Perfect is the enemy of good enough

Like many autistic people I know, I’m prone to looking for the one right social solution.

But sometimes – many times, there is no perfect solution. Especially in tough situations, there’s often times when you can’t avoid pissing someone off – or hurting someone, for that matter. Unless you let yourself be hurt, and in some cases that’s not doable, either. Sometimes you’re stuck in a situation where you have no choice but to hurt someone and it’s up to you to find the least bad option. Good luck.

I’m in such a situation, in my meatspace life. And I can’t talk about it because it’s confidential. But, suffice to say, I’m pretty sure there is no “right solution” to this particular social problem, and that makes it difficult.

Social skills books and exercises and classes and what have you lie. They pretend as if all situations have a right answer and if you know the rules well enough, you can find it. But people aren’t like math. You cannot simply derive what you need from first principles.

You just muddle along as best you can and hope you don’t screw up anything irreparably.

And that’s where I’m at.

The thing!

Allistic people in general have this obnoxious habit of substituting nonsense words when they can’t think of the correct word for what they want to say. I wouldn’t mind that on its own – goodness knows I do it enough when having my own word retrieval issues or stutter problems – but the big problem is that they seem to expect everyone else to understand what they mean by it.

They get away with this because, by and large, other allistic people are able to puzzle out what they mean through a combination of guesswork, nonverbal cues, and social intuition. This creates a problem wherein they then expect everyone to be able to puzzle out what they mean.

An example, pulled almost verbatim from many real-life interactions of this sort, to illustrate the problem:

Person: Can you hand me the thing by the thing on the other thing?
Me: *blank stare* What?
P: The thing! By the thing on the other thing. Can you hand it to me?
Me: I don’t know what you’re talking about. What do you mean?
P: *speaking slowly and gesturing* The thing. By the thing. On the other thing.
Me: I don’t understand. What thing?
P: You know what I mean!
Me: No, I don’t!
P: God, you’re useless! I’ll do it myself!

When I was a kid, the above exchange would often see me grounded for “being difficult” or “being rude” or “talking back.” But I did not and still do not understand what people are talking about, and I am baffled at how allistic people can figure out as nonsensical a phrase as “the thing by the thing on the other thing.” What thing? What are you talking about?!

I will offer some advice, as a person who very often has trouble with words and is bad at emoting and doing the sort of nonverbal gesture-communication that allistics seem so fond of. If you (general-you, I include all people capable of communicating with language in this, though most people with speech issues probably already know about it) find yourself interacting with a person who is not understanding what you’re meaning about when you substitute a nonsense noun for a word you can’t think of at the moment, don’t take it personally. The other person is probably not aggravating you intentionally. They probably honestly have no fucking clue what you’re talking about.

So, here’s what works for me, since I can’t do the gesture-thing allistics do all the time: Describe what you’re talking about. Talk around the thing you’re having trouble finding the name of. I’ll give you an example of me talking with someone when I wasn’t able to make the word “snowman” happen:

Me: Those kids look like they’re having fun.
Person not looking out the window: Yeah? What are they up to?
Me: They’re building a – a. A. A, um. Crap. Thing.Person: A what?
Me: It’s big and rounded and white and bumpy. Has a carrot face.
Person: Snowman?
Me: Yes! Exactly. A snowman. They’re building a snowman.

And the conversation continued from there. Neither of us got aggravated or upset, and it didn’t spark a fight (by contrast, getting angry and calling someone names will spark a fight). Talking around the word giving you trouble allows meaningful conversation to continue and prevents excessive aggravation or frustration on either end because some communication is still happening.

This, like giving directions to misplaced objects, is another way that I find autistic people in general tend to have superior communication skills to our allistic peers. We know how to keep communication happening when we blank on a word because most of us have no choice but to figure it out as we grow up, due to our language and communication difficulties. This is another case where accommodating a disability will actually make your life easier, too – now, rather than grinding the conversation to a halt while someone plays 20 questions with you, you can keep meaningful communication going. The blanked-out word becomes a pothole rather than a roadblock to communication.

Take advantage of the workarounds autistic people and those with speech impediments have learned to effect communication. You might be surprised at how effective they are.

Open your eyes.

One thing that’s always been a marvel to me about allistic people is that when they point at a specific thing, others can understand what they’re pointing at. Even if it’s something small and hard to notice.

I can’t do that.

When I was a kid, it used to aggravate my parents. Exchanges would go as follows:

Me: Where’s the [item]?
Mom: It’s over there. *points*
Me: *looks* *doesn’t see it* Where?
Mom: There. *points more emphatically*
Me: *looks again* *still doesn’t see it* I don’t see it.
Mom: It’s right there! Open your eyes!
Me: They are open! I just don’t see it!

