Socially-acceptable cursing and how not knowing how to curse started me toward self-diagnosis

Post inspired by this post at suburp. So, when I was a kid, I had a bit of a cursing problem.

And by a bit, I mean a lot.

I’ve mentioned before, how I would do outrageous things without realizing they were outrageous? Yeah. Cursing out my third grade teacher when I was seven was one of those things. Er, probably more like several hundred. I cursed a lot.

I came by it honestly: Most of my extended family is military, and I spent all of my early childhood on military bases. In Canada, military people curse a lot. Like, it’s not uncommon when they’re hanging out for every third word or so to be a swear word. My parents were (are) both fairly free with the curse words when upset or angry. I modeled that.

On bases, in kindergarden and first grade, it wasn’t a big deal. Most of the kids, like me, grew up in houses where adults cursed a lot. So they cursed a lot. Teachers chided, but took it in stride. Second grade wasn’t a big deal because I had a great teacher and was rarely upset.

Third grade, though. Third grade was a disaster (with all my seven-year-old wit, I was referring to it as “turd grade” by the end of September, and that pretty much sums up my thoughts of that year even now). I was young for my grade (second-youngest in the class, youngest by over two months when you considered prematurity). I was bored silly by the work. I was so small for the grade, the desks dwarfed me and they had to get what the other kids called a “baby desk” from a kindergarden class room for me, since I was too small to be able to do work while “sitting properly” in the desk. The classroom was sensory hell. I didn’t know any of the other kids, and they didn’t like this new weirdo with her books and clumsiness and weird posture and stutter and vocal affectations.  So I had meltdowns. A lot. And I cursed. A lot.

This was a problem.

So parents and teachers worked with me. It’s okay to be angry, they said, but that’s no excuse for cursing. I should never curse, even if I was angry. It was inappropriate.

Of course, I’m very black and white. So, once I internalized that lesson, i stopped cursing. Completely. But expressing anger in normal words without cursing didn’t get people to pay attention. I needed a way to signal that I was angry. So I turned to my friend, the dictionary, and started making scripts with extremely descriptive language. And, because I was using dictionary language, not normal speaking language, the resulting scripts were, to put it bluntly, arcane. Stuff like, “Verily, I yearn to defenestrate that work sheet! Its uselessness is of brobdingnagian proportions!”

Which didn’t win me any friends at all. My parents thought it was amusing, evidence of my “dry wit” and “creativity” and “unusual perspective.” My teachers, I think, were made to feel inadequate when a 7-year-old who looked more like 5 was using words they didn’t understand. They got angry and treated me poorly as a result. My classmates were more convinced than ever that I was a weirdo.

All that said, it wasn’t really a noticeable problem until I hit university (before then, I was too much of a social pariah for anyone actually comment on it). One of my friends, about six months after I started uni, asked me, “I noticed – you never curse. Like, ever. Are you religious or something?”

Cue an awkward conversation where I explained that it was never okay to curse, and she talked me around to realize that I set a double-standard for myself, where I believed it was never okay for me to curse, but other people could curse as much as they wanted to. And that I had no understanding of when it was appropriate vs inappropriate for anyone to curse, but I assumed other people had some information I didn’t have and assumed that if they were cursing, it was okay for them to, but not okay for me to. After all, my parents and teachers said there was never an excuse for me to curse.

“This is gonna be weird, but, are you sure you’re not autistic?” said another friend of mine, who was himself diagnosed autistic. It wasn’t the first time he asked. It wouldn’t be the last. “Cuz I had that problem in Grade 10, for the same reason, but my teacher taught me when it’s okay. Seriously, you seem more autistic the more I talk to you.”

At the time, I brushed it off. But as my friends taught me when it was okay to curse and when it wasn’t – and also taught me some more useful scripts for expression of frustration than the ones I had been using – it stuck with me. Are you sure you’re not autistic?

I remembered the aha! feeling I got on reading Asperger’s syndrome diagnostic criteria at 15.

Are you sure you’re not autistic?

I remembered people on forums asking me the same question.

Are you sure you’re not autistic?

I realized I felt most comfortable and relaxed among my autistic friends. That I felt kinship with them. Like their struggles were mine in some way.

Are you sure you’re not autistic?

Eventually, I had to answer “No.”

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12 thoughts on “Socially-acceptable cursing and how not knowing how to curse started me toward self-diagnosis

  1. autisticook says:

    You hit on so many things here. Taking instructions literally. Not knowing when or how to code switch, reading situations to know in which ones it is acceptable. I curse a lot as well, but I can’t remember doing so as a child. However, the general ideas that created this problem for you are all too recognisable.

    • ischemgeek says:

      I am still not good at code-switching. I default to “professional equal” because if I err on the side of too formal, nobody gets offended (they might feel awkward, but they don’t get angry), but people get upset if I accidentally act like I have authority over them (too bossy! arrogant!) or if I act too relaxed (unprofessional! immature!). I’m getting better at it (recently, I started cursing in casual conversations with friends), but, yeah, code-switching is hard. It’s not only the knowing when, it’s knowing how and why and what rule sets go with which contexts and etc.

