How an Aspie Learned Social Greetings (Autism Spectrum Disorder)
Self Diagnosed Aspergers
A Little Background
Just a brief background to frame this story. As a child, I was quiet, introverted, well-behaved and did well in school. I had one best friend. Since I didn't cause trouble, I was never identified as having any issues, and therefore was not diagnosed.
As I got older, people I knew told me things like, "You march to the beat of your own drum." meaning, I'm different. I heard, "You are like an ice woman" because I didn't show emotion. And more than once I heard, "Can you talk?" because I took so long to process and try to figure out what someone meant, that they thought I wasn't going to answer.
So, other than that brief background, I'm glossing over a huge part of my life, and starting this story here, when I was around 22 years old. This was when I first realized that I was different and decided to try to figure out what to do about it.
Step 1: Identifying The Issue
One day I just got tired of everyone giving me strange looks when I didn't reply quickly enough, if at all, when they tried to engage me in conversation at work. I decided to pay attention, I mean really pay attention to how people interacted with each other. Since the most obvious issue that I identified at that time, was social greetings, I decided to start there.
Every morning, people greeted each other with some very strange sayings, none of which I understood. "How's it going?" "What's up." "How are things?" "Good morning, how are you?" "Hey, what's happening?"
Usually, when someone said one of those things to me, I would stare blankly, wondering what they meant and how in the world I was supposed to respond to such a nonsensical question.
Here are some examples of questions/greetings I'd hear, and what went through my head.
Person: "What's up?"
My thoughts: "Surely they can't be asking me about the ceiling or the sky, so what exactly are they wanting to know?" Meanwhile, we pass by each other, me saying nothing and the other person thinking I was rude for not responding.
Person: "How's it going?"
My thoughts, "How's what going? That's such a broad question, how am I supposed to know what you're asking? What is "it"?" Again, passing by with no reply.
Person: "Hey, what's happening?"
My thoughts, "What's happening with what, or who, or where? Are they asking me about something I'm supposed to know about? What is it exactly that you would like to know? I'm so confused. Uh oh, they're giving me that strange look again. Why do people ask such stupid questions? How in the world am I supposed to know what they're asking?" Feeling panicked.
Person: "Good morning, how are you?"
Me: "I don't know. I'm a little tired I guess." Thoughts, "Why are they looking at me like that? I just answered their question but I got the feeling it was the wrong answer."
At this point, I still thought that everyone else was strange, not me.
Step 2: Collecting Data
I decided my next step, after realizing that what I was doing wasn't working, was to see what everyone else did. I decided to observe. People watching can be fun, so why not. It'll be an experiment. My observations went something like this.
Person 1: Hey, how's it going?
Person 2: Good, good, and you?
Person 1: Good.
End of conversation.
My thoughts, "Wow, that was really strange. The 2nd person seemed to know what "it" was and said "it" was good. The first person simply replied "good" and both of them thought that was an acceptable exchange. But neither person really learned anything. Why ask a question if you don't want to know something?"
Person #1: What's up?
Person #2: Not much.
My thoughts, ""Not much" doesn't answer anything. That didn't make any sense at all and yet it seemed to be acceptable. Strange."
Person #1: Good morning.
Person #2: Morning.
My thoughts, "Again, no useful information was exchanged and yet both people seemed to walk away from each other with normal looks on their faces."
Person #1: What's up?
Person #2: Hi.
My thoughts, "Really? That's it? The 2nd person didn't ever answer the question. They just said, "Hi" and that was ok? What is wrong with people?"
Step 3: Analyzing the Data
After observing people day after day and mentally cataloging greetings and responses and seeing how people reacted to each of the responses, I decided that there were a lot of answers that were acceptable, and many interchangeable to the various greetings. How exciting!! I was starting to see the patterns in the greetings.
One thing that just astounded me, was that none of the greetings or answers made sense, and everyone seemed to be OK with that. The exchanges were so strange I just didn't understand them at all. But I decided, I'm going to have to put this research to good use, and actually try to use one of the responses on someone.
Step 4: Making Changes
One morning I thought, "OK, today's the day. I'm going to try one of these responses and see if it works. Could it actually work?" I was so nervous to try.
Oh boy, someone is walking towards me. They're making eye contact. "What's up?" they ask me. Quick, what can I reply? "Not much" I say. They smile and keep walking past. Oh my gosh!! They smiled at me! I think my heart is going to explode! I can't believe it worked. That was so weird. Why did it work? I don't know but it did. I'll have to try another one.
Person: "Good morning"
Person nods and walks past. Oh my gosh! That worked too. I even used a response that wasn't exactly the same and it still worked. No more strange looks.
Huge Revelation at Age 22
What was my big revelation?
I just have to use an acceptable response to a greeting and people stop looking at me with that confused and irritated look. It's so easy: Just give the right answer (one of any number of acceptable answers).
Was that really my big revelation?
Well, yes, and no.
At the time, it was the biggest revelation I had ever had and I felt empowered! I couldn't believe it was so easy to feel accepted in these every-day situations.
I have to admit that it felt extremely uncomfortable for me at first, since none of it made any sense to me. But with practice, it got easier and easier and I was even able to ask my own nonsensical questions, and receive equally nonsensical responses, and make someone happy at the same time. Wow, will wonders never cease?
But the revelation didn't actually stop there. After a couple of weeks of me practicing these exchanges with people, I asked a friend of mine, who was an extremely social person to explain to me some of these greetings.
"What does it mean," I asked him, "When someone asks "How's it going?" or "What's happening?" How do I know what they're asking me about? Why if I respond "good" or "not much" do they think that's OK?"
I could tell he was a little bit amused at my question, but he was very good-natured and thoughtfully (and easily) answered my question. "It's whatever you want it to mean. It's up for interpretation." I was very confused at this point. "So why are they asking a question that isn't specific? What do they want to know?" He laughed, "It's just a way to start a conversation. People need to feel connected to one another and it's a way to ask a question that you can answer however you want. You can answer about how things are going at work, or how things are going with your cat, or what's going on with your mother...anything you want to share."
Wow! Does everyone know that? How do people know that? How did I miss it all these years and everyone else around me knows? I felt like it was a big secret that I was just being let in on.
Learning Social Greetings Changed My Life
I can't even express how this little social exercise changed my life. I will be forever grateful to my friend for explaining the concept of the social greetings to me. It opened my eyes and allowed me to allocate more meaning and value to something that I previously didn't understand.
And now after so many years, these daily greetings come easily to me without any thought; they are second nature. I have also learned that when I initiate these greetings, it can brighten someone's day, so why not do it? I enjoy being able to bring a smile to someone's face just by saying "Hello" with a smile or "Good morning" and acknowledging them.
If you know someone with similar social awkwardness, I urge you to take the time to explain these types of unspoken social rules with them, it could literally change their life.
Symptoms of Autism
- Symptoms | What is Autism? | Autism Speaks
Autism Speaks is dedicated to increasing awareness of autism spectrum disorders, to funding research into the causes, prevention and treatments for autism, and to advocating for the needs of individuals with autism and their families.
What is an Aspie?
Aspie or no?
As I mentioned in the beginning, I have never been formally diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. I have self-diagnosed based on some of my traits. What do you think?