Only Joking

Only Joking

Humour. Sarcasm. Teasing. What do these all have in common? They all involve somebody saying something that isn’t true. Somehow I’m supposed to be able to recognize that and react appropriately (whatever that means). Okay, it’s not quite as bad as all that. Often there’s context and other indications such as sheer implausibility that pretty much give the game away. NT people appear to pick up the signs much more easily than I do – I don’t know whether there are subtleties of tone or body language that give it away because I’m pretty much oblivious to those.

My normal reaction to anything somebody says is to take it at face value unless I know that what they are saying is incorrect. Teasing and sarcasm give me the most problems because what they say might be true. I have to respond as if they are being straight. It means I get laughed at sometimes but that doesn’t bother me these days – it used to but I’ve got thicker-skinned over the years and more confident in myself. I’ve learned to make a joke of it, laugh it off, sometimes deliberately take things literally to a ridiculous extreme. That had an unexpected bonus: people started to expect me to be literal and seemed to take account of that more often when speaking to me.

What does bother me about teasing is that I find it hurtful because I believe what they are saying. Even if the person turns round later and says “I was only joking. I didn’t mean it.” the damage has been done. I trust that person less. In my mind I feel that I have to be sceptical about anything they may say to me in the future, treating them like the boy who cried “wolf”. Once I start thinking like that, something has been lost in our relationship – it is less close, less trusting. There are people with whom I start from a position of disbelief when they say anything at all to me. I’d take some convincing before I would believe them if they said the sky was blue.

Eye Contact

Eye Contact

I can look you in the eye
When I talk to you sometimes,
Or when you speak to me. My
Instinct is suppressed: thought crime.

I would rather look away,
At the walls or into space,
But I had to learn to play
Your social game. I misplaced

My natural self. This mask
I hide behind forever
Part of me. I only ask
You spare a thought, whenever

I evade your gaze. Comfort flees
My mind faced with such a stare;
Swiftly borne by the hot breeze
Of fear. You are unaware

Just how strong are my urges.
Compulsion to turn aside.
Panic rises, heart surges,
Primal need to run and hide.

Not Guilty

Not Guilty

Just when you think you’re getting the hang of acting “normal” something happens to bring you back to reality with a bang. I got wrongly accused of doing something bad the other day – the details don’t matter. It was something I would never dream of doing; nevertheless I stood accused of it.

I reacted naturally, which is to say I failed to make eye contact, I displayed “inappropriate” facial expressions such as smiling, I didn’t respond immediately. All this was taken to be a display of guilt by my (neurotypical) accuser. What can you do in such a situation? The more I protested my innocence the more I was told that I was “acting guilty”.

I’m an honest person: I feel too uncomfortable to contemplate lying. Besides which, I find it hard enough to remember the details of what did happen, never mind trying to remember some invented scenario. Being accused like that and then not being believed – having my response taken to be evidence of deceit – was deeply hurtful.

My accuser in this case was somebody who prides themselves on being a good judge of character, on having great empathy. But there was no sign of any of that when dealing with me. Their instinctive reading of non-verbal cues led them totally astray when faced with somebody on the autistic spectrum. I’m led to believe that this subconscious empathy as displayed by most neurotypical people relies on the person being observed also being neurotypical and reacting in a “normal” way. They can’t read the signals correctly if there is any deviation from this – their unconscious assumptions fail to hold true. The trouble is that with the assumptions being unconscious, there is no realisation that they even exist.

It’s been said before elsewhere, but neurotypical people lack empathy when dealing with autistic people. They don’t often notice when we feel anxious or threatened, they misinterpret our feelings based on our behaviour. They seem to have an off-the-peg, one-size-fits-all model of human behaviour, while I (I can’t speak for other people on the spectrum) build a bespoke model for everyone I know.

Generalizations don’t work with outliers – it’s true of all statistical models. And in statistical terms, people on the autistic spectrum do fall outside the normal range when it comes to behavioural traits. That’s “normal” as in an average across a population. I’m quite aware that I have some areas where I fall within normal bounds; others, especially relating to social skills, where I’m well outside.

I strongly resent my natural reactions to an accusation being taken as signs of guilt or evasion. I don’t think I should have to conform to neurotypical standards of communication to be believed. Where was the vaunted empathy of this person in my case? I’d call it a spectacular failure. Did they end up enlightened? No. I just got a dismissive “you’re weird”. They weren’t willing to take the time to analyze and understand me – time that autistic people have to take if they want to interact more fully with neurotypical people. I don’t think I’m wrong to feel angry about this.

Dream of Freedom

Dream of Freedom

Night has fallen; we are gathered round the fire. The old man who is the repository of our tribe’s history and lore begins to chant, slowly and softly at first, using the ancient tongue brought to this land by his ancestors. But we do not need to understand his words: we know the tales that he tells for the last time this night. Of how our tribe first came to this land, driven across the sea to escape persecution at the hands of our enemies. The desperate flight with the invaders at our heels, the anguish of leaving so many behind to face death or slavery, the razing of our homes and destruction of our way of life.

Our strongest survived the voyage across the unknown ocean, guided by the stars and the visions that our gods imparted to our spiritual leader. The gods were kind to us in those days and led us to a land of riches: plentiful animals to be hunted, fish in the rivers and sea, and fertile ground for our crops. We raised new homes and dedicated new sacred sites to our gods in thanks for our deliverance. Over many generations we grew in numbers and spread across this new land, but in all that time we never met other men: no other human tribes inhabited this place and we lived in peace.

