autism moments and social identity

I just had a minor autism moment that I think illustrates the death-by-a-thousand-cuts aspects.

It’s my lunch break. I work from home, handling tech support tickets for a computer security testing company (why did we miss a vulnerability, can we lower the rating on such-and-such finding, etc.). Today it’s mercifully slow, so I took my car across the street for an oil change. I was proud of myself for getting it done, since it’s been 9 months. I don’t drive a lot, but still.

On my way back, my apartment complex’s handyman saw me. He’s seen me before with skateboard stuff, and we talked about his son(?) skateboarding at least once.

He saw me and said, “Where’s your skateboard?”

It takes me a second to realize I’m now in a social situation and have to respond.

“Uh…well, it’s at home.”

“Why are you walking? Shouldn’t you be on your skateboard?”

“I just dropped my car off a block away,” and I pointed. You could see my car parked in front.

He turns away and says, “Yeah, I get it.”

As I’m already walking away, I notice that there was something about the way he said it…Fuck!

He was joking around or teasing me or something, and I was supposed to say…something lighthearted. By answering matter-of-factly, I was implicitly rejecting him or something. Now he probably thinks I’m a dick. I didn’t want to turn around and go back there and try and find him and explain about literal-mindedness and delayed social processing.

These sorts of things are possible every time I leave the house. They don’t happen every time, but when they do it’s sudden and unexpected.

If he’d approached me straightforwardly, I probably wouldn’t have minded stopping for 5 minutes to have a conversation and break up the tedium of his day. He was moving recycling bins from the sidewalk after the trucks had been by.

I compensate pretty well, but I can’t do it perfectly 100% of the time. If I’m out in public running errands, chances are pretty good that I’m a bit dazed just from the overload and probably forcing myself to get something done while tired.

When I get groceries, I’m really quick and focused on bagging my own groceries, which is a great way of not having to make eye contact. It’s often appreciated.

The problem is that normal people’s interpretations of everything are so inflexible and judgmental. It’s crazy to me that they feel automatically entitled to some kind of emotional backscratching.

Working in tech support, it’s interesting to me is that several customers might have similar issues, but the level of drama and stress around it varies wildly. Customers I’ve truly felt sorry for have asked if there was anything they could do to help. Other customers power trip on how unacceptable the whole thing is and directly threaten not to renew their contracts.

You don’t have to react to situations dramafully, even when the situations are egregious. Customers are cool when they understand there’s no reason this phone call has to be a nightmare. It’s like…I’m sorry, I’ll write up a ticket about how we need to support some Rube Goldberg thing your site is doing. Dev and PM will either do it in time or not. You just want to be yelling at me because working for a big finance company is like being a lord and I’m the house nigger.

My solution was to say, “Yes, that’s the point of this phone call. For me to document this and pass it along to someone who can do something about it.” When a coworker asked him to put this stuff in writing for reasons I didn’t understand, I made the true observation that it’s better if they see it in writing from him and he sounds mad. I tried to sound jovial while explaining that. This is a psychotherapy trick called “paradoxical intention.”

The amount of energy it takes to do stuff like that in real time is huge. Too much of that in a day and I can’t function for the rest of it. All the emotional grossness of it gets processed afterwards, and that has to run its course.

At different times, I delicately handle a big client and act socially retarded outside my apartment. Coworkers probably wouldn’t understand why I avoid the company group bonding rituals and work from home. At least in the past, I was perceived aloof and disliking everyone. People tried to tease me about that, and I didn’t know how to handle it then, either. On the other hand, the guy at my building wouldn’t believe I could talk to Large Company about something and not fuck it up. I’m doing the same stuff as cliche autistic characters.

It follows from all this that most people will have highly skewed impressions of me in daily life. I look around and see how much effort normal people put into managing perceptions of themselves. Not being able to control people’s perceptions of you is disabling. An uneven profile of abilities is a sign of Asperger’s. I’m normal except for weirdly high verbal comprehension.

So it’s not only that I have to keep up socially, I have to do it while managing a less coherent social presentation than other people. A few nights ago, I realized I was probably the only one of my coworkers sitting curled up in a ball in a parking lot by myself while it got dark outside. It was peaceful and nice to be outside. I was resting after skateboarding. But still. Strange Hooded Black Man.

Sometimes I’m patronized. Sometimes I’m an ogre. Sometimes I’m respected as an expert. I find that people usually don’t understand where I’m coming from.