Toilets vs. Telephones

To all of you out there who get frustrated with me when I do not answer your emails or phone calls as quickly as you would like (or ever, sometimes – sorry about that), maybe this story will give you a little bit of insight into me.

First let me say, that by God’s grace, I am getting better at responding in a timely manner. But here is a glimpse into why you may not always hear from me when you think you should.

Yesterday afternoon I had two things that I wanted to get done: scrub the bathroom and make some phone calls for a friend to people that I didn’t know, asking them to sign up for something that I believed in. As the afternoon wore on, I realized that I was only going to be able to get to one of those two things.

I picked cleaning the extremely dirty bathroom.

Doing unto others

So, one of the classic signs of autism is the inability to innately understand that others have different opinions on things than they do. Once an autistic person learns of this reality, they still do not think that is ok. They honestly think that the other person is wrong, or is just trying to make their life uncomfortable. They really don’t understand how others can want to think about or do something other than what they like.

With that in mind, we come to the always exciting, but contentious question (though it should not be, but is because of autism in the house), where should we go out to eat?

When my son was preschool age, we always went to a place he liked. When he was a little older, we tried other restaurants that we knew would have something that he would hopefully eat. I say, hopefully, because any mother of a child with ASD, and many mothers of little kids, in general, know that all hamburgers and pizzas are  not created exactly alike. So to the child, they are not the same food. Therefore, liking McDonald’s hamburger, does not guarantee liking Perkin’s hamburger, and so on.

We still choose restaurants that we know have something he will at least try, and he has gotten quite good at eating any hamburger, and almost any pizza without fussing. I am very proud of him, as that is a big step. Unfortunately for him, because he is learning to accept tiny variations in food, we have been starting to go to restaurants that are favorites of other family members, but do not have the requisite pizza or hamburger.

For instance, my daughter loves KFC. My husband and I also enjoy it. We have been to KFC before, but we try to avoid it because it brings A LOT of complaining from our son. He loves Scwhan’s chicken fries. Those are his favorite food at home. However, KFC chicken fingers are nothing like the Schwan’s. I find both to be quite tasty.

There is a KFC near the children’s school, so a week ago we went there for dinner before the school art fair. We live 20 miles from the school, so to go home for supper would not have left time to eat. Sometimes I pack a supper to eat before school functions. But I had promised my daughter that we could go to KFC, since we had been to my son’s favorite restaurant numerous times already.

As those of you with ASD kids can well imagine, we had a rather miserable dinner at KFC. Oh, the food was great, the service was wonderful, even the booth was comfortable and the restaurant clean and inviting. But my son would not stop fussing. We did get him to eat all of his dinner (two chicken strips and corn on the cob, washed down with some pop), but the whining, complaining, mouthing off, was incessant.

In previous years my husband and I would have decided that going to KFC should not happen again. We would tell our daughter that maybe mom could bring some home for her while Mark had something else, but we would not go to KFC as a family. Well, my son has truly been growing in at least his knowledge that others don’t always like what he likes. And he is starting to feel a little less threatened by that fact, though he still doesn’t exactly embrace it. He probably never will feel totally comfortable with it. I know, as an Aspie, I still find that truth to be innately uncomfortable at times, even though my experience has taught me that it is no big deal, and can even make life more fun.

We told my son that until he can learn to go to someone else’s favorite restaurant without complaining, we are not going to take him to his favorite. Because of all of his fussing at KFC, he was banned from his favorite, Wendy’s, for a week. We would have never even dreamed of trying something like this a year ago, but since we have seen some little hints of developmental readiness, we thought we would give it a try.

Yesterday there was another function at school that required us to stay close for dinner. Again we went to KFC. My son made an initial complaint, but then settled in quite nicely. He wasn’t exactly enjoying the experience, taking some reminding to take a bite of chicken or corn in between tales of the Lego sets he wanted to save his allowance to buy. But overall, he did very well. I didn’t leave the restaurant vowing to never take him there again!

I really hadn’t thought that he would behave so nicely. I figured it would take quite a few visits to other restaurants before he would earn the privelege of going back to one that he likes. I guess he was developmentally ready to take on the challenge, and the promise of being able to go back to his favorite restaurant after he behaved at someone else’s was a big motivator.

So next Tuesday we are going to Wendy’s for supper before yet another school function. Welcome to the end of the school year!

Small Talk

(Marriage tip #3)

I wonder if this area of marriage is easier for a married woman with Asperger’s Syndrome/High-functioning Autism than it is for a married man. The reason I write this is because people with AS/HFA generally do not like to make small talk.

My husband wishes I was a little better at small talk, but being a guy, he doesn’t mind that I am quieter unless I have something I really want to talk about. However, I wonder if men with AS/HFA stress their spouses out a bit more on this point.

Here’s the reason we AS/HFAs don’t like small talk, we don’t gain the same things from small talk that neurotypical people (NTs) do. I have been told that NTs use small talk to gauge how their audience is feeling, to see if their audience is open to talking about something deeper.

Those of us with AS/HFA are not able to read the subtle cues that NTs read during small talk, so small talk is just a pointless, time and energy wasting exercise to us. My husband has decided at times that I must not be in the mood to talk about something important because I seem exasperated, or tired while he tries to engage in small talk. The truth is that I would love to talk about something important. I am feeling exasperated during the small talk because I do not understand the point of it. Anyone gets exasperated if they don’t understand the point of what someone else is trying to communicate to them.

I have also been told that NTs use small talk to warm themselves up. Because verbal communication is generally a bit difficult for us with AS/HFA, we generally only do what we absolutely need to do. Can you see why that would mean that we don’t like to warm up first, but just jump right in?

