Posted by: E (The Third Glance) | March 12, 2013

When an Autistic Person makes a Social Error…

I’m autistic. Part of being autistic is that I do not always read people’s communication properly. Sometimes even other autistic people. And that means that sometimes, social blunders happen. Sometimes I say or do something that others find not acceptable. Sometimes I even hurt someone based on a misunderstanding in communication. But there’s one thing I won’t do: I have never, ever, deliberately caused someone else pain. I’m not perfect. I can hardly claim I am, but here’s the thing: no one else is perfect either. And the world would be a much kinder, more collaborative place, if we just took everyone’s actions with the knowledge that every single person, at some point in their lives, is going to make a stupid mistake. For some of us, those mistakes happen more often than others. I try really really hard to communicate well. I try really really hard to make sure that I am respectful, kind, and considerate. I try really really hard to be a nice person. But just because I try doesn’t mean I always succeed. I can’t bear to inflict pain knowingly on anyone else. But the truth is, sometimes I screw up. Sometimes my social algorithms go wrong. Sometimes I get confused and make a bad assumption. And sometimes that mistake causes someone else to feel badly. Now what?

I have never intentionally tried to hurt someone’s feelings. But sometimes I do or say things that cause people’s feelings to get hurt. This is not only part of being autistic, this is part of being human. I’m writing this all in first person, because this is what applies to me. But it more than likely applies to other people too.

If I hurt your feelings, please tell me. Straightforwardly. Say “that was offensive. That hurt my feelings. I am mad at you. Do not do that again”. Please do not just sulk and glare. I can sometimes (maybe 50/50) guess that you’re mad or annoyed. But I won’t have a clue what I did to make you angry. I am only ever to improve my social algorithms if I have a clue what I did wrong. That doesn’t mean you have to forgive me, or tell me that you’re not mad, or anything else. But please, don’t seethe in private and expect me to “figure it out”. I can’t read minds – it’s a skill I’ve worked hard at for years, but unfortunately a skill I’m lacking. I understand that you are a human too, and that you have feelings that you need to work through. I understand that forgiveness may not be possible right away, or in very extreme cases, ever. But please, if you value me as a person, let me know, so that I can learn from this mistake and not make it in the future. Even if you never want anything to do with me again, tell me why. Or I’ll go my whole life wondering what it was I did wrong, and probably hurt other people that way too.

If I have hurt your feelings, and you tell me why, please give me the opportunity to apologize, and attempt to make things right. Again, you do not have to forgive me immediately. When I hurt someone’s feelings, saying “I’m sorry” doesn’t fix the problem right away. I know that. However if you tell me what I have done, I will always think about it. I will sit and try to process what was so hurtful. I will internalize some of the pain I have caused you, and am almost always genuinely sorry. And I will say so. I will also try to fix whatever I have done if it is possible to fix. Some things are not fixable. I understand that. Some things need time to process, to cool down. I understand that too. But I genuinely do want to make things right when I make a mistake, and if at all possible, please let me. And please, if I apologize and you’re not ready to accept the apology, don’t keep yelling. Don’t keep beating me up over a mistake I made, and have apologized for. Nobody deserves to be a punching bag. And yelling leads to communication shutdowns. Please just communicate directly. If you don’t want to interact with me, say “I need some space right now. Please leave me alone”. Or “I’m not ready to talk with you”. Either of these I will understand and respect. And I will step away and maybe come back later.

I value the people I make connections with. It is hard for me to connect with people and even harder to become friends. One small mistake should not destroy those connections. Life is a moving target. Every day I learn something new. In my life I strive to be respectful. I strive to be kind. And even when I fail, I am always learning. Always observing and trying to figure out how to be a better person in this world not meant for people like me.

—————————————

So what does this all mean? It means that autistic people, just like allistic people, can and do make social blunders. It means that when those social blunders inevitably happen, that we can try to learn from them. It means that a little bit of compassion and patience can go a very long way in improving the quality of life and the social interactions for all parties. When an autistic person makes a social blunder, don’t assume nefarious intent. Yes, some autistic people are out there to hurt people. Just like some allistic people are out there to hurt people. But before you assume the worst, give a person the benefit of the doubt. Yelling and flinging insults and accusing people is not productive. Let them be a person, too. And give them the chance to learn and make things right.

