On Monday's blog I talked about the 110 minutes I had presenting to students and the question I was asked along the lines of, "Are you sad when people make fun of you?" What came to mind, and I didn't give the story at the presentation, was a personal example of just that which happened back in 2004.
In 2004 I was in a fragile state. I had just been diagnosed and didn't know who I was as a person. Also, my confidence was at an all time low which led to highly awkward social situations. One of these occurred when I went to a video game store to pick something up.
I walked into the store where the two clerks instantly greeted me and asked if they could help me find anything. With a odd head shake I implied that the answer was no and I'm fairly confident I wasn't confident in this gesture. All I wanted was to get my item and leave. I'm better at store interactions now, but back then I did everything I could not to be seen at a store. When, as I call it in Finding Kansas, the "4th wall" is breached I have a rough time reacting. As I said, I'm somewhat better now, but back then I did a lot of ignoring as I had tunnel vision to the item I wanted.
While I was browsing one of the clerks tried to talk to me and I wanted nothing to do with it. I did respond with quiet responses and I never once visually acknowledged him. I'm sure this had to be confusing for them as I was truly doing everything I could to not look their way.
Eventually I got my items and proceeded to the checkout counter. I'm not sure where on my body I had a sign that said, "Please, I insist, talk to me! I want a conversation." but that's what they saw and now both of them were pushing a conversation my way. The more they pushed the more withdrawn I got. It was getting to the point that breathing was becoming difficult. And of course they slowed down the process of the purchase further lengthening the whole ordeal.
I wanted out of there. It was the only thing I wanted. I couldn't figure out why I was being spoken to and I couldn't process what I should say. I know I was being defensive, and quiet, but I don't think I crossed the line of being rude. I didn't tell them to be quiet and I think it was obvious that being spoken to was rather uncomfortable. Then again, perhaps it wasn't and that is why they kept pushing me.
Eventually the sale was complete and I as I headed towards the door one of the employees said, "Hey idiot, don't talk so much the next time!" To say I was hurt would have been the understatement of 2004. Being as uncomfortable as I was wasn't a choice and I wish the employees there knew just how hard it was for me to walk into the front door and risk a social interaction. As I said, I'm somewhat better now but back then the only way to describe an encounter like this was total social paralysis. To compound the employees confusion, I'm sure, I had no visible markers that said "Asperger's" not that many people had heard of it back then the way society does now.
When I got home I went into the backroom and cried in silence. At that point in time I felt alone and was confident no one could have any idea the loneliness and isolation I felt. I vowed never to leave the house again because I didn't know why those employees got so mad at me. What did I do? I know I was quiet, but I didn't say anything rude to them (I wanted to) and was simply quiet. Yet, they just had to belittle me.
As my hour of sadness continued on I decided I was going to call the corporate office. This is something that, even to this day, I still can't believe I did because I HATE using the phone to talk to people I don't know. This phone conversation, come to think of it, was the first time I advocated for myself. I kept demanding, ahem, asking to speak to someone with some authority and eventually I got some mid manager customer relations rep and I told her the story of my experience and, for the first time ever, I mentioned Asperger's Syndrome. By her reaction I don't think she knew what it was but she mentioned that an experience like what I went through is unacceptable.
It took three years before I would go back to that location but the next time I went to a store of that chain there was a mysterious $50 credit on my account. I had to think that this was from my complaint I filed. However, credits aside, I wish I would have used that story last Friday when I was asked on if I get sad when people make fun of me because there are so many points I can make from this story.
1. Those with Asperger's don't have signs that says what we have. Maybe to the employees I was in fact being rude because they took my coldness as a sign that I didn't like them, or that I was ignoring them. This wasn't the case as I the fact of the matter was that I couldn't respond to them.
2. Words hurt. That line I heard as I left the store stuck with me for many years. Every interaction thereafter was a roller coaster ride of fear as I was convinced I was going to make everyone angry for unknown reasons. So yes, words hurt but those that may be a little quirky around you might have a diagnosis you don't know about. To mention it, or point it out, is to bring about a troubling amount of self-awareness.
3. Those on the autism spectrum need more time to process questions. These questions were being asked in a game show lightning round fashion. It takes my system a while to get over the shock of being asked, "Can I help you?" as I process what it means and what I can say to say no. The problem in this story was the pushing. It was question and question and comment after comment (there was more conversing than I wrote but since I don't recall the small talk exactly I omitted it) and it was too much. The more I got pushed the more I pull back and that probably would be confusing and perhaps be taken as a sign that I don't like you or maybe even a sign that I'm the one being rude.
4.. Those with Asperger's have so much potential. As I've written this post today I have relived that experience in greater depth. Back then one word answers were difficult, much less getting a downpour of questions. However, and this is why I so badly wished I would have given this answer to the 550 students, here I am presenting to audiences now. I know I never imagined being able to do anything like this; this presenting to crowds. Those with Asperger's may have some quirks, may have some differences, but just like everyone else we are human. We are trying to live our lives like everyone else. We do have so things which are harder and some things that don't come naturally and sometimes people may just be mean, rude, or downright insulting. I'm glad I broke my vow in 2004 as I told myself that I was never leaving the house again. What a tragedy that would have been. So remember that, words hurt. That clerk at the store almost got his wish; I convinced myself that talking wasn't worth it so I was going to speak less next time. For classmates, and anyone in society, those like myself, well, you're not going to be able to point us out. So in other words you aren't going to know that a person has it or not. What a person may think is a funny remark, may have long time effects and may make a person question the point of even trying the next time. I made it through this episode, somehow, but the next person, well, that's why episodes like this shouldn't happen.