With (very late) respect to Autism Awareness month, and also with a lens cast on my own personal history, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on a sentence that I read on reddit quite recently.
“I learned to take people at their intent rather than their words”
The context was heartbreaking in and of itself, but the sentence itself hit me like a freight train. I have learned to live my life by an entirely different motto.
Perception matters more than intent
I spent nearly every waking moment of my life thinking about all of the ways that my words or actions might be perceived differently than I intended them to, and that it matters much more than my intent did. I have basically gaslit myself into believing that the neurotypical world is right and I have to adjust.
So hearing someone say something that basically just shows that people actually can sit there and show the leniency to understand each other?
The context, by the way? Her daughter died. So she had to deal with people saying ignorant things like “I know how you feel, I lost my dog” and the like. So instead of being angry she chose to understand that they likely knew that they couldn’t truly relate to her immense grief, but the closest they could come to it was losing a pet. So they were trying to relate to her. They were showing a kindness in a pretty ignorant and rude way, but still a kindness.
I still, in a lot of ways, agree with my life motto. If I hurt your feelings, it really doesn’t matter what my intentions were, your feelings are hurt and no amount of me doubling down on my intentions is going to make this situation better. The best solution is a heartfelt apology, deep communication, and finding ourselves a new common ground.
But I didn’t learn to live by this phrase because of having difficult arguments with loved ones, or needing to remind myself to put myself in others shoes (I’m overly empathetic and compassionate — but don’t worry, I still show the very stereotypical autistic lack of skills at showing the empathy and compassion the way the “normal” humans expect). I taught myself to live by this motto because of the number of times I had people react to my statements of fact as though I were being bitchy and rude.
Because of the number of times I’ve had people tell me that I’m “sassy” and “feisty” and “don’t care what other people think about you”. Which was just not even close to the truth. I said what I thought or felt as I thought it or felt it. It usually ran through my filters, I tried to imagine a way to make it neutral. And I still came out like a bitch to so very many people.
Even recently, my husband revealed mine (and my child’s) diagnosis to his sister – a teacher. She had a lightbulb go off and said “Oh, that makes sense. She is super smart but not very friendly”. We’ll sidestep the stereotypes there just for the sentiment of the statement.
I am now a fairly well-oiled machine. I have been living this motto for nearly a decade. I have practice and years of phone and chat customer support under my belt to give me the practice of at least sounding friendly and approachable in short bursts as needed. I can quickly run through options of phrases and think about all the potential ways that my statement could be misinterpreted.
But… Imagine if I hadn’t had to spend so much time and energy learning how to fit into a world that wasn’t meant for me? If there were social ramps for those of us sitting in a social wheel chair who really can’t take the stairs.