The only other thing I have to add here is that regardless of the neurotypes of the people involved in this type of conflict, regardless of personal histories, of diagnoses or lack thereof, people should be treated and respected as human beings. There is often not a single easy answer to who or what is “right” and “wrong”. Disagreements happen. They are a part of life. The autistic person is not always right, nor are they always wrong. They are, however, always a person, with feelings and values, trying their best to get along in this world. And they deserve to be treated as such.

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This image has been making its way around facebook, and I think it applies here more than anywhere. I do not own the image or the caption, so if it is yours and you object to my use of it, please let me know.

Image Description: a young girl is running away from the shot into a sunset. The caption covers the whole image and reads “I was born to make mistakes. Not Fake Perfection”

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Responses

  1. Love it! So well put :) Shared on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=539637506059097&set=a.202753263080858.45460.158293914193460&type=1

    • Thanks :)

      • Thank you too! That post got an extra 1100 external viewers! Did they all come from here?

      • I cracked up when I saw that – this post has seen maybe 300 views… so I highly doubt that they all came from here… I’m betting most of my views on this post came from you. :P

      • You’re right, I checked the page stats and it looks like I sent about 30 to your page, so where did the 1100 come from???

  2. I could have written this myself. There are people I know who thoroughly dislike me and I have no idea why – I’m a nice, friendly person and would never deliberately hurt anyone.

    To any NT people reading this: If you’re dealing with an autistic person and they say something offensive PLEASE tell them and PLEASE explain why it was hurtful to you. In the ASD world social blunders are common and we can’t learn if you don’t gently explain our errors. None of us like to have to explain ourselves before even getting to know somebody properly, because that only serves to make us look as though we’re finding excuses to be obnoxious/hurtful/rude when that is not the truth at all.

    Thanks for writing this, E.

    • Thank you. Yes. And more than that, please give us the opportunity to learn after the mistake. I recently made a social blunder that offended someone. They did step 1 (tell me what I did wrong), but then when I apologized and offered to fix things the best way I could, they attacked me publicly and loudly, berating me for my very existence. So step 2 is super important too. Arguably more important.

      • I have learned this the hard way. You definitely did step 1 right. Step 2, however, is partially right. Yes, offering to apologize is important. But, sometimes it will help to have someone you trust to give you some advice to apologize before you do make the apology. I was glad that a friend stepped in before I tried to apologize in a blunder I made a month or so ago. Otherwise, I could make the situation worse and the license that I have worked very hard for would have been in more jeopardy.

    • You are so right, Missus. One thing I personally is hate is people unfriend me on Facebook or block me on Twitter. I don’t mind the action. But, doing so out of the blue can make things worse. I will accept the consequences if the reason is well explained.

      • What I dislike the most is that many of these people don’t give us a chance, and shun us in real life. I’ve taken to avoiding saying anything at all around people I don’t know that well, until I’ve listened for a while.

    • Amen. The problem I’ve so often had is that people don’t like to confront others directly, so I wind up compounding the problem unknowingly and by the time I even find out one exists, the chance of mending things is gone. Even if I know something is wrong, I can’t do anything without knowing specifically what that something is. Don’t assume I can figure it out on my own, because I usually can’t.

  3. You are a very wise and compassionate person, E. It’s a good thing that you are, since you have to forgive the many stupid blunders that neurotypicals make when interacting with autistic people. As I read your blog, all I could think of were the incredibly insensitive and hurtful things that people have said about (and to!) my autistic son. They also said cruel things to me about my (lack of) parenting skills. I bet those folks are still making those “blunders” and still think they are justified.E., I could use some of your ability to forgive!

  4. Social blunders are easy to make, especially online. I never know when to “say” something, and when not to say something. I’ve lived a life of learning not to say a thing. And, that appears to be wrong. I don’t often comment on blogs anymore, mostly because I am using my phone for most online activities and it does not make it easy to respond.

    I can not understand online social rules. That is one reason I left many online social venues.

    You write very well, and I can tell that you are someone that would never purposefully hurt another.

    Be well. Be kind.

