Monday 14 September 2015

Autism Basics. When "I'll be back in five minutes" isn't true.

So many myths about autism.  And quite a lot of really standard stuff was never public knowledge.

Giving us inaccurate information about timings?

I will generalise, because there will be exceptions .  This is common to most of us, though.

For example, you tell an autistic person that you will be 'back in five minutes'.  It's an expression, yes?  It doesn't mean 'five minutes'.   Except it does, to us.  It means precisely five minutes.  We are so literal.  Even as adults.  When it gets to 4 mins 50 seconds, it's very exciting, because you'll be back in ten seconds.  When it gets to 5 mins, you will return.   Except, what if you don't?  Well, that' mystery, because you're not here.  And then, the panic sets in.  And builds, and builds, and builds.

It may seem like a psychological problem, or a 'controlling personality issue'.  It's not.  It is unfortunate that so many people got diverted into counselling and therapies incorrectly for this kind of thing.

All day, every day, we are balancing a brain whose wiring is connected up for fine detail, not social stuff.  For repetition and total accuracy, not sensory overload.  It is a real physical brain wiring difference.

Dealing with people?  That takes anticipation about how to speak and what to say.  About what body language and eye contact to try to interpret.  About what voice tone to listen for.   Lots of anticipation.  We have to calculate days or hours in advance how much brain wiring overheat we can handle for a social situation that others take for granted.   How long will ou will you be with us for?  We do want to be with people, honest we do.  But it's so hard to manage, with a brain that overheats in busy, noisy, social places.   The more you are with us, making eye contact and expecting the correct social response?  Well, that's huge work for our brain wiring.  It heats up, and up , and up, until it causes very real pain.  It then cuts out our ability to communicate well, and leaves us exhausted and dazed.

Also, we're possibly waiting in sensory hell for you.  Probably under fluorescent lighting, in a busy, noisy space.  Schools, shops, cafes, restaurants, workplaces. Waiting for that five minutes to be up.  We've left enough 'calculation room' to handle five minutes of pain in that space.  We can do that.   Then, you don't show up.  Now, we've no idea how much pain we will be in, or for how long. 

No wonder we get anxious.  So would you, if your brain did that.

Be accurate, or suitably vague.  If you do not mean 'five minutes', please don't say it's five minutes.   Say, "I will be back before..." (whatever time is the latest you can possibly imagine for this).   Or "I will be back within 5-15 minutes".  If that changes, let us know.     

Being accurate may seem like a huge imposition.  It's because you are not living with a brain that overheats/electrocutes you when left in difficult environments for too long.  Or with impossible social situations to calculate for too long.   Ours does.  

Respect that it's a physical brain difference, not an attitude problem, and you'll find we are wonderful friends and colleagues to be with.  We'll learn to trust what you say, and we can do really good calculations around how much input there will be.

So many meet people like me with no idea how much work we have to do to be friends and work colleagues with you.  It's an honour and a joy to spend time with people.   But it really helps when people know the basics.