If you’re a Neurotypical who loves someone with Aspergers, you probably feel guilty all the time. Why? Because Neurotypicals and Aspergers conversational styles and indeed their social structure are so different that NTs feel like we’re being rude to Aspies all the time.
We may be able to trace the polite use of the table fork back to the Byzantine Empire, but no one knows when breaking eye contact was first used to convey, ‘You’re blethering too much, mate. I’m bored stiff. Let me get a word in edgewise’.
There are no etiquette historians who can tell us exactly when it became rude to roll your eyes at someone. No historian ever pulled out a heavy tome yellowed with age, and pointed with a gloved finger to the exact date when neurotypical rules for polite society and conversation became the norm for everyone in society, NT or Aspergers notwithstanding.
My friend’s husband, who was diagnosed with Aspergers as an adult, often argues passionately and persuasively that just because there are more NTs in society than Aspies, that doesn’t mean their social rules should be the only acceptable ones.
He’s right. But alas, that is the way it is.
This is the dilemma Neurotypicals face when they love someone with Aspergers. Our native tongue is 93% composed of those unspoken, non-verbal, body-language-only clues that Aspies often miss. When they’re missed, NTs feel forced to resort to more direct communication which we feel is downright rude in order to convey our feelings. Damned if we do, damned if we don’t.
Meanwhile, Aspies bear a great burden of reconnoitring a society whose rules, they tell me, seem arbitrary at best. Rules they learn to follow by rote, but not intuitively from babyhood as NTs do. They have to work and work hard at it. It’s exhausting for an Aspie to devote so much energy to picking up and interpreting the 93% nonverbal cues projected silently by NTs during conversation.
For example, an NT will catch the cue of broken eye contact, realise they’re monopolising the conversation and rectify the situation by asking a question to reignite the other person’s interest in the conversation, ‘restoring balance to the Force’.
What do you do when the person with Aspergers whom you love dearly misses the broken eye contact cue? They’re not keen on eye contact in the first place so they may not necessarily notice when you look away. What do you do then?
Roll your eyes? That’s rude.
Say something like, ‘Shut up, Mate and lemme talk’. That’s rude too.
Our big trick was breaking eye contact. Once that’s gone, there are no more tricks in our polite bag of tricks. Anything we say or do after that falls into the region of impoliteness. Rudeness. Hence the guilt.
Whatever we do, we’ll feel bad. If we submit to more of the monolog, and try to feign looking interested, we’ll feel insincere. Unauthentic.
If we roll our eyes, or even worse, interrupt them, that’s rude. It’s a no-win situation.
It’s not easy to reconnoitre society and conversation, both for people with Aspergers and the Neurotypicals who love them dearly.