    • It’s a double edged sword I find with social media. You can definitely be a well known figure in what you do if you manage it well. However, you can be hated just as quickly if you make too many blunders that make your friends (sometimes your very good friends) crazy. It really depends on how much risk you are willing to take and how much benefit you think you may potentially get. If the “benefit/risk ratio” goes below the level you are comfortable with, that’s when it is time to reduce your commitment… and stop if you think things are out of control.

  5. Very well written. I hope the person who took offense at your blunder eventually sees their way to forgiving you, and to ask for your forgiveness in turn for their behavior. That’s how people grow. But in order to grow, people first have to care. It’s obvious that you do. I hope the same can be said of them.

    Also, this was the first time I’d seen the term “allistic”. I had to look it up. While searching, I wound up on the Allism Speaks site and read the definitions page. I like that set of definitions! I don’t know if this is where you ran into the term, but I appreciate your use of it in this essay. As an allistic neuroatypical, I appreciate the distinction.

    Tom

    P.S. You’re right, that image is quite apt! It’s the first I’d seen it, so thanks for including it in your essay.

  6. E. so beautifully put. I cannot read minds either! I am much better with a direct (and if possible gentle) statement about whatever offense I’ve committed than I am with silence, rage, full attacks or indirect statements and/or silent stewing.
    I find online, social media stuff often impossible to navigate unless it is within a group I know well, but even then it can be tricky. So much gets misconstrued, intentions can be misunderstood. I recently thought I was having a really productive dialogue with someone only to realize that almost everything I’d said was taken out of context and had been taken in ways I had never intended. It was incredibly painful to hear how another had interpreted my words of genuine concern.

    You are one of the gentlest and kindest people I know. <3

  7. I relate to this piece very well. I make social blunders a lot more often than my peers in my profession. Yes, I have moments of brilliance. But, the blunders I made are potentially damaging… as I have a few people blocked me on Twitter. To tell the truth, my social blunders can sometimes drive my peers nuts (even though I never intended to make them).

    Because of my tendency to have social blunders though, I try to be more tolerant of others than an average person would (though I do set my boundaries). Establishing a reputation for being nice and personable allowed me to have others who know me well to defend/support me in case I do make these social blunders.

  8. Yes! I get this.

    One of the things I love so much about my relationship with my husband is that we are so literal in our communication. Taking the guesswork out (mind reading – that I don’t really think anyone does particularly well) is such a relief. We both make mistakes and mis-steps – but – to quote one of your previous posts – we assume good intent, and we take responsibility for sharing how we feel in a supportive and honest way.

    Hugs and thank you for this post, E!

  9. Thank you for sharing your feelings and your own compassion with us. I’m not autistic; but doggone it, I can make some pretty nifty social blunders. Your post will give me a better insight into how to offer a less-judgmental look at the bloopers and blunders of others. Let’s face it, most of us out “here” are not intentionally setting out to hurt anyone. Thanks again for sharing this post.

  10. You’re are absolutely correct about blunders and apologies and forgiveness, and learning. Even when two “allistics” are communicating, things can go terribly wrong. You have great advice. Thanks.

  11. I like you values and attitude… I wish everybody strived that hard to be considerate about other people.

    I can’t read minds – it’s a skill I’ve worked hard at for years, but unfortunately a skill I’m lacking.

    No one can ‘read minds’. I don’t understand why that is even a concept. People who think they can, and that others should too, are usually social disasters (stressing drama queens who expect everybody else to ‘read’ all their inner emotional reactions and ups and downs). Except when they are with someone who are very like themselves – then mind reading works. But that is not mind reading, that is just to guess on others’ intentions by projecting one’s own behavioural patterns and mode of operation onto them, and get it right because the similarity is high enough.

    ‘Seething in private and expecting some one else to “figure it out”’ is the relationship welfare killer over them all, IMO. (we women are supposed to do it a lot, and male spouses are supposed to be hapless victims of such psychologial games;-)

  12. I have been struggling with this a lot lately. I know I have lost people I considered good friends consistently through life, but it never seems that they tell me “why” before they leave, or if they do I miss the cues. Now when another person vanishes from my life I constantly question if it was something I did (if so, how do I find out what it is and fix it?) or if they are simply preoccupied with their own affairs (in which case, do I leave them alone?), or if there is trouble on their end (so should I actively keep trying to contact them to help?). Such a maze!

