To all my social media friends, especially the new family-in-law members in a few nodes of the tree who don’t know me yet: I don’t do Christmas cards. Even if you sent me one last year. I don’t refuse them, I just don’t return the gesture. Not Christmas-y enough? I beg to differ. I can explain, but you’ll have to bear with me for a bit. I promise, it’ll all make sense by the end.
Growing up knowing nothing about Asperger’s Syndrome or autism in general, I tried desperately to follow the social conventions, but with little success and no clue as to why. I disappointed and alienated so many people that by the time I reached adulthood, I’d given up completely and adopted a pattern of moving through people’s lives without any overt attempt to remain connected to anyone for long.
Issues with sincerity – or more precisely, how others perceive it – is a big part of my problem. We ask our children “do you mean that, or are you just telling me what you think I want to hear?” When someone is unexpectedly kind to us, we wonder whether they are genuine or have hidden motives. Our societal archetype for insincerity is the used car salesman, and this character is universally despised. You don’t need to be fluent in non-verbal communication to understand that authenticity is the basis for human relationships.
All of which should be no problem for someone on the spectrum, right? After all, autistic people are known for their honesty. We have it in spades. One might assume it should work to our advantage. Actually, it works the other way around. Consider the autistic kid on the playground who doesn’t understand that dealing with your just-skinned knee is more important to you than the toy train he wants to show you. With practice, the kid learns to look for signs that tell him how to adjust his approach. Blood is an obvious clue. He knows the injury takes precedence over the train and that you need to talk about that instead. “Wow, that looks bad. Does it hurt when I poke it with a stick?” Eventually, the kid figures out that in this situation, it’s about you and not him. “Wow, that looks bad. Do you need me to call the teacher or help you back to the classroom?”
But that doesn’t mean the autistic kid has suddenly developed theory of mind, mirror neurons or the ability to parse body language. It means he has stored a set of rules that let him consciously work out a socially acceptable response. He still wants to show someone that train and, as soon as he gets you to an adult, he probably will. But all the behavior between those points maps to a foggy region that lies between utter sincerity and pure calculus. His responses at this age are not finely tuned nor do they adapt to fluid situations, therefore it is sometimes obvious to others that they are in fact calculated behaviors. You may conclude that he is insincere and just telling you what he thinks you want to hear. But if that kid didn’t value your friendship, he would not make the effort to adjust his behavior toward social norms. Sure he is running a rules engine, essentially a computer program in his head, but that activity is very stressful for him and he wouldn’t do it for lesser friends.
Stressful? Yes, and when I’ve explained this to others they always seem surprised. There seems to be an underlying assumption that acting “normal” would be a relief for me. That it solves problems without introducing new ones. That there is no cost. In reality, it is a matter of shifting the stress of negative social outcomes to a different kind of stress generated by the activities and disciplines required to achieve positive outcomes. As long as the result is a net positive outcome it is worth the effort, but it is not the one-sided improvement people assume it should be. Here is a very brief and simplified explanation of how this works during a conversation we might be having.
As I’m listening to you, there is one thread of thought parsing meaning out of the words. I’m very literal so when you use figurative language, it isn’t always obvious to me what you mean. Fortunately, some constructions are so common that they are easily parsed. For example if you say “he gave me a ticket and I was only going 50” I know that you really meant “I was going only 50” because the “only” was intended apply to the speed and not the activity of “going” somewhere. Sound pedantic? Welcome to my head. For some, these unintentional meanings are merely amusing, but for me they are semantic speed bumps that completely derail my train of thought and ability to follow your conversation. The misplaced “only” took me years to master but now I mangle it as badly as everyone else because the remapped grammar has become natural. However, many common constructions remain difficult for me and so this thread of attention requires a fairly good-sized chunk of working memory to rearrange and parse meaning out of figurative, colloquial, and imprecise language structures.
Parallel to that, I’ve also dispatched one thread of thought watching for obvious non-verbal signs. I’m still blind to most body language but I’ve learned to watch for your eyes flitting about looking for an escape route, shifting your weight nervously, yawning or rolling your eyes. Dilated pupils or nostrils that are supposed to be poker tells? Completely invisible. Micro-expressions? You might as well have had full-face botox. Posture mimicry? I can kinda figure that out if I rotate through several postures and you follow along. Of course, if I do figure out that you are mimicking my postures, I don’t know what to do with that information.
