Things I Was Told Were Personal Failings But Were Actually Autism

The original edition of this post was written for Tumblr last August.  Until my post on “ASL for Autistic Adults in Tight Spots” (see previous post), it was my most-Tumblr’d piece.

This edition is updated to reflect the intervening gain in self-knowledge &etc.

An incomplete list of things I have been told all my life are personal failings and/or signs of immaturity that I would eventually “grow out of,” but that actually turned out to be my autism.

1.  Not being able to remember faces.  Even if I have seen them many times before.  I have actually failed to recognize members of my own family when I have run into them in unexpected situations (grocery stores, movie theatres).  I now alert my students at the start of every semester: even if I manage to match names and faces inside the classroom, I will probably fail to recognize them entirely outside it.

2.  Struggling to put names with faces.  Even if it’s a person I’m supposed to know well.  Not that this one affects my daily life much, because:

3. I cannot address people by their names.  I can talk about people using their names, but I cannot talk to people using their names.  I refer to my Girl Scouts collectively as “ladies.”  I have never even addressed my husband by name – he is “hey, hon?”

4.  Being utterly unable to sustain eye contact while I talk.  I can maintain eye contact with great effort when someone else is talking to me, assuming they don’t expect me to listen at the same time.  The busier my surroundings are, however, the less able I am even to do that.  I cannot, however, look someone in the eye and speak to them – not in any environment.

(Incidentally, this is why I actually enjoy teaching and speaking at conferences: the audiences are large enough that nobody expects me to sustain eye contact with any one audience member while talking.)

5.  Having great difficulty focusing on the “main event” in any busy situation.  A speaker, my dining partner, action on a stage or screen or field – I can’t maintain focus on it.  I can pay attention to it, and I can recall extraordinary amounts of information from it – when I was a kid I could recite from memory entire stories or TV show dialogue I had heard only once –  but I can’t sit and watch it devotedly.  I have to look at All The Other Things Too.  In photos, I’m always the person who’s looking at something off to the side of the frame while everyone else is smiling at the photographer.

6.  I cannot fake facial expressions.  At all.  The difference between a fake-smile and a real one, or a fake-angryface and a real one, is instantly and obviously apparent, even to me.  I take horrible photos because I almost never find a reason to smile genuinely at a camera.  I have a case of Resting Bitch Face so severe that strangers in public will actually cross the street to avoid it – I cannot recall the last time a stranger told me to “smile!”, even though I read visually as a very feminine teenager.

(I do not suffer from Resting Bitch Face, however.  I enjoy it.)

7.  Losing spoken language.  Sometimes, someone else will speak and my brain will utterly fail to interpret the sounds they make as spoken language – even when I’m fluent in the language I know they’re speaking.  If my brain has failed to interpret sounds as language once, it is highly likely to do it the second and third times as well, making it futile for me to ask someone to repeat themselves.  On the phone, this is so bad that I use Google Voice solely for its visual voicemail feature.  Google Voice’s visual voicemail accuracy is bad, but it’s better than my brain does.

8.  This goes both ways.  Sometimes I’ll try to speak and what will come out of my mouth does not resemble spoken language in any of the languages I actually speak.  I usually laugh, but it’s embarrassing as hell.

8.5.  …But it only goes one way with sign.  I almost never bungle reading someone else’s ASL or SEE…but my fingers will inevitably bungle any fingerspelling in my response, even if it’s something I’ve spelled a thousand times.  Like my own name.

9.  What my brain cannot understand in spoken language, it makes up for in my experience of written language.  I don’t even know how to describe the way in which I experience written language.  I have color-grapheme, touch-grapheme, and taste-grapheme synesthesia, but I also experience written language as multidimensional.  Imagine living inside the most intensely sensory three-dimensional multi-colored idea map you can muster, then multiply exponentially.  That’s how I experience written language.