    We are all so afraid, as a culture, to offer instruction or gentle criticism, to help others – and as a culture we are trained to receive it as an attack. Now it’s become taboo to question the motives or manners of another adult and so those of us who have to learn things by rote and direct and literal studying of others are missing the opportunity to learn crucial adult social skills – and people are hurt unintentionally because of it.

  13. Well said, E. Some of it reminds me of the “Men’s Rules for Women.” One in particular sticks in my mind: “If something I said can be interpreted two ways, and one of them makes you sad or angry, I meant the other one.”

    Another one that is particularly useful (I think you’ve written an article along these lines too) is “Ask for what you want. Subtle hints do not work! Strong hints do not work! Obvious hints do not work. Just say it!”

    I agree with everything you said in your post, and think it applies in its entirety to everyone, both on and off the autism spectrum.

    • I had another thought, so will add it here. It is so true. Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of the poem “The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam” goes like this:

      The moving finger writes, and having writ
      Moves on: Nor all thy piety nor wit
      Shall lure it back to cancel half a line
      Nor all thy tears wash out a word of it.

      Having said that, we should forgive each other of our social missteps (autistic or allistic or neurotypical). Not because you believe (or don’t believe) in God, but because it’s the right thing to do.

  14. This is such a good post. It should be required reading for anyone with a friend who is on the spectrum.

  15. It pains me to think of the times I was judgemental, before autism came into my life. (Not that I’ve achieved non-judgemental perfection!) I remember feeling critical of my allistic daughter’s friends, because they would not join us for meals and tended to keep to themselves up in her room instead of “socializing” with the family. I truIy thought that they must not like me or something. I am so glad for the things I’ve learned through experiencing life with my autistic son; large among these is “assuming good intent” as you so wisely advise.

  16. I thought about this post again after I made another social error.

    Sometimes social errors can even start out from things seemingly innocent and/or well-intended, especially if some elements include human nature.

    As I get to know myself better, I wanted to build good rapport with people I work with. I also am the type who prefers venting more than holding things in. In my workplace, however, that can be really dangerous because my tendencies (on top of autism) make me vulnerable for unprofessional behavior.

    Over the past 3 months, I talked a little too much about my personal life to the people I work with. As I took some time to cool down and thought about why, I came up with these reasons.

    1. Sometimes I got too carried away in conversations, as I tried too hard to build rapport with people I work with.

    2. Sometimes I couldn’t resist my impulse to vent.

    3. With autism, sometimes I did not know that some questions that people I work with can be considered as “trick questions”. I must answer them in a certain way… so that I can avoid traps of being unprofessional. In some instances, unfortunately, I fell right in.

    4. I was aware of the very first feedbacks I received- I did not do a good job building rapport with people I work with (since I was super quiet back then). So, I have been trying to find happy mediums in these experiences since then.

    In retrospect, I should have took more time to prep myself better, especially on the social aspect. Yes, I was better at initiating conversations and willingness to social than 3 years ago. However, I should have had sessions on potential social pitfalls (and other potential hazards) in the workplace. That said, I now am putting myself in work environments where such traps are virtually gone in the live sense. I am still interacting with people, but I can do it in a more professional way because I am doing it without the face to face interactions and I don’t encounter these individuals every day/week.

  17. thank you, e., for this post. i am a neuro-atypical woman (not on the spectrum, but do have a sensory processing disorder, as well as a mood disorder), dating a man who’s daughter is on the spectrum. i have been wondering how best to deal with her tendency to correct every grammar & word usage mistake that comes out of my mouth. i understand that it is her autism that brings her to do this, but it makes communicating with her frustrating for me. i attempt to communicate and before 2 sentences get out she is correcting me! i usually just give up, but will try your suggestion instead. thanks!

    • :) I hope it works for you! You might even give her the post to read, and then see what she says. I can be pretty sensitive when someone tells me something like that outright. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate it, it just puts me on the defensive. So perhaps have her read the post first and see what she says, then say something like “I love talking with you, but sometimes it is hard for me to talk, because you always correct my grammar. I will try to work on my grammar, but can you try to not correct me after every mistake?”

      • that’s a great idea! and i would love to intorduce her to your blog anyway, so this is the perfect excuse. :)

        being a 15 year old girl is hard enough, i think she can find some useful tips on navigating the nt’s in her life here. thanks again!


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