Finally, we find it very confusing to switch from small talk to something more serious. In our black and white world, either we are hanging out and chatting about nothing (small talk), or we are trying to solve the world’s problems. If we are in the mood for one, we are not planning on being in the mood for the other, so are surprised when the subject moves from light to serious.

So NTs, don’t assume that your partner doesn’t care about what you have to say when they don’t warm up to your small talk. Just jump in and start talking about something important to your relationship, and see if that doesn’t get them interacting a bit more.

I am slowly learning how important it is for my husband to warm up with small talk. It is not comfortable for me, but I just have to remind myself that if I want to have a good relationship with him, I need to do what he needs, not just what I need.

Talking about peeves

(Marriage tip #2)

I have learned that if I am upset with my neurotypical (NT) spouse about something, he prefers that first I start out with some pleasant small talk, followed by a comment about how much I enjoy him. After those pleasantries, I may bring up what is bothering me using an, “I feel this way when you behave that way,” statement. I then should quickly follow up with another pleasant statement. From reading parenting and relationship materials, and listening to married friends talk over the years, it sounds like this is the way most NTs prefer to be told bad news.

This, however, is not at all how those with Autism Spectrum Disorders like to learn about an issue. First of all, we don’t particularly like small talk at any time, though most of us have learned to put up with it, and try to participate for the sake of keeping up relationships.

Second, we want you to get right to the point. It confuses us when you start out with something you like about us, just to have you then launch into something you don’t like about us. It does not make us feel good to have you say something nice about us first. In fact, we feel tricked – here we thought we were having a pleasant conversation between contented friends when, BAM! Sucker punch to the mid-section. You are not at all contented but frustrated with us.

Now it will be hard for us to have a pleasant conversation with you in the future. We won’t be able to relax – we will keep wondering when you are going to drop the hammer on us, again.

It is ok to say a quick, “I love you, but…” But please, no long, drawn out pleasantries. Just give us the bad news, and let’s move on to how to solve it.

You can tell us what you like about us after we have discussed the bad news. We may find that comforting, but please don’t waste your breath on it before. That will just make us feel patronized, disrespected, lied to, etc.

Before I realized that I had Asperger’s Syndrome, I had gotten to the point where I was really nervous about talking to my husband, because I always seemed to upset him, when I was just trying to make our relationship better, and vice versa. Now I understand he is not trying to trick me, but trying to be considerate, from an NTs point of view.

I am trying to be less direct, more round-about, and more affirming like he prefers. I fear that I am really quite terrible at it. It is so uncomfortable, and feels so conniving. But with God’s help, I hope to improve. I think he tries to be more direct with me, but that is a very foreign way for him. The good news is that we are both now aware of our differences, so we are able to focus on the issue at hand, and not so much the delivery of the news.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, by doing unto them what you don’t want done unto you, but that they prefer.

Change of Plans

(Marriage tip #1)

Here is one of the first issues I remember running into with my husband. My husband and I might casually discuss what we wanted to do on the upcoming weekend one week night during dinner. Upon conclusion of the discussion, I would consider the weekend plans set. Come Saturday, I understood that we would do A, then go to B, and so on.

However, my dear husband would wake up at an appropriately late time for a Saturday morning, then ask me, quite innocently, “So what would you like to do today?”

My response – total frustration that my careful communication during the previous discussion several days prior had come to naught. A deep sense of loneliness borne from the fact that my husband, with whom I had spent careful time discussing my desired plans, had not the slightest idea what I wanted. Great irritation at being asked to repeat myself. Fear of the unknown would instantly consume me. My snappy responses would include, “Why are you asking me that? What did I already tell you?”

He would honestly have no idea what I was talking about. Eventually he would remember that we had had a pleasant conversation several days before. “Oh, and I guess we did talk about some ideas for the weekend.” But, in his mind, nothing had been set, we had just been talking.

Those of you on the spectrum know exactly what is wrong with that last sentence. We HFAs never, “just talk.” Talking takes a lot of emotional effort. Talking requires us to let loose into the world what is going on deep inside of us. Talking is not something we do for fun, but out of necessity. I can have fun talking with people, but I don’t enjoy, “just shooting the breeze.” I like to talk about something meaningful.

So how have my husband and I learned to work with each other on this typical communication problem between an NT and HFA?

I have to remind myself that he is not trying to ignore my words. He just doesn’t see every piece of communication as black and white as I do. In his world you can discuss ideas, but not settle on one of them immediately. So though I still get panicky feeling when I feel like he is changing plans, I try not to react, but remind myself of how he thinks – that he likes the excitement of change, and that it will probably be just as fun as the original plans. The panicky feeling has decreased over the years.

He has learned that I truly feel unglued when too many things are up in the air. I am not trying to be difficult, I just truly cannot even imagine living in so much grayness. I feel like I am literally losing my mind (and I do mean, literally. I know that many people write, literally, when they mean, figuratively. I mean, literally.). So he tries to soften the blow by saying something like, “I know we talked about these things, but I was thinking that this would be fun/useful/etc.” If we had planned something specific for a date night, he will call ahead or e-mail me to let me know if he is in the mood for something different. This gives me time to get over the panic, so that I can think more rationally about his suggestion, and be ready to talk with him about it as a reasonable person rather than a crazed meany.

I have learned to be open to a change in plans sometimes, because it is important for him to have that flexibility. Without it he starts feeling too boxed in. He has learned to be open to scheduling things ahead of time and sticking to them, because he knows that I need that stability at times (ok, ideally, all of the time, but that wouldn’t be fair!).

The thing that keeps both of us sane is our faith in God. God is ever faithful and stable for me, and He is ever full of surprises for my husband. So when each other falls short, we don’t have to freak out.