It took me years to learn that my experience of language is the reason I don’t misspell things – even in English, where spelling has conquered a small island and would have established an anarchy except there were too many rules.  Even homophones, to me, are so utterly different from one another I cannot imagine confusing them.  ”Their” and “there” are, to my brain, nothing alike.  They’re different colors, they taste different, they feel different, they occupy different spaces in the Matrix.  I can’t imagine mixing them up any more than I can imagine mixing up a hammer and an egg yolk.

10.  Sometimes, I literally cannot make words come out of my mouth unless my hands are moving, my back is to my audience, or both.  If I’m emotionally overwrought, I must turn my back in order to speak.

(Nobody in my family has yet figured this out.  If I’m lying on my side having a meltdown, everydamnone of them will stand or sit on the side I’m facing, instead of the side to which my back is turned.  What I need them to do is precisely the opposite.  That’s why I’m lying on my side, to give them a place to stand or sit from which they can still be helpful!)

11.  As much as I love going out with certain people or to certain events, and as much as I love performing, I cry when I get home.  Or off the stage.  Every single time.  Especially after performances; I love them, but they take literally everything I have, and I melt down immediately after.

The longest I’ve ever had to be “on” before I could melt down was seven consecutive hours, when I was a Girl Scout camp counselor.

12.  I can’t draw.  I don’t mean this in the “ha ha I make stick people” way most adults mean it.  I mean that my brain cannot interpret shape, light/shadow, or color in any way that it can transmit to my hands.  The harder I try, the less anything I’m looking at actually makes sense; the less my brain interprets it as anything that actually exists.  I even need help blending my makeup, because I often cannot tell if my concealer is actually concealing, etc.

13.  I learned to dress myself by following rules in books about style.  I wrote down the rules for my coloring (I’m a Winter), my height (short), my proportions (petite, long-waisted, long-legged, half-size shoulders), and my shape (hourglass a bit on the pear side) on index cards, which I carried in my purse on every shopping trip until I had memorized their contents.

Learning to style myself properly took me fifteen years of concentrated practice and strict adherence to the rules.  I am only just now starting to venture into trying on things that don’t strictly adhere to those rules, and I still never buy anything unless (a) it follows the rules or (b) I have been reassured by someone whose style I trust that I do in fact look good in the thing.

14.  This is also how I learned to cook.

15.  The texture of my food matters much more than its taste.  I will actually eat just about anything if it has an acceptable texture.  I will refuse to eat foods I normally love if the texture is wrong.  I have boiling and steaming things down to a science because a few seconds can literally mean the difference between a meal I can eat and one I can’t.  The worst food texture in the world for me is damp bread.

16.  The texture of clothing is almost as bad – but even more than having the right texture, clothing has to have the right smell.  I can even smell the differences between so-called “unscented” laundry detergents (the only kind I can stand to use).  Naturally, I wash everything I buy.  I let my dry-clean-only pieces go for years sometimes between cleanings because I have to let them air for a month after I get them back.

17.  I am hyperlexic, alexithymic, and nonverbal.  Sometimes, I am two or three of these things at once.

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23 thoughts on “Things I Was Told Were Personal Failings But Were Actually Autism

  1. Whoa; I have almost every single one of these in common with you? Exceptions being minor:
    – I don’t have trouble with texture as much, however my tactile sensitivity is so extreme that I’m very picky about clothes, and therefore also have always been comfortable dressing myself in ways that, while not necessarily typical or normal, don’t strike people as weird. Mostly I just dress in jeans/cords, shirts and sweaters, all of them the same few colors, all of them from only one or two stores and made from specific materials that said stores make their clothes from.
    – And technically I can draw okay–but I’m best with like, graphs and geometric things (geometry = an old special interest). Couldn’t draw a symmetrical circle if you put a gun to my head. And a lot of the time, I can only draw the right side of complex objects/images. I’ve been drawing half-faces for decades, now.
    – Also, still haven’t really learned to cook. Baking is fine though. Something about boiling water without evaporating it all stymies me though.
    – And, lastly, instead of “resting bitchface” I’m just so ADHD and emotionally changeable that I’ve been told I’d make either a great cartoon character or a great puppet. I used to always smile when playing any card game where you had to bluff, because I knew that I wouldn’t be able to not-smile when I lied, so the only solution was to smile all the time.

