I often have reason to interact with people who have Asperger’sa – or by the new classification, people who are on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. (I use Asperger’s here simply because it’s shorter.) Depending on where they are, it can manifest as just a small glitch here and there to a completely overbearing person who tries to dominate every interaction and just doesn’t take a hint… or anywhere inbetween.
People with Asperger’s have difficulty reading social cues and social situations. This can get very, very uncomfortable for the “regular” (neurotypical or NT) folks who are in a social situation with someone with Asperger’s. The social cues may say “I’d like to talk now” or “I have to go”, and the person with Asperger’s just … doesn’t respond the way you expect they should.
And that can get really, really uncomfortable for the NT folks. The ways Asperger’s manifests can very easily come across as obnoxious, threatening, or intimidating. Especially when the person with Asperger’s is male and everyone else is female (thanks patriarchal society!).1
I was recently in a situation where a person with Asperger’s unintentionally came across as rude. It wasn’t rudeness, but simply enthusiasm with the discussion. Some other people who saw the exchange characterized the person as rude – and I took a second to let them know that I really didn’t think it was intentional. I said:
Even though it feels weird and uncomfortable, you have to be blunt and make your needs and boundaries known. For example, say “I have to go now” to end the conversation instead of saying “I’m going to my next panel”. Say “I need to finish saying my thought before you talk” or “You are standing too close to me, please take a step back.”
In my experience, people with Asperger’s appreciate hearing this kind of feedback. That was the case with my recent situation – the supposedly “rude” person seemed really grateful and appreciative for getting the feedback in a calm, blunt and fact-based way.
If someone with Asperger’s is making you uncomfortable, they probably have no clue. Being honest and making your boundaries obvious and clear is a great help to them. And once those boundaries and guidelines are made known, it’s rarely a problem.2 They adjust their behavior and it’s all good; it frequently takes an uncomfortable (at best) situation and makes it much better.
More importantly, once you state those boundaries, it is the responsibility of the person with Asperger’s to fix the problem. In my experience, this feels like a huge relief to the NT people involved. They know they’re heard, and usually the problem clears up instantly.
Asperger’s is not a “get out of jail free” card to ignore social norms…and pretty much everyone I’ve met with the disorder feels the same way.
Here’s what I forgot to add: This technique should not be limited to just people with Asperger’s.
I am not saying that you take responsibility for another person’s actions. I am not saying that you need to teach anyone else social cues. I am not saying that you have to keep someone else from being [insert adjective here].
I am talking about taking responsibility for your own boundaries.3 If anyone starts violating your boundaries, you have the right to bluntly state your boundaries, and what they can do to fix it. It is okay to be calm and civil and blunt about how they are making you uncomfortable.
If the other person is clueless – whether due to Asperger’s, cultural norms, social ineptitude, or another reason – it gives them a chance to fix the situation.
And if they choose instead to get pissy and defensive, and refuse to fix the situation?
Then you know they’re a douchepuppet asshole, and proceed accordingly.
a I’m not telling you who; I don’t have permission to do that. Trust me that it’s multiple people, some of whom I know extremely well.
1 Yes, I’m obliquely referring to the “I’m not a creeper, I have Asperger’s” bullcrap excuses that fly every time that someone creeps at a convention. The stuff in this post takes the last little shreds of that argument and burns them. But my focus here is a little more broad than that.
2 Everybody screws up sometimes, of course. That’s not the point.
3 I cannot emphasize this distinction enough. I know how hard it is to do this; the alternative is allowing your boundaries to be violated. Support others who are making their boundaries known in this way.