We, non-Autistics say all kinds of things without thinking. We use a sort of socially accepted shorthand during a great many encounters. It’s a way of being in the world that requires no thought, rote gestures and words that are mindless and often meaningless. Expected utterances we don’t think about, we do and say them because we are taught to do otherwise is impolite. Upon meeting someone we automatically put out our right hand in greeting. We are taught to smile and ask, “How are you?” The response is unimportant, after all we aren’t really asking the person we’ve only just met to seriously contemplate their mental state and then divulge this information to us, neither are we honestly curious except in specific instances when we know something about the person and have wanted to meet them. But typically, “How are you?” is an opener. It’s merely a polite question we’ve been taught to ask, showing the accepted degree of interest in the other person, even if we actually have none.
Someone I know sent me a wonderful piece she’d written about meeting her baby nephew for the first time and being expected to say immediately that she loved him and how disappointed her family member was when she couldn’t bring herself to say those words right away, even though she felt a number of things that we non-autistics would probably identify as feelings of “love”. Reading her wonderful piece (click ‘here‘ to read it in its entirety) made me think about all those years when I would encourage Emma to say “I love you.” I even said to her, on a number of occasions, “I love you Emmy.” To which she would reply, “So much.” I then laughed and said, “No Em, you’re suppose to say, I love you, back.” And Em dutifully said, “You’re suppose to say I love you back.” I don’t, for a second, doubt that Emma loves me. I know she does. I also know my desire to have her say so, is my wish and not a desire she puts much weight into. For all I know Emma doesn’t say those words because she doesn’t feel the need to, perhaps she doesn’t see the point in reminding me of this fact. Perhaps, and this is the one I hope is most true, she doesn’t feel the need to utter those three words because she is secure in the knowledge of her love and assumes I am too.
Many of the “niceties” we non-autistics say are said with a degree of dishonesty because really, how “nice” is it to meet someone you may or may not ever see again, may or may not have anything in common with and do not have time to actually get to know? And while we’re at it, let’s consider “how are you?” How many people really care? We are taught to respond with the equally (often) dishonest single word, “Fine” but how many of us really are “fine” when we’ve been asked how we are? Seriously. How many times have you been asked, “How are you?” and you either didn’t actually know, hadn’t had time to think about it or weren’t fine, but were instead feeling something else, yet replied with “fine” because it was simpler, easier, safer or because the conversation had already moved on, before you’d had the chance to give your more thoughtful reply?
So I’m curious – what if we didn’t ask or say things unless we were honestly interested and meant what we were saying as a way of communicating something new or that required discussion? What would happen if, upon meeting someone we weren’t sure we really were pleased to meet, said nothing? Would this be so bad? What if, when asked “how are you?” we answered truthfully? What if when we voiced our love for our children and they said nothing in return, we didn’t assume that meant anything other than our child did not find it necessary to state the obvious?
Em & Nic – Summer 2004