Being diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome as an adult, I now realize that I have inadvertently offended many, many people during the course of my life. It seems no one has been immune to the “accidental insults” that come quicker than I can think to stop them. Now that I have developed some insight into why this is, I’ve learned I must work consciously every moment of the day to develop a filter between my brain and my mouth.
Those of us on the autism spectrum can easily misinterpret social situations because we are sometimes unable to filter and process the actions and emotions of others. Our brains can act like slot machines, whirling around trying to create a match from reels of stored information. Learning how to focus on other peoples’ perspective (the act of understanding what they may be thinking or feeling) is the key to successfully navigating through the social constraints of relationships, school, employment, and life. Social cognitive learning differences like Asperger’s are abstract and difficult to comprehend. Just how do you teach a person on the autism spectrum something that is generally self-taught throughout childhood and young adulthood? The concept of teaching common, everyday interactions is not only necessary, but essential in developing emotionally and socially appropriate reactions. Like computers, people like myself on the autism spectrum often fare better by analyzing the data of a situation and pairing it up with the expected response. To a certain extent, our knowledge base can serve us better than true emotions; once we learn the rules. By pre-teaching, practicing, and having life experiences of our own, we build our own rules of operation.
In the past, when a member of the opposite sex would smile and say “Hello,” I would have been prone to interpret this to mean that the person is romantically interested. More often than not, this is just not the case (unless you look like Brad Pitt). Due to my misunderstood emotions, and lack of social understanding, it’s been very easy for me to cause pain and embarrassment to myself and to others without even trying. Furthermore, by not having or allowing the insight of friends, family and other trusted sources, my learned knowledge of these types of experiences could become skewed and not reflective of their true meanings.
A simple explanation from a friend letting me know that the person is just being friendly but is not romantically interested can be a revelation to me – or to someone else on the spectrum. We may genuinely misunderstand the situation and need those trusted others to be social translators, mentors and friends.
At the age of 62, I know that my social and emotional regulation skills are still sometimes lacking. I have a self-righteous streak and think that people need to hear what I have to say. I sometimes feel justified in saying things because I believe them to be true, even if my comments may not be appropriate at the time. My ex-father-in-law used to say to me “Michael, you are such a smart and talented guy in many ways, why can’t you control your mouth?” I had no answer to this question and felt I had two choices: be an idiot and speak my mind, or shut up. I still occasionally vacillate between the two options and have mixed results. As I continue to learn how to understand social situations and avoid accidentally insulting others, I constantly work at creating that filter between my brain and my mouth. My adult children summed it up best when they told me something like, “Dad, Asperger’s doesn’t give you the excuse to keep offending us or make us upset” (except they expressed this with language that is more appropriately reserved for a bar or tavern). Learning the techniques to master these nuances can take time. Utilize your trusted group of individuals, practice real life situations, and listen to the stories of fellow Aspies like me who have finally begun to filter after years of trial and error. Only then will you be able to navigate the social environments of school, your workplace, and your friends and family.
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