      • Barry says:

        I had to look up what code-switching meant. I realise the only types I have is “child talk” and “adult talk”. The way I talk to my wife is exactly the same as I talk to family members, friends and strangers. Possibly explains why friends often tell me to relax or unwind when I feel perfectly at ease. I am concious of the switch when talking to children.

        When it comes to cursing, I never do – ever. Never felt the need or urge to. Besides I wouldn’t have a clue when it would be appropriate or inappropriate. Neither of my parents cursed at home although the siblings of both parents do. I have never heard my mother curse, and I never knew my father did until I joined him and some of his mates on an outing when I was in my 40’s. It came as a bit of a shock to be honest. My siblings all curse to some degree, but one of them moderates it considerably in my presence.

      • autisticook says:

        Code-switching is one of the things that neurotypical people do without thinking, and one of the things that they find very hard to explain (or even understand why I have trouble with it). I just look at them and see how they have different modes of talking and behaving with SO MANY different people. Like, talking to your coworker is different than talking to your neighbour. Talking to your driving instructor is different than talking to your brother-in-law. They have all these shades and grades of connection and they instinctively adapt their behaviour to that. It’s stunning.

        I can observe it, but I can’t replicate it.

        (One of the areas in which my lack of code-switching is the most obvious is my clothing. I like wearing beautiful clothes… which means everyone is always commenting on how overdressed I am. I just can’t grasp the idea of the suitability of certain clothes for certain occasions. I mean, I know that in theory, there is such a thing, but I can’t match it to the actual clothes I’m choosing to wear).

      • ischemgeek says:

        On a bad day, I can do one code. On a good day when I have the brainpower, I’m capable of three, but it’s very draining. On in between days, I might be able to manage two. My default code is work formality. My second code is extracurricular activity formality and lastly there’s job interview/conference formality. The latter two require a lot of thought and effort to maintain, and if I get tired, I might just drop them.

        My code-switching inability is most evident in my spoken language: I forget to simplify my language or pick audience-appropriate analogies when talking to kids or non-experts. Which is a problem if the person has no idea what supramolecular interactions are or doesn’t understand what orthogonal means.

      • autisticook says:

        In language, it becomes most apparent when I let my guard down, when I start becoming more comfortable with people. And then I start talking to them as if they were a member of my family. Literally over-familiar. It tends to confuse people, if not downright put them off. And I never know I’m doing it until it’s pointed out to me.

      • Barry says:

        Friends and family accept that my speech is formal (it’s just one of my quirks), and of course with more distant acquaintances and strangers, formal speech isn’t a problem. I do use idioms and colloquialisms, but they are only those that are acceptable in any situation (well, at least I am aware that they are not.). In my teens and twenties i used to try to imitate more informal speech, but there were too many embarrassing moments as a result. It was more safe and less dramatic using what I knew…

  2. aperson says:

    so this might be random and/or not related to this post but rather your blog in general, which I just completely read to procrastinate my work. anyway, thanks for writing these because wow.I identify with most aspies, but what you write is especially similar to what I have experienced. Rote practice of handwriting, bullying, and hyperlexia are not rare for aspies. but [name]’s germs, no give backs*, surprisingly frequent use of “defenestrate” , and an obsessive middle school interest in Tamora Pierce’s books… wow. anyway thanks for doing this blogging thing because I’m about 10 years younger and some of the advice especially about labels and accommodations and general communication are things I find really useful.
    – a passing internet stranger
    *I had actively suppressed that memory, but you did have the appropriate trigger warnings so my fault

    • ischemgeek says:

      I read entire blogs in a sitting, too. I think it’s my inner completionist – must read all of the posts.

      Also: I use defenestrate so much because it’s my favorite word (bobdingagian, on the other hand, is an awkward word I’ve never been very fond of). In case you were wondering. I rarely get an excuse to work it into conversation, so I use it here a lot instead.

      I’m glad you found my blog helpful. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  3. My parents spanked me for cursing when I was two, which I remembered forever… so even when I became older and other kids were starting to curse when no adults were around, I literally couldn’t. Even thinking about a curse word brought a bad feeling to my stomach. It was impossible for me to learn that there are things kids do when they are with their friends, that are just mischievous and not dangerous or the end of the world. If my parents said I couldn’t curse, I COULD NEVER CURSE EVER IN MY LIFE! But by high school I got over it when I heard my younger brother cursing a blue streak with nothing bad happening to him.

  4. This. For me it’s not the cursing as it is knowing if I should be talking. (This is excluding other social factors.) Growing up I was taught that good kids stayed quiet in class and that it was okay to be quiet…so it didn’t matter if I was at work or in class, as long as I was outside my home I kept to myself. Which inevitably caused problems, because in some situations you were expected to be chatty…in others you didn’t say anything at all.

  5. Yes. I’ve found the traits in myself at a late age, because stereotypes and lack of real information about autism meant no one picked up on some pretty obvious signs in retrospect, because of my giftedness.

    The thing about rules and holding myself to the strictest standard is something that hurts me to this day.

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