At the same time, yet another thread of thought is monitoring for key words and phrases and submitting these to the rules engine. Oh, you like something I’ve written? Response: I’m supposed to return a complement or gracefully accept the one offered. Should I know you by reputation? Not sure. Can I recall quickly anything you’ve written professionally or socially? There was that Facebook post. Too awkward to compare that to the technical article you just complimented me on. Running out of time. Punt. So I quickly say “thanks” and steer away by asking about an unrelated topic. You pick up the cue and conversation moves somewhat smoothly along. I would be relieved to have averted social disaster except I’m too busy trying to parse the next conversation thread, and the one after that, and so on.
Within an hour or two, I am completely exhausted mentally and physically from the effort. Every response has to occur in near-real time or the interaction breaks down. The quality of the responses needs to remain socially appropriate or the interaction breaks down. I cannot sustain it at this level over extended durations, and group discussions require extraordinary concentration and shorter exposure. When I’m alone, I repeatedly replay these encounters in my head, looking for subtle nuances and updating the rules engine. After a few decades, I am usually able to pass for Neurotypical in casual social encounters. Part of this is the finely tuned rules engine and part of it is my limiting the encounter to territory mapped out by the rules engine. Steer me out of my comfort zone and the clockwork starts to show through.
I’m told that the figurative language, the body language and the social norms are all more or less intuitive for neurotypicals. One of the ways you decide whether someone is lying to you is you simply “know” it because you process all these inputs on an unconscious level. That’s not to imply you never analyze them consciously, merely that much of the work happens in the background and you often experience a strong conviction about which you can’t describe the process of how you got there. Because it is naturally intuitive, someone who appears to think a bit too long about their response, especially in situations that would be automatic for you, seems insincere.
The creates for me a constant tension between authenticity versus calculation. I know that you want me to be authentic in our relationship, and yet my unfiltered self is socially unacceptable. So I have a process in which I hope that my motives remain authentic, although my actions are filtered and transformed to meet social norms. If I operate at a level of minimal filtering so that I feel internally authentic, most others will feel uncomfortable because the interaction will be socially inappropriate. If I modify my responses to a greater degree, I can achieve socially acceptable results but I struggle with what feels to me like hypocrisy. In other words, it usually is not possible for both of us to be comfortable with my authenticity and yet we can’t be friends unless you feel I’m sincere.
Autistic people don’t have as many anchors to cling to, so we cling tightly to the ones we find. Personally, I find behaviors and routines that seem to work and stick rigidly to these, bordering on OCD. Others may find certain behaviors, sounds, colors or tactile sensations to be calming and reassuring. That sense of self is the one anchor we all seem to have in common. For some autistic individuals who “live in their own world,” that sense of self may be the only anchor they have. And yet for an autistic person to function in a neurotypical world requires them to sacrifice some of who they are in order to map their authentic behaviors onto social norms. We are, for all intents and purposes, merely “acting” normal. The delta between our most authentic selves and the socially acceptable behavior we learn to portray represents the degree to which we must sacrifice our own identity in order to function in your world. The irony is not lost on us that the act must appear authentic to be effective.
Read the following paragraph as many times as necessary to fully understand the implications:
For neurotypicals, “sincerity” is often understood to be the actions you would take if you don’t stop to think about them. For autistic people, sincerity can be the actions you take because you stopped to think about them.
As a guy who maintains one of those rules engines, I can tell you that after decades it is optimized primarily for sincerity. The rules all have the goal of approaching the sincerity boundary as closely as possible without actually crossing it. I know that if I smack of insincerity, I will lose your trust. I know that by explaining all of this, you may begin to understand how much of our interaction is calculated consciously and deliberately on my part, and that this in itself may result in loss of your trust. I also know that it is worth the risk. There’s no basis for long term relationship if I accept you for who you are and you expect never to catch a glimpse of the clockwork.
So what does this have to do with Christmas cards?