Or you could substitute “Open your eyes” with “You’d have better luck if you weren’t looking with your eyes closed,” both of which are expressions that it took me until yesterday to realize are not in fact accusations of groping about with my eyes shut but in fact disparaging remarks about my observational skills – which is fair enough because to mangle a metaphor, I’m someone who could easily miss the forest because I’m examining the bark patterns on the tree right in front of me.

So, to those people who have no difficulty at all following a point and get aggravated with that person who just seems to be too lazy to really look for a thing, I offer some advice and things to keep in mind:

  1. The person looking for the thing is just as aggravated with their inability to follow your point as you are.
  2. They are not doing this to be difficult. They are doing this because they literally are not able to register that they’re looking at the thing they want, for whatever reason. Yes, I know it might be right in front of their face. Believe me, it doesn’t matter. Obvious to you does not mean obvious to me. I wish I could explain what gets me to notice something, but I can’t.
  3. If pointing isn’t working, pointing more emphatically won’t work either.
  4. Neither will yelling.
  5. Or insulting.
  6. What is far more likely to work is clear directions relative to a landmark in the room. “Next to the printer on top of the blue book,” is something I can work with. “Over there” is not.
  7. Directions should be explicit and descriptive. Avoid meaningless word substitutions if the name of a thing escapes you. I will write more on this in a later post, but for now, suffice to say that if you can’t think of the words “printer” or “book,” describing what you’re talking about is a lot more useful. “Next to the thing that makes words on paper on top of the blue thing you read,” is directions I can follow. “Next to the thing on the thing,” is not.

I hope this helps allistic people improve their direction-giving abilities rather than just relying on a steadily more-emphatic series of points. The benefit of this is that even allistic people, in my experience, prefer the kind of specific and exact directions I tend to give (due to my inability to follow points, I don’t see the, erm, point of pointing). Allistic people I know will come and ask me for directions to things or where stuff is rather than my allistic coworkers because they know they’re not going to play 5 minutes of “Hotter/Colder” with only a point to go off. They’ll get my directions, and go and find it easily.

So rather than pointing, try giving explicit directions the next time someone asks you where something is. You might be surprised at its efficacy.

How I ask for help

Another post inspired by meatspace goings-on, like my previous.

So, I’ve been thinking a lot lately of the process of asking for help. Mainly because, due to the emotional state I described in my post on meltdowns and a meltdown that I correctly predicted followed by an almost-all-weekend shutdown, I realized that I was (and am still, to a lesser degree) completely overwhelmed.

So I’m going to write a bit about the process of realizing I’m in over my head, and asking for help.

Asking for help is complicated. It involves several steps. First, you have to realize you’re in trouble. Then you have to understand how you’re in trouble. Then you have to evaluate – correctly – whether you can manage on your own. If you decide you can’t, you have to admit to yourself that you need help. Then you have to think about what kind of help I need, evaluate what kind of help others are able to give, and decide on what is likely to be most helpful, given the resources of those around you and your current needs. Second-to-last, you have to ask for help, and finally, you have to avoid beat yourself up into non-productivity over needing help. The last step is not necessary for everyone, but is for a lot of people.

For me, I’m generally unaware of my own mental state unless I’m at an emotional extreme. So recognizing that the tight feeling in my stomach and my increasing problems with executive function and procrastination are all due to anxiety from feeling totally overwhelmed? Hard. Very hard. I’m still pretty much at the point where I can recognize that I’m stressed but not necessarily why and even if I can recognize the why, I might not be able to figure out the how. So, for this situation: I’ve known I’m stressed about something since January. I figured out that it was my exam causing the stress in March. And it was this week that I realized that how I’m stressed out is that I’m feeling overwhelmed because I didn’t know how I was going to get all the studying I needed to do done while also working full time. After two meltdowns and a shutdown in just one week (which is more meltdowns and shut downs than I’ve had in the preceding six months).

Evaluating whether I can manage on my own accurately is also hard, but for reasons less to do with stuff inherent to who I am (like the difficulty registering my own emotions) and more to do with stuff I’ve learned growing up. I’ve internalized this must-be-Wonder-Woman imperative that I can’t ever admit difficulty or overwhelm or weakness because This Isn’t Hard ™. So. I have to peel by my tendency to brush off my own distress and really evaluate: Is this currently within my ability to do on my own? If the answer to that is no, then I have to get myself to accept that I need help. Which is also hard, for the same reason. Usually (this month being no exception), I have to induce several avoidable meltdowns and/or shut-downs before I realize that I need to do something.

