Thursday, November 17, 2016

To Break a Social Rule

One of the things that may lead us to be a target of bullying is our tendency to say the absolute wrong thing at the wrong time and have no idea. This can also create issues besides bullying as we may say the wrong thing in the workplace or not understand the hierarchy system and complain to someone way above who we should be talking to. In most cases, in my opinion, our breakage of a social rule isn’t by will but by simply not understanding the rules of that moment.

            I have many examples of this, well, too many actually to be perfectly honest. Of course the biggest one I have is that, to see if my then girlfriend liked me, I broke up with her on Christmas via text message. In my mind she’d simply call and protest and all would be fine. The end result was anything but and the error I made was that I could not see the emotional impact of my social move. In presentations I call this, “being logical an emotional world” and often times that leads us straight into a tense situation without our knowing it.

            A major portion of the presentations I have given have been to law enforcement and I’ve heard many, again too many, stories of the interactions between law enforcement and those on the autism spectrum. The best, if best is the right word, example of this happened to an 18 year old with Asperger’s when he was pulled over by an officer. Thankfully his parents let him know what lights and sirens behind him meant but unfortunately that was the only thing he really understood of the traffic stop.

            The officer came and tapped on the window. This, to most people, would mean to roll your window down and when an officer wants something “later” isn’t an acceptable answer. However, if you are, “logical in an emotional world” and you takes things at an absolute literal value this would then mean a person tapping on a window is doing so to simply tap on glass for some unbeknownst reason. This, of course, didn’t sit too well with the officer and he knocked on the glass with an anger vigor and said, “Sir, roll down your window… NOW!”

            The driver was now a little confused at the officer’s anger and he responded with, “Oh, why didn’t you say so in the first place?” Before I continue on I want you to try and put yourself in each party’s shoes in this story. It might be hard if you are on the spectrum, or if you are not, but try. Imagine being the driver fully perplexed at the seemingly absurd behavior by the officer. I mean, first he taps on the window and now he is yelling. “What’s wrong with him?” was probably a thought that crossed the driver’s mind. Now go to the officer who has to deal with stressful and potentially life threatening encounters each and every day. Also, some people like to be rude to the police so at that moment the officer isn’t thinking that this person has any form of autism or the like and is simply being obstinate for the sake of making the officer’s life miserable. This is what makes encounters with law enforcement tricky when it comes to Asperger’s because our naivety to what is expected of us may come across as that we are simply trying to be a jerk or to play a, “gotcha” game which is exactly where this story heads.

            The officer, now irate, asks the driver, “Sir, can I see your license?” A few seconds passed as the driver processed this odd question and the driver responded, a bit sheepishly, “No.” The officer was at the end of his patience and he said, in the sternest voice humanly possible, “Sir, can I see your license… NOW!” This tone was almost humorous to the driver but the driver took a bit longer on answering as he tried to figure out if it were a trick question or not and when he knew it wasn’t he chuckled and said, “No, you still can’t see my license” and with that a few more things were said and the driver was arrested for disobeying an officers and obstructing an officer’s duty and taken to the station where, thankfully, the officers there had autism training and were able to read between the lines that this person wasn’t trying to one up the officer and was honestly confused by the commands given. No charges were filed, but his mom did have to pick him up at the station and when she got there she asked, with tears in her eyes, “Why didn’t you help the officer?” to which her son dryly replied, “But mom, I was trying to help the officer! He kept asking me if he could ‘see my license’ which how could he? It was in my wallet.”

            These social encounters can leave a target on us or may lead us to be mocked by our peer group if they witness it and most of the time we’re left wondering, “What just happened?” Honestly, we can say the wrong thing and have no idea we just broke a rule.

            Here’s the thing about social rules; they are always changing. One minute a joke is acceptable the next minute it isn’t. I’ve seen several university studies as of late boldly proclaiming that, “people on the autism spectrum may be drawn or become obsessed with games” which, for me, this is the most obvious study next to, “people need oxygen to breathe.” At a young age I said, “Within rules everything is known” and when it comes to social rules we are often left wondering where the actual rulebook is that everyone adheres to because it’s just so darn confusing.

            Here’s a good way to envision what trying to navigate these social rules are for us on the autism spectrum; imagine you’re playing the game Monopoly and you just rolled a 7. You’ve landed on Boardwalk where there currently sets 11 houses and 27 hotels which is way against the rules but nevermind that because there is also a king on Boardwalk being checked by the knight that just landed on Community Chest and also you just landed on a Triple Word Space so I hope you have some good letters on your rack to play off the word currently on Luxury Tax. Say what? What is going on in the example I just gave? Is it Scrabble? Is it Chess? Or is it Monopoly with one of the weirdest house rules set known to man? When it comes to socializing this is what it can be like and trying to discern what is actually going on can lead us to be severely frustrated because, each time we try, the rules are constantly changing and by the time we adapt they’ve changed again. Can you see why we can get so frustrated? Most of us crave sameness and order and when it comes to the social rulebook, well, there doesn’t seem to be one so if a social rule is broken the root cause may be a simple misunderstanding.

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