One day, I was invited for dinner with a Chinese family of an autistic teenager. The mother, an autism professional, was busy interrogating her son as if she was a lawyer cross-examining a hostile defendant. The scene reminded me of my Primary school days, but this autistic was much more capable of defending himself than I could ever be.
“Did you behave well today?”
“I behaved well in school.”
“What about after school?”
“I behaved well on the bus.”
“What about the time between the end of school and that of boarding the bus?”
“Out with it! Tell me the truth!”
“I did not hit anyone.”
“So what else did you do?”
Leaving her lawyer’s stance, the judge soon launched into a full-blown nagging session:
- You should not have left your friends without saying goodbye…
- You are wrong to have said these…
- You must do these…
- You cannot do these…
- Why must you make this mistake again?
- How many times have I told you that…
- Why do you keep hiding the truth from me?
- Answer me now!
I raised my hand and asked to interrupt so that I can say a few words. The mother glanced at me but permitted me to continue. I explained that I have encountered similar situations before, and if I can travel back in time, I would explain them to myself in another manner. Here is an except about not arguing over small matters:
- That human communication is not about the transmission of information, but about the influencing of other people’s behaviour
- When people make technical mistakes in their communication, it is usually not relevant. Instead, we should examine the intentions behind the communication.
- It is unwise to argue because it is often mistaken as hostile, especially in Asian cultures.
- It is unwise to keep correcting people because it causes loss of face, especially in Asian cultures.
- If it is necessary, we can do subtle corrections like: “Oh? I have read otherwise. Maybe you had the information from a different source.“
Although I wish to continue, the mother gave me a look that said something like: “I am the autism expert here, so you better shut up!” The nagging soon resumed and I watched helplessly as the defendant struggled to formulate and present his arguments.
Rather than coach the autistic, parents tend to take an “I am right, you are wrong” stance. This is compounded by some aggressive parents who insisted that the child “answer me immediately” and “stop your irrelevant ambiguous statements, just tell me yes or no“.
Perhaps they did not realise just how differently autistics understand the world around them, or that they have grown impatient of dealing with the same child every day. Autistics often lose due to their lack of fluency and their inability to formulate arguments in real-time. However, the victory is hollow as a courtroom battle over the dinner table only makes everyone unhappy without producing any real progress.
Likewise, many people have said various statements that provided little explanation or made no sense to me:
- You are wrong.
- Stop asking questions and just do it.
- Too bad, this is how things are done here.
- You must show respect for <authority figure>.
- Listen to <authority figure>. He (or she) knows what is best for you.
- Even <famous person> could not do it, how could you?
- Why pursue <special interest> when your grades are so poor?
- You are trying to fly before you can even crawl.
- Be very, very careful. (You mean my plans are flawed? Why?)
- You are being taken advantage of by doing <special interest> for free.
- Don’t be so selfish. You need to think of other people first.
- You need to be less perfect.
Some people thought that I was arrogant and stubborn because I refused to listen to sensible advice. However, if they used a more logical, precise, systematic and “autistic” way of explaining, I might have listened. I only wished that people told me statements like:
We have conversations not only to exchange facts and ideas but also to influence other people to make our lives more enjoyable. (Reveal the hidden human concepts; Explain systematically.)
This office runs on a hierarchy system. Your boss tells you what to do, and you do what he says. In return, he pays you a salary. This is what we all do here. If you want to join us, you must follow the system. (Explain the concept as a trade-off or transaction.)
You are spending 45 minutes researching how to save 25 cents for the bus ride. Is it worthwhile? (Make the logical discrepancy clear.)
I appreciate your effort in spending <long time> to improve <unimportant task>. Would you also like to solve <more useful problem> instead? (Shift the focus to a more useful area.)
I want you to do me a favour. I will do <list of items> for you. This requires me to <list of sacrifices>. In return, I expect you to do <list of undesirable tasks>. (If you want autistics to do something that they dislike without the effort of convincing them, ask them to do a favour for you with a convincing list of benefits.)
Yes, it is important to spend a lot of time and effort to <achieve certain perfectionist standards>. Since you are so dedicated, I have a challenge for you. Can you maintain 80% of the quality with only 20% of the time spent? I will provide <important recognition> if you can do it. (Rather than tell an autistic to lower his standards, give him more challenging and useful goals. Award him with recognition.)
I know that you wanted to start <special interest project>. What fundamental understanding do you need? Tell me about <fundamental concept>. Can you prove to me that you can do <special interest project requiring fundamental concept>? Do you want to accept the challenge and design <a risk-free trial run> to see how you do in real life? (While autistics often have flawed understanding and planning, it is important to help them realise these flaws by themselves in a non-judgmental way than forcing one’s opinions on them.)
Most people choose to follow traditional ways because (1) they can save thinking time, (2) new methods may have hidden flaws that may prove disastrous and (3) new methods need time and effort to test. For instance, last year we tried to implement <another new method> and found that it has <fatal flaw> only after <disastrous incident>. (Illustrate your explanation with real-life examples that apply in a similar situation to the autistic’s workplace.)
Your design is too difficult for us to use. You must simplify it so that it takes less than X steps and need less than X minutes to set up. It must also cater to the <special needs and senior> staff who could not meet <certain demanding requirements>. (Remind creative autistics of the human needs of their end-users.)
If you did not check this data carefully and miss <certain errors>, you would waste <list of people’s effort> and may create <negative personal social consequences>. Last year, <culprit> missed out <serious mistake> and caused <bad consequences>. (Remind autistics of the negative impact on other people if they make mistakes.)
I am glad that you want to become a billionaire like Bill Gates. Can you tell me how Bill Gates succeeded in becoming a billionaire? What are the factors he needed to succeed? What if he lacked the 1st factor? What if he lacked the 2nd factor? … Which of these factors do you have now? How do you test if you have these factors? How do you achieve the factors you lack while being able to fulfil <list of important incidental requirements>? Can you accept my challenge and design <a risk-free trial run> to see how you do in real life? (Rather than try to stop me from pursuing overly ambitious goals, why not help me achieve them by guiding me to see my blind spots?)
Many people have once questioned and belittled my ambitions to change the world. They say that I am not “practical” and should set simpler goals like everyone else. But why not take advantage of ambitions to motivate autistics?
Done properly, the autistic will be like a climber scaling Mt. Everest, learning many important skills and knowledge in his quest to achieve greatness. Even if he did not achieve his ambition eventually, he will be able to use his skills and knowledge for many other things such as finding a well-paying job.