Understanding Others

Understanding other people is something I’ve had to work on for a long time, since I first realised that others weren’t just like me. It’s still something I struggle with, but so long as I’m aware of it I normally do okay.

My default position is that I am average human being (or penguin). I know that in reality I’m pretty far away from average, but it’s an automatic thing. The easiest part for me to understand is that others have different interests, as my own have changed as I’ve gone through life. When I was little I wasn’t obsessed with penguins, but wanted to learn everything about different subjects (such as living in Victorian times). I’m still interested in that type of history, but it’s no longer all consuming as it was then. It’s easy for me to understand that I might not like watching soaps but that others are, and my need to know everything means I’m genuinely interested in what others like and want to talk about, even if I’m not particularly interested in doing said thing (like watching soaps).

It gets more complicated when it comes to life experiences. My childhood was pretty different from the average British kid growing up in the 90s. Although I shared a lot of the same cultural heritage (watching most of the same TV shows and reading the same books), I had domestic violence, homelessness, living with alcoholic and mentally ill parents and other stuff that most people didn’t experience. Add to that being autistic so the way I think is different and my perceptions of life and events are processed differently and it’s no surprise I was seen as weird and odd, though I didn’t realise it until I was 8 (and didn’t know why until I was about 20). I’m still learning that average British person of my age probably knows of Noel’s House Party and Gladiators like I do, but doesn’t know the fear that you might have to leave home unexpectedly or that the scariest thing in the world is adults screaming at each other.

Once I’ve thought logically, I know think people are not like me unless they show they are. What I think or feel in a certain situation is probably going to be different from how I feel, and therefore respond. It’s a conscious process though, as by default I think they will be like me. Johan is very similar to me in personality and thinking style, so in most cases how I will think, feel or respond in a situation is often the same as how he’ll respond, and because I know him very well I also know when he’ll respond differently. My sister Meggy (who isn’t autistic) had a similar upbringing (though with more foster care than I had) but is closer to neurotypical than I am. We often respond in completely different ways to the same situation because of this, and that’s okay. It just means I find it harder to predict how she’s going to respond, though as she’s my sister and I know her pretty well I have a better idea than for a stranger. My other siblings (Becca and Martin) are somewhere in between, as is Sammie.

My autistic and neurodivergent friends are all over the place. Some are very similar to me in many ways, some are basically the complete opposite (they can be just as far away from average, but in the other direction- like I might respond to something by withdrawing into myself and becoming silent, but they’d respond by shouting and being loud). Many of my autistic friends are similar in some ways and different in others. I have friends who absolutely love and crave really loud music, whereas I cannot tolerate it. In general I do better understanding those whose neurotype is close to mine, which includes people with learning disabilities and things like dyslexia or ADHD as well as autism (and some autistic people I struggle with as theirs isn’t like mine). I do have neurotypical friends (and some of them aren’t disabled in other ways) and I have difficulty understanding them, but I’ve put extra effort into trying as they make up most of the population and I don’t want to get it wrong.

Difference is good and I love it, but it does make understanding how people will react to stuff difficult. On a more individual level, I also don’t always know what topics are appropriate for different people- I’m getting better at it but unless I’m told someone doesn’t want to talk about something then I’m not necessarily going to pick up on any non-verbal cues to shut up (though I can read autistic and other neurodivergent body language much better than neurotypical body language in general). Some of the difficulty is because of my childhood (what was normal for me wasn’t the norm for others) but most is just because of how I think differently. The difference in processing things is a factor as well- generally I pick up on sounds, smells and other sensory input much more than others, and it doesn’t take much for it to become overwhelming. That’s got worse since I became ill, but it was there beforehand as well. As a kid I couldn’t figure out why I was getting overwhelmed (so didn’t think to do things like cover my ears or wear sunglasses) and it made my tolerance for things much worse so I’d become aggressive (mostly verbally). I also would have massive meltdowns without knowing what they were. When I was a teen I stopped taking it out on others and turned it more on myself, and shutdowns became more common than the meltdowns did. I don’t hit people who touch me unexpectedly now, though still don’t like it. I’m more likely to bite myself when overwhelmed by panic or in overload.

One thing I wish though is that understanding other people wasn’t all placed on me. I’m expected to act as if I’m neurotypical, and many neurotypical people react badly if I don’t. I’m expected to just understand social situations and body language that isn’t natural to me, yet others aren’t expected to understand me, even if I try and help by explaining what I’m thinking or experiencing. My communication difficulties (which are mostly hidden as my speech is normally fluent) are dismissed as I can appear normal, and it makes life more difficult than it should be. It’s especially upsetting to me that some people who are paid to help me refuse to try and understand my needs, yet I’m expected to understand theirs. It’s scary and makes me afraid to even try. When they do make the effort it’s really good, I just wish it were the norm.

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