    I’ve never heard someone else mention the “not being able to address people by their names” thing before! I technically also went through a stage in high school where I was so socially anxious that I couldn’t say certain people’s names even when I was talking to other people about them. Now that that’s mostly passed, I’m just infernally formal. Drives people nuts.
    Also the spelling thing. It’s like. Duh. All the letters feel different, so words that are spelled different feel different, even if they sound the same. I went through a really intense spelling and word-list-writing phase that may or may not have never ended. And basically, your description of how you process written language is LIKE HOW I PROCESS WRITTEN LANGUAGE. Seriously. You can look at this other post I wrote a bit ago, before I’d seen your blog, where I described part of what language is like for me: http://emmapretzel.wordpress.com/2014/05/02/language-part-one-of-infinity/ This is awesome and nutso. Especially given that I’m (supposedly/we hope) a future-autistic-academic.

    That was a word-explosion. But whatever. I’m not caring because this is super cool.

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    1. I love word explosions. My default teaching mode is “OMG YOU GUYS THE THING IT IS AWESOME LET ME TALK TO YOU ABOUT THE AWESOME THING.” I’ve had to learn to pace my lessons and work in other teaching modes, because word explosions are not the way most people learn best, even if they are the way I teach best.

      Also, boiling water. OMG. My first adventure in cooking was to burn Jello, because I didn’t understand that you were supposed to remove the boiling water from the stove and put it in the Jello mix. So I put the mix in the pan and let it keep boiling. Ended up boiling off all the water and making a burned sticky mess. My parents were not amused.

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      1. I have a tendency to get over excited about awesome things while teaching, but it’s listed as a positive on my student evals :-). You’re 100% right, have to learn to integrate it into a lesson plan that accounts for other learning styles & paces. But that enthusiasm can also be a powerful asset!

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  2. Damp bread oh my god. I was going to say something thoughtful about how I sort-of have some other things in common with you, but now I just want to comisserate over damp bread. It is the WORST TEXTURE EVER for me too. I don’t think I ate a hamburger actually on a bun until I was in college, and then only because I was too embarrassed to take it apart and eat just the meat, like I did when I was little. Now I’m learning to actually like burgers again, because I know that if it’s just been made, I can finish it before it gets unpleasantly soggy, but yeah. Damp bread = horrified pouty face as I try to tear off the damp parts without actually touching them.

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    1. For what it’s worth — there is absolutely nothing wrong with bunless burgers. If you do lettuce, you can use the lettuce as the bun. Or you can just eat the meat. Places that are dedicated to burgers won’t bat an eye at you asking for your burger bunless or lettuce wrapped (places that sell burgers, but aren’t primarily “burger joints” will usually understand bunless, but might look at you weird if you try to order lettuce wrap, it’s a bit more hit or miss).

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      1. I had never seen or heard of a lettuce-wrapped burger before, so that’s good to know, thank you. I’ve been lucky enough to find some local restaurants that consistently bring my food really quickly, so I’ve actually gotten to enjoy some burgers with buns lately.

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  3. The insides of tomatoes gross me right the flip out. I can hardly stand the sight of the things…. was driving with my wife , who was in the passenger seat..we got taco bell stuff. They were not supposed to put tomatoes on my burrito…I found out about 20 minutes down the road…and had to stop the car because I was rethink too bad.

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  4. Ohgods I never knew anyone who understood that loss of language before. Trying to explain to someone that yes, I HEAR you, I just can’t UNDERSTAND you – repeating it louder isn’t helping! Overwhelmed, embarrassed, want to hide.

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    1. I know, right?

      My usual response when that part breaks down is along the lines of “I know you’re speaking words, but my brain missed the connections and didn’t form the coherent sentence.”

      It’s the worst with my husband, because he has a tendency to have really long pauses every couple of words, forcing me to keep what he already said in short-term/working memory while still listening for him to complete what he was saying and attempt to discern if he wants a response and try to form said response.

