breath). Then I’d have avoided talking to anyone I didn’t know well for a couple of weeks–to avoid doing similar again–and might well have avoided the person I’d unintentionally insulted forever. I probably would have stayed away from Dreamwidth entirely for a while. Social avoidance? Nah!

I might have had a meltdown or two, besides the crying, and people around me would have quickly lost patience, having no way of understanding what was going on–and started getting really insulting and dismissive (which makes an already-overwhelmed person feel and act so much better). That might have led to further trouble with communication, and more crying and meltdowns. I didn’t even half-know what was going on, and felt pretty crazy myself.

Now, I still feel like crap about hurting someone’s feelings. But, I know why it keeps happening, even though I do try hard to do better. (And this particular incident was a fairly straightforward one, not very difficult to interpret at all.) The most important thing? Let the person know that you didn’t mean to hurt their feelings, try to make things right as far as possible, try to figure out how to avoid doing the exact same thing again in future, recognize that having a disability that makes you say and do stupid shit doesn’t mean you’re some kind of uniquely horrible person, and get on with things. That’s the best anybody can do.

The emotional shitstorm this particular incident set off before I got a grip on myself with mindfulness, with flashbacks to all kinds of similar incidents and the horrible assumptions and interpretations placed on them, helped suggest this as an illustration. Obviously not every autistic person in the world is going to have anything like the same experiences, but I suspect that this is a lot closer to what’s going on with a lot of us than Just Not Caring, and avoiding interaction because we, erm, don’t care about other people.


* Yeah, I have actually considered trying to take a version of that into SF/F, and try my hand at writing fiction again. In reality, it’s more like an area of the Otherworld that overlaps with what most people consider the Real World than like, say, Ringworld, but hey… This is the closest I get to the “wrong planet” meme–more like “same physical planet, only occasionally overlapping dimensions”.

One Comment leave one →
  1. meep permalink
    December 3, 2010 10:05 pm

    I am crawling my way out of one of these “catastrophes” at the moment. Thank you for describing it so well.

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