My mom yelled at me a lot during my teenage years for being condescending and disrespectful. Teenage daughters and their mothers tend to argue a lot, and I recognize now that I definitely ramped up my argumentative nature as it got closer and closer to time for me to go away to college so it would be easier for me to leave when the time came. But I never actually tried to be disrespectful or condescending, so that accusation always made me defensive…and that never helped anything.

I’ll never forget the day at my first “real job” after college when my supervisor was riding along with me for a client visit. I worked for a supportive apartment program for adults with mental illnesses that required a caseworker’s help for medication management and activities of daily living (ADLs). I was a caseworker. And on this one day when my female supervisor was riding in the passenger seat of my teal Plymouth Neon, I remember her asking:

“Are you shy?”

I think I blinked a few times before saying, “Yeah…”

“I thought so,” she said.

And then she went on to explain what that had to do with anything. She said that my interactions with clients and coworkers often came off as being condescending, but she didn’t think that was my intention. In her opinion, something I came to agree with, the condescending tone was something I adopted because I was uncomfortable speaking to people. It wasn’t meant to condescend; it was just my way of trying to speak carefully and hide my embarrassment.

I’ve been trying to stay aware of this tendency of mine, but it’s easy to slip into. Even today, it can be apparent in my writing…especially when I’m flustered for some reason or another. A few months ago, I was working with a new contact for a client that has ordered content from me for years. There was a difficult project for which I had requested additional information since my writer and I were coming up against a wall in our own research on the topic, but we were told to work with what we had. When I finally delivered the project, it was poorly received. I was devastated, because we had worked really hard, and we hadn’t had a project a client didn’t love in well over a year. I apologized and tried to reply, very matter-of-factly via email, that we didn’t have more specific information to include because we had never gotten the additional information we’d requested over a month prior. But my contact read “tone” into it, and the reply I got to that message made me actually cry. I apologized again and clarified that I meant no offense, and I hadn’t intended to have any sort of confrontational tone, but I was just trying to explain what had gone wrong on our end. I later got an apology from the contact, and we figured out a way they could use the content in a different way than they had originally planned in order to make it useful, since the details they wanted just weren’t publicly available, and it was not considered a worthwhile investment for them to shell out a few hundred dollars for access to the professional databases that would contain the information they were looking for.

I’m afraid I’m even reading unintentional “tone” in that last paragraph of this post. If I were writing fiction, I’d probably describe it as “exaggerated patience” or something similar. But I honestly don’t know how else to provide a recitation of facts otherwise without leaving out important details.

And my kid has brought me to an understanding of why my mom was so exasperated with me growing up. I see why some autistic kids  end up seeming like the “little professor.”  They are constantly “correcting” us over things that aren’t actually wrong. Like when I gave them their afterschool snack yesterday and dared to call them Goldfish. “You mean Goldfish Grahams, Mommy.” I explained that I was also correct, if not as precise. This precision is often a sticking point with them. They don’t like general terms, and thinks you’re wrong if you’re not as specific as they would prefer.

But, as my mom has lamented, my dad does the same thing. Back in the day, his favorite candy bar was the Mars Bar. Everyone refers to it as a Mars Bar. Except for my dad, who would always “correct” her by calling it a Mars Toasted Almond Bar. Because that’s what it said on the label. I guess that’s why he made an excellent toolmaker for GE before his retirement, working with tolerances of 0.0001 inch.

My kid has more trouble with idioms and other expressions than I have. Although there was that time when I was in elementary school when my brother and I couldn’t agree on what to have for dinner, so my mom threw her hands up in the air and made her own suggestion. I was in tears when she said, “Then I guess we can just go to the food court!” I protested loudly about this, wailing. We watched The People’s Court on TV sometimes, and I thought I’d end up before a judge over the matter of dinner. When I related this to my mom years later, I’m pretty sure she thought I was making the story up. But I remember the fear and desperation vividly when I thought I might get thrown in jail at the food court.

The other night, my kid mentioned something about, “Back when you were a doctor.” I was confused, and I told them I’d never been a doctor before, that you have to go to medical school to become a doctor, and I just don’t like blood. I wondered if maybe I’d told himthem I used to work at a hospital, but no. “You said you were a brain surgeon,” they told me. I don’t remember ever referring to myself as such, but I had to guess it was some sort of remark about, “I didn’t have to be a brain surgeon to figure it out.” And I explained that people use “brain surgeon” and “rocket scientist” as examples of people who are really, really smart.

We have to explain a lot of expressions to our kid because they take things so literally. And mean kids do more damage to them when they take them at their word. Euphemisms will never quite cut it with them, although that is slightly beneficial to us right now, because my husband and I can talk “over their head” about subjects they don’t need to know about yet.

And it’s a struggle for me, still, to remember that I can’t take people exactly at their word. Although I’ve developed a number of strategies and coping skills over the years, not even knowing what this flavor of autism was, I’m still fairly naive about many interpersonal interactions. If someone tells me something, I expect them to mean precisely what they say, and hold them to the letter of it. If you’ve ever read Robert Jordan’s epic fantasy series, The Wheel of Time, I innately believe what people say as if they were Aes Sedai (pronounced: EYES seh-DIE) who are literally unable to speak a lie. But what you think you hear isn’t always the truth, so I analyze wording to death. This is often pointless, though, because people don’t always speak the truth, and when they do, they don’t always pick exactly the right words to convey what they actually mean. I always choose my words so carefully, like an Aes Sedai – which is why I prefer writing and get so anxious about speaking – because I don’t want to be misunderstood. But that brings me back to being condescending and pedantic.

I hope that, at the least, I can help people understand that I’m not trying to be disrespectful or talk down to them when I come across the way I do. There are certainly malignant narcissistic people, some who are autistic, who do intend this because they genuinely believe themselves your betters, but I would say that’s not the majority of autistic people. Most of us just have a hard time expressing ourselves, and the tone is just how it manifests.

Read my Big Fat Medical Update for more details.

One thought on “Autism and Literalism, aka Why We May Seem Condescending and Pedantic”
  1. […] Literal. I will analyze to death the exact words someone speaks to me, often forgetting that not everyone means exactly what they say. In my head, I hold them to their exact word, and I get very upset when things like, “We should do this again sometime. Maybe next week,” turn out to be scripted language that wasn’t meant to be taken literally. And when next week comes and the other person is busy, and the next week, and the next week… It’s not pretty for me. […]

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