Unfortunately, nothing says “I used to know you” better than a Christmas card. As a relationship fades away, the lingering Christmas card is the echo of what used to be. Even more unfortunately, the Christmas card is often a reminder that I once bought something from you and you’d like more of my money. Or it means we are family or friends and, despite not communicating all that often, you feel obligated. Or perhaps you are a manager or co-worker who assumes the professional relationship calls for a card exchange. There is a spectrum of relationships spanning on one end people like my wife and kids who definitely deserve a card from me and on the other end are people who I’ve once spent money with and send a card because they want more of it. Somewhere along this spectrum is a threshold below which no cards are sent.
Where do you draw the line? Figuring out the cutoff point requires an analysis and ranking of relationships according to criteria that are invisible to me. Sending a card out of an obligation to return one from the prior year seems to me to be so inauthentic that I can’t bring myself to do it. Consigning people to the “no-card” list feels like writing them off. There’s also the problem of distilling the fuzzy card/no-card threshold into the binary cutoff point where you get either zero or one cards from me. Do I rank everyone and just go down the list until I run out of cards? Arbitrary selection also seems inauthentic, but any other criteria are indistinct. For a guy who can barely parse social cues face to face, figuring out the Christmas card list is ritual torture. Then when it’s done, it feels like the worst kind of insincerity. I feel like I have become the used car salesman.
The whole notion of Christmas cards seems crazy to me anyway. I realize it marks the occasion of Christ’s birth and so is anchored to a point on the calendar. But I don’t celebrate your birth by sending a card to someone who is not you, and if I’m going to celebrate Christ at all it seems to me to be insincere to do so only during the holiday season. Instead I live my life according to principles congruent to the core beliefs of most religions, including the teachings of Christ. To do that I contribute to the common good to the best of my ability and find a way to give freely of myself to at least one other person, preferably more, each and every day that I’m blessed to live on this Earth. I avoid actions that I know to harm someone else, and if I find myself in a zero-sum game where my win means your loss I often resign the game and walk away rather than win at your expense. I don’t say anything about somebody that I would not tell them to their face. I don’t do anything that I would not be willing to sign my name to. When I lead, I try to do so by example rather than by trying to force my ideals onto others. I’m not perfect in living up to these principles but I practice continuous self-improvement. If a Christmas card (or lack thereof) is the barometer of our relationship, then one or both of us are doing it wrong.
It was on this basis, many years ago, that I gave up on Christmas cards. Since then I have had the good fortune to thrive in a career that brings me into contact with people from all over the world. I now have friends from all the major religions, and a number of minor ones. Had I not already given up Christmas cards, I would be forced to reconsider on this basis alone. I don’t know enough about the religions of all my friends to honor them properly. I do know enough to realize my Judeo-Christian background doesn’t equip me to understand much of the Eastern world view without some study, and I’m as likely to offend someone as to honor them if I try. So I’m not going to start sending cards for other religious holidays, and sending Christmas cards to non-Christian friends who practice some other faith seems a bit rude, especially since I’m not practicing in any formal religion these days. I’m happy to ignore all these holidays equally because I believe that my practice of trying to embody the spirit of them on a daily basis honors them all equally and more meaningfully. I am an Equal-Opportunity Scrooge.
If you send me a Christmas card, or any other holiday card for that matter, I’m happy to receive it. But if you want to honor our relationship, it would mean a lot more to me if you took the few dollars you would have spent on the card and donated it to a teacher. And if you do send me a card, not getting one back doesn’t mean you failed to make the cut. It only means that I don’t know how to participate in a way that both honors the spirit of the holiday and preserves my authenticity. If anything, it’s me who doesn’t make the cut.
I told you at the beginning that if you read the whole post you’d understand why I don’t do Christmas cards. I hope that is now true. Keeping in mind that I harbor no presumptions about representing autistic people in general with respect to holiday card exchange, I’ll also offer the following advice. If you have an autistic person in your life, the greatest gift you can give them is to communicate with them on their terms. Be their refuge. Be the person with whom they can experience meaningful human connection without filters. Let them be their most authentic self. Practice this year ’round. If you can do this, you will have achieved what the card was supposed to represent. And you’ll have made a friend for life.
I wrote this before starting Ask-An-Aspie.net. New posts about Asperger’s Syndrome and life on the autism spectrum are hosted over there. This blog will continue to feature…well, pretty much everything else.