Do you remember who taught you how to smile? Who told you that you should clench your fists when you’re angry? Or jump up and down when you’re excited?
You’ve probably heard the stereotype that people with Aspergers aren’t good at body language. Today I want to flip that completely… Of course this has its grain of truth – many aspies I know say they have a hard time reading others. However, a bigger problem I’ve experienced is other people completely misreading me, and I think it explains a lot about why so many other aspies are confused too…
One of the beautiful things about young children is that they have virtually no inhibitions. They don’t worry about what other people will think. They just do whatever they feel like. No one taught you how to cry. It’s just the natural thing that you ‘feel’ like doing when something is wrong and you don’t know how to make it better. Thanks to these instincts we can quickly tell a happy face from a sad face, or an excited face from an angry face. But, what if you happened to have a face like the cat pictured above?
How is this cat feeling right now? Is it actually grumpy? It’s fun to believe it is… but common sense tells us otherwise. A few years ago I owned a grey flat faced persian cat and like the picture above it looked grumpy all the time. We even used to joke about it! What we didn’t do was constantly ask it to ‘smile’ or ‘cheer up’. In reality this ‘scowling’ face, with eyes half shut, meant that it was about to fall asleep… and was therefore as blissfully content as a cat could be. I don’t have a naturally grumpy face, but I do naturally express myself in ways that others often misinterpret.
Have you ever had someone think you’re angry when you weren’t? It’s an immensely frustrating experience!! Your every word, your every movement is interpreted as aggressive and there’s nothing you can do (or say) to convince them otherwise. Even if you started out peaceful and friendly, how long before you become angry and frustrated? Is that a self fulfilling prophesy?
An emotionally mature adult can recognise what is happening. They are treating me ‘as if’ I’m angry. But how would a child respond? One who has not yet learned how people get treated? Surely this would be an immensely confusing experience! Imagine being friendly and then, seemingly out of the blue, being treated with hostility. What would it be like to have people constantly treat you as if you’re sad when you’re actually happy and peaceful? Or as bored when you’re actually interested? You get told off when you pay attention in school, and when you are crushed with sadness no-one notices. Wouldn’t you feel alone in the world? And like no-one understands you?
Here is the closest analogy I’ve found to try and describe what many aspies mean when they say that people are confusing or unpredictable. It’s as if you’re talking to someone and everything is fine… then all of a sudden they scream and run away. What did I do this time? And what did you think it meant?! Is it any wonder that many people with Aspergers report difficulty in reading other people? How on earth can you learn to relate to other people when they constantly misunderstand you? How can you learn what is appropriate and what isn’t? Should I scream and run away too?
Fortunately for me, I have now cracked a large amount of the neurotypical code. In the beginning it seemed like an impossible mess, but by making even a little progress it gets exponentially easier. I have dedicated so much of my life to understanding people and why they do what they do, that I’m ironically much better at it than most. Unfortunately, that doesn’t help me all that much. I mean the knowledge is crucial, but it doesn’t make my ‘problem’ go away. And that problem is that other people often read bizarre things into my actions…
To read more, stay tuned for Body Language Part II… 🙂