But this soft life made us weak and complacent. We started to forget the old ways. We stopped visiting the sacred places and they were allowed to return to nature; we neglected our old gods. Like fruit left unharvested they withered and died, and we did not notice that we no longer had their protection until it was too late.

New people came across the sea from the North: strong, pale-skinned men in two long ships. At first we were fearful of them. It had been so long since we had had any contact with other humans that we had started to believe we were alone in the world. They were few and we approached them. They traded cloth and tools for food, restocking their provisions for their journey home. They did not linger on our shores and we thought little of their visit. Until they returned in their hundreds with fearsome beasts at the prows of their ships; ships filled with fierce warriors and iron swords.

They built a settlement by the shore where they had landed, using timbers from their ships to construct their halls and raising tall earth banks around to protect them. We realised then that they were here to stay. The returning traders had obviously told of the rich land across the sea and these Northmen wanted it for their own. We sent messengers to them bearing gifts and offering friendship; they demanded tribute and submission. Although we were many and they were few, we were weak and most of our tribe were afraid of the newcomers. We had abandoned our old gods, and they had now abandoned us, leaving us to our fate.

This small band now gathered around the fire is all of our tribe that remains free. The rest bent their knees and are ruled by the Northmen, worshipping their gods, obeying their commands, paying tribute to their lords. They are no longer free men. We stood against the invaders and many of us were slaughtered in battle or taken into slavery. Our warriors did not lack courage but could not overcome the strength and iron weapons of our foes. We survivors fled to the farthest reaches of this land, hoping that we could remain free. That was four summers ago.

Today we saw a band of Northmen scouting near our homes. We know it can only be a matter of days before they return in overwhelming numbers to destroy us in a final battle, so we are spending the time in recollection of our heritage, trying to summon back our old gods to support us. But few of us believe in the gods any more. The gods have forgotten us as we forgot them. We must face the enemy alone, and when we are gone none will remember who we were or where we came from: our gods and our tribe will be lost to the memories of men, and only the invaders from the North will remain here. It will be their land then to settle with their new gods and new ways. Perhaps they in their turn will be swept aside by a stronger people. That seems to be the way of things: either submit to those who are stronger than you, whether willingly or at the point of a sword, and become like them, or fight for your beliefs and way of life – fight to be your true self – and die proud and free.

Perhaps one day there will be a third way and all the different tribes of humans will find a way to live together in peace. But as long as the strong continue to simply take what they want from the weak that day will never come, and men will not be truly free: free from fear, persecution and harm. We will stand and fight to the death for our right to be free because we truly believe in it.

Self-censorship

Self-censorship

Censorship. It’s a word with many negative connotations, associated with authoritarian states and restriction of freedom. But on an individual level it is something most people practise without even being aware of it. Things left unsaid. It may an attempt to spare somebody hurt; it may be to avoid leaving oneself open to attack for voicing an unpopular opinion.

Sins of omission. Being unwilling to speak out because of the possible consequences. Is this a bad thing? Does it depend on context? Is it acceptable not to tell somebody something because you feel it may hurt their feelings? Is it unacceptable to keep an opinion to oneself because it differs from the majority view? Or is that simply self-preservation?

I’ve been thinking about this recently because I worry that being open and honest in describing how I’m feeling and the difficult times my wife and I are going through might upset or hurt people who care about us. I don’t know the answer to this one. In general I am opposed to censorship and in favour of freedom of speech. But do I have any right to decide to withhold information that could affect other people’s view of me? To offer them an incomplete picture? Doesn’t that equate with dishonesty? I feel uncomfortable if I contemplate offering false information or deliberately omitting details. If the two situations feel the same doesn’t that mean they are the same? I believe they are, at least in my mind.

So I’m left with this conflict between wanting to avoid causing anybody distress and being open. So far I have leaned towards being open. I am aware that this can cause some of my readers to feel sympathetic pain and that is a cause for concern to me. But I believe that to hide the difficult facts and only write about the good times would be misleading. It would give the impression that I live in some ideal, perfect world where nothing bad ever happens. The truth is that like everybody else I face a range of situations, go through highs and lows, triumphs and disasters. I strongly believe that I have to present an accurately balanced account; I try to do so here.

I apologise if anybody has found what I write here to be distressing; that has never been my intention. But that is how life can be at times. Would life’s highs provide such elation were it not for the contrast with the lows?

Through The Dark

Through The Dark

Samhain is over now. One night a year
The normal world outside my door departs;
Retires to the wings, the stage left clear
For actors to appear: the play can start.

Undead hordes come lurching by the dozen
With jack-o’-lanterns shining out their light,
And on their heels the cackling of a coven:
Witches trick-or-treating through the night.

This celebration marks the passing summer,
The seasons’ change: arrival of the dark.
Now the harvest’s gathered, hear the drummer
Slow the beat that tells life’s primal heart.

Feel the vital pulse’s change of tempo,
And light the fires to keep the ice at bay.
With Yule will come the turning of the corner,
When sun returns with growing strength each day.

That’s when the frozen world begins to quicken
As life is reawakened from its sleep.
Despite the thin veneer of modern living,
Our connexion with this land is old and deep.

Whether you still dance around the Maypole,
Or set the bonfires blazing at Beltane,
When Sumer is icumen in the rhythm
Of nature’s bold arousal strikes your brain.