If I manage to get myself to accept whether I need help? Then I have to figure out what would help. Which is also hard, mainly because of my tendency to catastrophize. I have to divorce anxiety-jerkbrain from my thinking process and honestly evaluate what I need more of. Do I need more time? Do I need an extra set of hands? Etc.

Then I have to think about what other people can do for me. This is extremely difficult for me, because I have a hard time keeping track of who is good at what and who has which authorities and resources. Once I’ve figured out who can give me what, and what they’re likely to be willing to give me, I have to figure out who would be best to ask: Which person is most likely to give me something really useful?

Then I have to ask. Which is always awkward and I don’t really have a good social script figured out for, so mainly I just rehearse the conversation over and over and over in my head but sometimes screw it up by overcompensating on the don’t-seem-nervous front and instead coming off like an arrogant asshole.

Finally, regardless of what the other person does, I have to avoid beating myself up over needing help. I have to stop the “This isn’t hard! Everyone can do this, so why can’t you? Maybe you’re just lazy!” mental monolog that gets started every time I admit weakness.

And, that’s asking for help for me. It’s not easy. And that’s why people should teach autistic kids how to ask for help, and that their requests for help will be respected. Because otherwise you get twentysomething adults who take three months to even realize they probably should ask for help and another month to figure out how.

So what’s okay to teach kids, then?

I realize that with all my focus on what not to do, what doesn’t work, how taking situations at face value isn’t necessarily a good idea because kids might not report what’s going on, and the harms of expecting kids who have a hard time with social stuff to act normal, it might come off like I’m saying don’t do anything.

I’m not. It’s just, as I said before, I’m not entirely sure what does work since I never found something effective, but I can talk about the stuff that wasn’t harmful to me growing up, and that’s what I’ll do now.

So what should you teach to bullied kids and to kids who have a hard time with social stuff? In no particular order:

  • Basic etiquette. Please and thank you. Not interrupting unless it’s urgent or an emergency (make sure that you allow that exception, because literal-minded kids might wait until you’re done talking to tell you the fire alarm in the laundry room is going off and smoke’s coming out of the drier and it’s really hot, I say from personal experience), that sort of thing. Important for letting others know you care about them and also for not accidentally pissing people off as often. Also important for teaching the difference between a request and a demand. Finally, important because it gives them the tools to choose to be rude on purpose, and contrary to what most adults think, kids getting to choose to be rude is actually an important and good thing: If someone’s being totally unreasonable at you, you have to be rude sometimes to get them to back off. Teaching your kid how to do that is important.
  • Basic hygiene. Wash before you smell bad. Brush your teeth regularly. Wash your hands after using the bathroom. Sneeze into a tissue or into your arm. Etc. Important for personal health and for preventing stuff from spreading to others. However, don’t confuse teaching hygiene with teaching hygiene the way everyone else does it. For example, if your kid finds a fine spray showerhead painful like I do, try switching up to a more potent jet (I know, seems counter-productive, but it works for me), or suggesting your kid take baths instead. Hygiene shouldn’t be painful or traumatic.
  • Basic aesthetics: If someone else has sensory issues, fluorescent-green-on-fluorescent-orange might be literally painful to look at (sez a person who does find it literally painful to look at – see also fluorescent pink on white). This is just a consideration thing: don’t wear stuff that makes other people feel like their eyes want to burst.
  • Responsible use of scents: Again, a consideration thing. Scent sensitivities are becoming increasingly common as allergies and asthma become more common. People with sensory processing disorders also may have difficulty with scents. People who are pregnant often find scents overwhelming, and this hypernosmia is implicated in morning sickness. Don’t wear stuff that makes others sneeze, cough, wheeze, itch, get headaches, or throw up. On a personal side: Many scents make me do the first four, so I’ll appreciate it if nothing else.
  • Fashion basics: Care needs to be exercised with this, so that it’s not presented as something the kid has to do or as a “fitting in” thing. But teaching kids about what cuts are flattering to which body types and rules of formality for clothing will help them later on for stuff like job interviews. Best to present it as a “here’s something you can use if you want to, when you want to” type of thing.
  • Exercise basics: How to exercise safely (i.e., how to avoid overtraining injuries, dehydration, etc) and responsibly (clean up your equipment when you’re done, don’t put others at risk, etc), and why it’s important to exercise. Important for health and wellness – exercise improves control of many chronic illnesses, for example. Care needs to be exercised so it’s a health and wellness thing, not a body shaming fat-phobic thing. Care also needs to be exercised so it’s not a “fit in” thing, so if your kid doesn’t like group sports like baseball, hockey or basketball, teach them stuff they can do alone (calisthenics) or get them in individual sports like gymnastics, weight lifting, or martial arts.
  • Healthy eating basics: What makes a balanced meal, how to plan meals, etc. Also important for health and wellness, in addition to being important for independence later on. Again, as above, need to present it as “wellness” not as body shaming. The stuff I got in school was much better than the stuff I got at home on this front (long story there). As well, if texture is an issue with your kid, there’s nothing wrong with showing hir how to blend hir vegetables, and what things blended veggies really do well in (most soups, for example). Personal note: I ate no solid veggies (with the sole exception of raw mushrooms) until I was about 16 due to texture issues, but I avoided malnutrition thanks to purees and mashes. There are still veggies I can’t eat due to texture (tomatoes  and celery, to name two, so I puree stuff with them).
  • Why small talk is a thing: to those who don’t get small talk as a thing instinctively, we can get aggravated or upset by others’ insistence on following what appears to be a boring and inane social ritual. While my mental jury’s out on whether kids who have trouble with small talk should be taught it, teaching kids why others do it is good for helping them understand that, while, yes, everyone who’s outside can feel that it’s bloody freezing out, people like to complain at each other because it breeds a sense of camaraderie, not because they like filling the air with pointless noise. Knowing why it’s done helps make it less baffling and annoying. Analogy here: I used to have a throat-clearing stim I’d do when my throat was scratchy, because clearing it had the same soothing effect as scratching an itch. It used to annoy the hell out of my parents – to the point that in frustration they once locked me in my room until I’d “stop making that damn noise”. When they put two and two together that I’d only do it when I was coming down with something and started offering throat lozenges instead, I had a soothed throat so I didn’t do it as much and they felt far less annoyed by the sound because they knew I was doing it for a reason. For some autistic people, myself included, small talk is like my throat clearing – it’s aggravating if you don’t know that there’s a reason for it.
  • Conversation skills: Stuff like how to change the subject when you’re uncomfortable, etc. Careful here, because it can seem like pressure to emulate normality. If it’s presented as  skill to help effective world interaction and/or a sort of verbal self-defense, rather than Something You Must Do Always, it’s okay – my parents telling me kids would make fun if I talked too long wasn’t really helpful and made me feel like it was my fault I was bullied. My coworker telling me that I needed to insert pauses during my explanations so others would have time to ask questions if they didn’t follow me on step 2 rather than waiting until I’d gone through to step 20 and they’re totally lost? Helpful. Get the difference? One is “you must do this to fit in,” the other is “here’s how to be more effective at what you’re trying to do.”
  • Non-violent conflict resolution: If hitting is the only thing that ever works for your kid, they’ll keep hitting. I say that as someone who used to be a violent kid. So, if you want your kid to quit being violent, you need to give them strategies for nonviolent conflict resolution, and even more importantly, you need to support them in their attempts at non-violent conflict resolution and make sure they’re supported in it wherever you’re not. Because if hitting is the only thing that works, they’ll keep hitting, and they’ll be annoyed with you for telling them to use strategies they probably tried and weren’t supported in.
  • How to stand up for yourself: As above, they need support from adults for this to work. This includes stuff like when you need to walk away from a conversation, how to assert boundaries, how to ask for accommodations (if the kid has a disability), how and when to be defiant (I know, not something most parents want their kids to do, but as with choosing to be rude, it’s important to have the option of being defiant for anyone) how to ask for help, and when to get help. I haven’t fully mastered a lot of those skills, but they’re good skills for everyone to have.

Second-to-lastly: Consider what you’re teaching your kids with your actions. Kids learn a lot more from what adults around them do than what adults say. So, if you say, “It’s not okay to shout and hit just because you’re angry,” but you shout when you’re frustrated with some housework and you spank your kids, what do they learn? Not that it’s not okay to shout and hit. Rather, that grown-ups are hypocrites. At least, that’s what I learned when my parents taught me that way.

Lastly: Set reasonable standards for your kids. Parents of a kid I know hold hir to an unreasonable standard when xe’s upset – they demand that xe explain verbally what’s wrong in a calm tone of voice and without “showing an attitude” – i.e., facially expressing hir upset. Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t know any adult that can do that.  How is it reasonable to expect that of a kid? I don’t think it is. Think about what you’re expecting of your child and whether or not it’s reasonable.

An addenum to the last point: Neurodivergent K has a great post on why expecting a kid with language issues to “use their words” even when upset is unreasonable. Read it. Think about it. I can’t add anything of substantial to it.