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  5. Wow I am shocked how many of these things apply to me. I am very sensitive to the feel of clothing more than food texture (but I tend to self-select a very limited diet, so who knows). My poor students have to just accept the name/face thing. But I will know & remember so much about them as people (and I remind them that I cannot inadvertently allow personal biases to affect their grades, so it really does work for them!). I cannot tell you how reassuring it is to read this blog as a fellow autistic academic (albeit one whose program requires I be basically closeted).

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  6. Regarding laundry detergent (and their accompanying fabric softeners) — I’m so with you on that whole “unscented” thing. Unscented, my foot!

    I’ve switched to making my own soap and my own laundry detergent. It was for other reasons, but having a truly unscented detergent was a great side effect. I make special “household cleaning soap” that’s made specifically for this purpose, so it doesn’t have a bunch of extra oils and whatnot to stick to the clothing.

    Follow that up with some vinegar in the washer’s fabric softener dispenser (yeah, sucks when pouring it, but the smell doesn’t stay on the clothes), and you’re left with clothes with no added smell (the only thing you might smell are the textiles they’re made of).

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  7. Almost all of these are me….and a few of them I really didn’t realize the severity of until I taught my first class this past fall. If you have any tips for handling/compensating for things like prosopagnosia while teaching, that would be stellar.

    Also, ick damp bread *shudder*

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    1. My school provides a class roster online that includes pictures of each student. I have printed it out & used it before, but it can still be a struggle–some of their pictures are a few years old. I try to have my students sign up for 5-10 minute meetings early in the semester (to talk about their goals for classes or a semester project or go over their first written assignment or the like, depends on the course). That helps me tremendously–I learn to recognize their voices long before I can recognize faces. And I just tell students that I am bad with names & faces and ask them to be patient with me–it doesn’t “out” you, since many people struggle with this to some degree (& they will chalk it up to the “absent-minded professor” stereotype). They tend to respond well when I’m direct with them.

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  8. I do have a problem with 2, but not 1. It’s interesting. If I haven’t seen a person in a while and see them in a context I don’t expect, I recognize them as someone familiar immediately. All sorts of different stuff about the person will begin popping up in my head, as well as my general impression of that person. This also happens with people I kinda know but not really, which creates quite a contrast.

    With number 7, sometimes, not always, I will repeat what was said to myself and meaning will trickle into my head. I was surprised that I did this even with my second language I acquired as an adult.

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  9. Nice post! I never knew other autistic people did the name thing too.

    For me, the name thing sometimes also extends to myself, and the pronoun “I”. When I was a kid especially, I would either contort my sentences horribly to avoid having to use it, or just not say anything if using it was unavoidable. (Sometimes this was not a good thing — and it seems to have a chicken/egg relationship with my general aversion to telling people I’m sick or in pain).

    Also, kinda envying your rigorous seeking out, memorization, and application of the Fashion Rules for your coloring and body type! I always had a much more laid-back, “if I like it, I’m wearing it” approach to fashion, but I do find the theory about colors and shapes super interesting.

    Just not interesting enough to really learn it, I guess. LOL!

    (I guess I’m here to represent Team Autistic and Disorganized)

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  10. Huh, I haven’t even been diagnosed with anything more severe than a common cold, and all of this rings a bell with me. Not the texture stuff, though. Multiple times, I’ve accidentally eaten bones from fish, or pieces from cracked chicken bones, without noticing, lol.

    I particularly liked the bit you had on the issues with identifying faces! Thank you for the explanation! I’ve wondered since I was little, whether there was something wrong with my eyesight (well, wrong*er*. I’m pretty nearsighted, lol). I’m glad there *is* an explanation; I might ask a doctor about this, lol.

    Thanks again for your post!

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  11. I was just recently diagnosed with autism, and I’m still running into things like these. My jaw dropped at not being able to talk without using your hands. I’ve had that my whole life. It generally got chalked up to ethnicity – I’m part Italian, and they talk with their hands – and was sort of a family joke. It pissed teachers off, and they’d make me sit on my hands, which of course meant that I could barely talk. When I had to do public speaking, I loved having a podium, because I could move my hands and no one would notice.

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