What Neurotypicals Really Expect When They Ask This Type of Question (Hint: It’s NOT Honesty) – A Guide for Autistics
I wrote a post on my Instagram recently that revolved around a meme I saw that really unsettled me. The meme was meant to be a joke, but I couldn’t help but be triggered by it because I’ve been fired from so many jobs for being autistic.
Not that any supervisor has directly said to me, “You’re being fired because you’re autistic.” No. What they fired me for was taking words and instructions literally, not realizing that I speak in a monotone naturally when I’m not masking, and having a flat or “angry” facial expression.
In this article, I want to touch on taking questions literally. One of the hallmarks of being autistic is taking what people say at literal face value, and nowhere does that apply more than to questions that are meant to be rhetorical or require an answer other than the truth.
Unfortunately, too many autistic people have had to learn the hard way that their tendency toward honesty can garner the exact opposite emotional response they expected, and they may have to suffer lasting consequences for a neurotypical social mistake that they’ll never fully understand.
This means an autistic person can be chatting with coworkers in the break room in the morning and sobbing and cleaning out their desk in the afternoon, reeling and scared of how they’re going to pay rent after they’ve just been fired, and, despite asking, pleading, or even begging for an explanation, one is never given because they are supposed to “know what they’ve done”.
It’s a devastating trauma that I feel isn’t talked about enough. This not only happens with jobs but with romantic and platonic relationships, living situations, and any other situation where regular interaction between the neurotypes is expected.
Whatever the situation is; a job, a friendship, or a romantic relationship, it just ends–like hitting a brick wall at 100 miles per hour, and the autistic person is left gaping in shock as people they trusted walk away from them in disgust.
“Fishing for Compliments” Confuses the Autistic Mind
While there are dozens of reasons an autistic person may misunderstand neurotypical social language, this particular one comes up a lot. A neurotypical person phrases a statement as a request for their opinion, but when the autistic person gives their opinion, the neurotypical person reacts with shock and anger, and the autistic person can’t figure out why.
“What went wrong?” The autistic person wonders. “We were having a nice time together, and now they are looking at me like they want to slap me, and their energy feels like daggers on my skin. I don’t feel safe with them all of a sudden. What’s going on??”
Examples of “fishing for compliments”:
“Aren’t my kids adorable?” “Isn’t my husband an amazing musician?” “Don’t you just love this dress?” “Isn’t this meatloaf delicious?” “How amazing is this new car I bought?”
Autistics–heed this warning; never, and I mean NEVER answer these questions honestly. They. Are. Not. Questions. They are requests for affirmation. The neurotypical person asking these questions is high on positive emotions when they speak like this, especially if the “questions” are about someone or something they care deeply about. Therefore, answering in the negative when a neurotypical person is seeking validation can feel, to them, like a sudden punch to the gut in the middle of a belly laugh.
The emotional shock to their system is so great, it can cause a sudden escalation of hurt feelings that can lead to explosive anger, tears, or both. Conversely, the person may be very offended but never say it to your face, but they may never speak to you again, and you’ll never know why. Or, if the person is vengeful by nature, they may brush off your answer in person but make it their personal mission to ruin your reputation behind your back.
No matter what, you, as an autistic person, lose.
A Note to My Neurotypical Readers
I’m not trying to drag you. I’m talking about extremes here, but, in my experience, the majority of neurotypical people have responded in confusing and unkind ways when I’ve made these mistakes, and I’ve talked to many autistic people who have had the exact same experiences–so, please be aware of that.
Many autistic people are permanently traumatized by a lifetime of these confusing interactions, and I see it as my calling to explain to them why they happened.
If you’re not someone who would react this way to a person who takes your rhetorical question literally, then, first, thank you, and two, you’re not who I’m talking about. In fact, you’re appreciated in the autistic community!
Examples of Answers That Have Gotten Autistic People Into Trouble
Let’s go back to my examples of “questions” that aren’t actually questions that are part of the everyday neurotypical vernacular and break them down a bit more for my autistic readers:
Neurotypical: “Aren’t my kids adorable?”
Literal Autistic Response: “No. I don’t find any kids cute.”
(The Equivalent) of What the Neurotypical Hears: “Your kids are disgusting. How could you take any pride in these little monsters?”
Expected Response: “Aww! They really are!”
How to Answer Positively Without Lying
You know how many of us autistics hate lying? I’ve found a way around this! When someone seeks validation from you in the form of a question, look for something genuine in what they’re asking, and comment on that.
For example, “Isn’t my daughter adorable?” Look at the child and see if there’s anything you genuinely do find appealing. Maybe she has really pretty red hair. “Her hair color is so beautiful” is agreeing with the parent’s assessment of the child’s attractiveness, and it’s not a lie!
(I know this won’t work in all situations, but it’s worth a try if you want to mask and keep yourself out of the proverbial line of fire. It has saved me MANY times!)
Let’s keep looking at examples:
Neurotypical: “Isn’t my husband an amazing musician?”
Literal Autistic Response: “I’d say average. I’m sure he’ll get better with practice, though.”
(The Equivalent) of What the Neurotypical Hears: “I have a secret hatred of your husband, and I’m happy to insult him now that you’ve given me the opportunity.”
Expected Response: “He’s talented!”
A Quick Warning
OK, so check this out. Let’s say you wanted to use my “answer positively without lying” trick for this one. Watch out! You don’t want to look at the husband as he’s screeching out what he believes to be the perfect rendition of Free Bird on his guitar and find something else appealing about him instead and say, “He’s really handsome”. That’s going to translate to, “I’m attracted to your husband and plan to try to take him from you.” You don’t want to do that! You also don’t want to comment on his fingering technique because that could be taken as sexual innuendo, so–try answering with a question? “How long has he been playing?” It takes the spotlight off you and keeps the conversation going in the direction the neurotypical person intended it to go–and you don’t have to lie!
Moving on to more examples:
Neurotypical: “Don’t you just love this dress?”
Literal Autistic Response: “I don’t like dresses with capped sleeves.”
(The Equivalent) of What the Neurotypical Hears: “Your taste in clothing is laughable. How can you wear capped sleeves with those gorilla arms of yours? Yuck!”
Expected Response: “It’s beautiful!”
Neurotypical: “Isn’t this meatloaf delicious?”
Literal Autistic Response: “It’s a bit dry, but the spices you added taste great!”
(The Equivalent) of What the Neurotypical Hears: “Your food is barely edible, and I only made the comment about the spices because I’m being polite. I don’t know how your kids haven’t starved to death and your husband hasn’t left you if this is an example of what your cooking is like.”
Expected Response: “Yum! Can I have the recipe?”
Another Quick Warning
On to the last example:
Neurotypical: “How amazing is this new car I bought?”
Literal Autistic Response: “I’m not into sports cars.”
(The Equivalent) of What the Neurotypical Hears: “Did you buy this sports car because you’re trying to compensate for something, or are you having a midlife crisis?”
Expected Response: “What a sleek design! Where did you get it?”
When these types of social misunderstandings happen to autistic people, it can be very easy to think that the entire neurotypical community is purposefully setting us up and gaslighting us, but this is how they communicate with each other all the time!
It’s just that the other neurotypical people they’re communicating with already have the second half of the “script”, so to speak. We don’t. For autistics, language is literal, and words have specific (and often only one) meaning. For neurotypicals, the meaning lies in tone, inflection, circumstance, and symbolism.
This is why it can be so difficult for one to understand the other and why I’ve dedicated my life to helping build a bridge so we can do just that.