I was diagnosed with level one Autism Spectrum Disorder when I was thirty-two. Since I have learned of my unique strengths and challenges living as a man with Autism I have found that I better understand why I had so many difficulties understanding things. One such difficulty I often run into is the incorrect use of one’s native language, in my case that would be English.
The problem I have in communication isn’t that slang shouldn’t be used. I use it to my own extent and enjoy it as much as anyone else. I laugh at slang jokes and use slang for exaggerating or highlighting severity like many people do. My issue is that certain slang or certain manners of speech are less useful and more representative of my challenges living life as a man with Autism.
I have hyposensitivity issues. That means I experience certain things differently and often less severely than other people might. I don’t experience touch the same way as others. My vision is perfect but I have difficulty in reading facial expression. My challenges computing facial expressions, and emotions as well, results in my having dependence on word usage to clarify situations and meanings. I can’t rely on a person’s facial expressions to clarify meaning as easily as neural typical people during important points of conversation.
Have you ever had a misunderstanding with someone because you misinterpreted a text message they sent as serious when they were joking or vice versa? I, and many people with Autism, have this happen even while speaking in person with alarming regularity. We rely on the text or word used much more than the body language or facial expression of the speaker for clarification of meaning.
Take this sample sentence for example,
“Did you steal my red bandana?”
If you emphasize a different word in this sentence each time you speak it, the implication of what’s being said is shockingly different. “Did YOU” is asking if it was the person you are speaking to or someone else that stole the red bandana. “Did you STEAL” implies that you are asking if the bandana was stolen or borrowed. “Did you steal MY” implies that you are unsure if your bandana was stolen or if it was another person’s bandana. “Did you steal my RED” implies you are asking if the red bandana was stolen or if a different colour bandana was stolen. “Did you steal my red BANDANA” implies that you want to know if your bandana was stolen or if it was some other cloth like a towel or a rag that was stolen.
Furthermore, if a person demonstrates anger when they ask if the bandana was stolen they are implying theft and offence, which means a possible confrontation. If a person demonstrates calm or jovial happiness when they ask if the bandana was stolen, they are implying that you borrowed it without asking, a minor offence and not usually a cause of confrontation.
As a man with Autism I have to analyze the bulk of my in person conversations in this manner. It is exhausting. Especially when the stakes are high. If I don’t do this constantly I am likely to blunder into a confrontation and sadly Autism Awareness is still so low in the public that when I say,
“I am sorry. I don’t understand. I am Autistic.”
Most people won’t know what that means, or worse they will say they know what I mean even though they do not because they don’t want to look stupid in public. Resultantly I am often left even more confused and in possible danger.
Living with the challenges of Autism for me is like experiencing conversation with people as if everything is structured like a text message with the constant potential for misunderstanding.
That can mean the loss of a job when I upset a customer by accident through such confusion. That can mean the loss of a friendship when I misunderstand boundaries that haven’t been clarified enough for someone with my challenges. The benefits of living with autism, for me, outweigh the challenges I experience and I wouldn’t choose to be different. However these challenges still exist and sometimes they overwhelm me.
If you have a person with Autism in your life that you care about this lived experience that I describe might lead you to sympathy. Maybe you don’t and you still feel sympathy. Either way you are most likely a good person. I can tell if only because you have read this far, let’s be friends. Since we are friends now why not show solidarity with people on the Autism Spectrum by taking on a certain experiment of sorts? It won’t cost anything and as an added bonus it will cause neural genesis in practice, you will actually grow brain cells by doing it, a fun bonus that will literally make you more intelligent in the aftermath of your efforts. Sound good? Awesome, try this!
Think of a word you use too often. Perhaps you are the type of person that uses the word “like” a lot. As in “she was, like…” or “That’s, like, crazy…” we all have words we use that we know aren’t correct in the way we use them. I call them filler words. Words that you use when you can’t think of words better suited for what you are trying to communicate. Let’s show solidarity with Autism by flipping this issue on its head. Identify the word you use often, and often incorrectly, and force yourself to stop mid-sentence when you have used that word, such as like, then force yourself to use a different word. By doing this you will experience a similar kind of frustration people with Autism experience, albeit in an opposite manner. You will also gain intelligence in addition to getting a taste of life on the spectrum through your bravery in action. What a great way to show support to people with Autism!
Sean Leal is on a mission to advocate both for mental health awareness and for Autism awareness as well as care. After looking back on the tragedy and abuse he suffered in his childhood he spent eight years in therapy and was diagnosed with level one Autism at the age of thirty-two. After his diagnosis other members of his family were tested for ASD as well. His brother, sister and uncle have been formally diagnosed with ASD as well as several of their children.
After helping his family learn more about the Autism spectrum he is very excited to be given the opportunity to volunteer and write for ASO. It is his hope that the book he has written, an autobiography of his life, will one day be published so that he might pursue his dream career of being a writer and published author. He considers his autistic traits to be a gift, they absolutely are the reason he survived what he did and he is proud to be on the spectrum.