Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Yes Means Yes

"But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.
- Jesus, Matthew 5:37, KJV

There have been many books and articles written on how to communicate with people on the autistic spectrum. There is advice on physical contact, eye contact, body language, using Social Stories, being conscious for literalism in language, and so on.  When respecting the individuality of the communication style of each person with an autistic spectrum condition (ASC), these guides can be of value.  The well-written ones resemble an etiquette guide to a foreign culture, and may even be a sign of progress because of it, in that they have the potential to reframe ASC characteristics as another valid way of being - like a foreign culture - rather than disordered because non-normative.  But if I were asked (in a contrived scenario) to sum up how to talk to me as an ASC person, I would quote Matthew 5:37.

Or, to attempt an impromptu Biblical paraphrase: 

Mean exactly what you say.  
Say exactly what you mean. 

This sounds so simple as to be obvious, so uncomplex as to be facetious.  Just-say-exactly-what-you-mean. Yet many people find straightforward communication almost impossible.  
This is due in part to our social conditioning and the masks (personae) we are trained to wear.  The vast majority of human communication in this age is insincere.  So much of social interaction consists of posturing, posing, one-upmanship, vying for status, flirting, subtle power dynamics, coded discourses of inclusion or exclusion, game playing.  As an ASC person I sometimes feel like an anthropologist watching the interaction of a social grouping from a detached distance, objectively noting and sometimes shaking my head at the transparency and ubiquity of falseness in the way people interact.  

As a hobby I participate in Live Action Role-Playing, or LARP.  It is a sort of spontaneous, improvisational theatre with a running storyline and, often, combat with foam weapons.  Picture Dungeons & Dragons, but rather than the players rolling dice on a tabletop, they are actually running around in the woods fighting in character.  LARP for me is tremendously liberating, in that it enables me to temporarily inhabit a society with alternative social codes, and where the 'social scripts' - what I am supposed to say or do in any given situation - are so clear. If I am playing a chivalrous knight, I act chivalrous.  If I am playing an orc, I act gruff and orcish. However, in LARP, sometimes players need to get out of their role, when they have been "killed" in role-played combat, or are just leaving the area of play.  In the game system I play in, they put up their index character to indicate that they are going 'OOC' - Out  of Character.  The player then detaches from the artificial social code of the game and becomes again their "real" self rather than the persona they have temprorarily adopted.  

As a person with Asperger's, I feel like the whole world I LARPing, and I am OOC.  Neurotypical people are playing roles and characters - the Macho Guy, the Successful Man, the Attractive Person - and spending much of their time and effort maintaining their character through language and acquisition of material accoutrements such as styles of clothing to maintain the character.  As a person on the spectrum, I am out of the game and watching it all and seeing how contrived it all is.  
At this point I am aware that I am sounding something like the classic adolescent archetype of Holden Caulfield in the Catcher in the Rye, lamenting that everyone is a "fake and a phony" as well as his own inability to do anything about it.  I am not saying that most people are consciously being insincere or in character, more that insincere interactions are such an ingrained habit as to be unconscious and unquestioned.  

Unfortunately, in a society where insincerity and inauthenticity are as omnipresent as the air, one has to breathe the air to survive.  To get by in a such a society, everyone must adopt a little bit of fauxness, suppress their honesty and play the game.  To be employable, one must learn to suppress communicating one's honest feelings about co-workers an employers, as well as restraining one's innate desire for justice.  To find a partner in the mainstream "dating scene" - to escape from solitude - necessitates the projection of an attractive yet constructed facade, and the use of verbal gamesmanship and flattery.  

To achieve any modicum of 'success' in worldy terms, therefore, requires putting on the cloak of false communication, and autistic people in general simply cannot do that. I once heard the definition [and I wish I remembered the source] that "autism is the pathological inability to be insincere.".  ASC people say exactly what they mean, mean exactly what they say, speak honestly and expect honesty from others.  Since they find it difficult to understand facades, much less how build them, they present their unvarnished self to the world.  They see no reason to lie and would find it difficult to keep up a lie if they tried.  

In any culture's definition of good behavior, those count as virtues: honesty, forthrightness clarity, sincerity.  And yet when people emerge who by their neurological makeup cannot but manifest these qualities, it is termed a 'disorder' because it diverges from a social code, predicated upon inauthenticity, which is itself disordered.  

Yet this statement is tempered by realising how deeply ingrained social game-playing is into our 'habitus' of being, perhaps so deeply as to be inextricable.  Yet perhaps those with the most commonly occuring neural configuration may grow to see wisdom in the counsel of the Sermon on the Mount, of saying 'yes' when they mean yes, and no when they mean no.