Life on the Spectrum

Archive for August, 2011

Please don’t use figurative language

As an Aspie, I sometimes have problems when people use figurative or symbolic language. One would think that as a former English literature major I would be used to similes and metaphors, but I always believed that Lord of the Flies was merely about a bunch of kids on a deserted island, and that usually a cigar really is just a cigar. In general, I prefer that a person tells me something in plain English (or French, but I understand English better) what they mean, rather than using symbols or metaphors.

This morning I had a conversation with my partner of 13 years. We were talking about my router. It hadn’t been working properly, and I’d asked him to fix it. I was asleep when he fixed it, so when I woke up I asked him what had been wrong with it, so that I’d be prepared if it started to malfunction again.

“You were trying to barbecue it,” he told me.

I told him that I was doing no such thing; after all, I don’t even own a barbecue.

He insisted that I was trying to barbecue my router.

Again, I told him that I don’t own a barbecue, and that even if I did, I would not put my router on it, and to please tell me what had been wrong without the figurative language. “Just tell me in plain English, please!” Nevertheless, he continued to say that I was trying to barbecue my router.

A few hours later, thanks to a suggestion from a friend of mine on LiveJournal, I rephrased my question about the router. Instead of asking what was wrong with it, I asked John how he fixed it.

John told me to look at it. I saw that where before, the router, computer modem and telephone modem had been stacked on top of each other, they were now separated from each other.He told me that had been what was causing the router to be “barbecued.” It had been overheating.

What I want to know is why he couldn’t just tell me: “The router was overheating because you had stacked it in a pile with two modems on top of it.” Why did he have to use a silly expression like, “You tried to barbecue it?”

Sometimes I think that people would get along a lot better if they stopped trying to obscure what they said in figures of speech, metaphors, symbols, jokes and sarcasm and just plain said what they mean — politely, but honestly.

And I would have loved to sit down with William Golding and ask him whether the dead airman and the conch shell and the pig in Lord of the Flies were actually meant to be anything other than a dead airman, a conch shell and a pig.

What does it all mean?

If you don’t have Asperger’s, or don’t know anyone who does (or simply don’t KNOW that you know someone who does), you may be wondering: what does it mean to have Asperger’s? What makes you different? Why is it a big deal?

For me, most of the time it’s actually not a big deal. But then something happens that reminds me that I don’t see the world the way non-Aspies see it. A joke goes over my head. I take something seriously that was not meant to be taken seriously. Maybe someone was sarcastic, and I misinterpreted the sarcasm. Someone asks a rhetorical question, and I answer it, because I didn’t realize it was meant rhetorically.

To some extent, writing is less open to misinterpretation than speech, because many writers, especially in blogs or other social media sites like Twitter, use smiley faces or other emoticons. But not always. Some people just assume that everyone knows they like to be sarcastic, or they think it’s obvious that their question was rhetorical. Who can blame them? They didn’t write that Tweet or blog entry with Aspies in mind.

A few days ago my father mentioned that I never made eye contact when I was a kid, and I still don’t. I was a bit surprised that he mentioned it now, after being my dad for more than 40 years, but these days it’s more troublesome for him because he’s losing his hearing. I took lessons in American Sign Language a few summers ago, and because my teacher was Deaf it was important that I looked at her when I spoke or signed to her. Unfortunately, it was extremely difficult for me to do that, which made it very hard for me to communicate with her.

Another situation in which eye contact is important is job interviews. Job interviews are stressful to begin with; add a requirement to do something that is very difficult for an Aspie, and it’s not hard to understand why so many of us Aspies are unemployed or under-employed.

I also find it hard to come up with situations that fit the questions the interviewer asks, such as: “Describe a situation in which you had a dispute with a co-worker, and how you resolved it.” What if you haven’t had any disputes with co-workers? What do you do then? Also, being very literal-minded, I try to find something that fits every question exactly, down to the most minute detail, which makes it even more difficult.

Sometimes those of us who are Aspies will offend people unintentionally. We may be rude without being aware of it. I once had a friend buy me lunch, and I fully intended to thank her when the meal was through, but suddenly, in the middle of the meal, she glared at me and said, “YOU’RE WELCOME!” Apparently she had expected me to thank her sooner. I thanked her profusely when she said that, but it must have appeared to be less than sincere thanks.

Contrary to popular opinion, people with Asperger’s do not go around offending people willy-nilly in the belief that we can use our Asperger’s as an excuse. The Aspies that I know, myself included, will apologize sincerely if we have offended people. Sometimes I will offer my Asperger’s as an explanation if I have missed a social cue, but I don’t believe that Asperger’s excuses me from behaving according to social norms.