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Cold. Intimidating. Angry. Scary. Autistic.

In the last two weeks, I had to deal with the consequences of misperceptions and assumptions about me — and autism. My last major "public interaction" of 2012 also included a mention of my perceived personality, and that mention still annoys me several days later.

I am reminded of this excellent blog post on Musings of an Aspie:
You Scare Me
October 10, 2010
http://musingsofanaspie.com/2012/10/10/you-scare-me/ 
Last summer, my husband and I had some new friends over for lunch. They brought along their two young boys. Toward the end of the meal, the 5-year-old, who was sitting next to me, looked at me and said, "You scare me."
I have been told, far too many times, that I make people uncomfortable. I have been told I am cold, intimidating, angry, and scary. Coworkers, I have been informed, are afraid of me. Afraid of me, despite my palsy, my limp, and my occasional use of a cane.

Please, read the full post on Musings of an Aspie and try to understand what is being expressed. I want to quote a long portion and then explore how it relates to my last few weeks — and my last few years, unfortunately.
More than once I've had a professor pause during a lecture to ask me if I had a question. One day, curious about why this happened so often, I finally said, "No, why?"

"Because you're frowning," the professor replied.

Surprised at his reply, I blurted out, "I'm not frowning. This is my concentrating face."

The rest of the class laughed, but the question was right up there with you scare me in how deeply it unsettled me.

Obviously I was projecting something different from what I was experiencing internally. There I was sitting in calculus class day after day, looking confused, but never asking any questions. This made my professor so uncomfortable that he stopped in the middle of his lecture to ask me what my problem was. I wonder if he even believed me when I told him I wasn't confused.

I wonder how often people think I'm being deceitful because my verbal and nonverbal communication doesn't match.

This is a problem that feels too pervasive to fix. I'm literally projecting an expression of some sort during my every waking moment. There's no way I could–or would even want to–pay attention to what that expression is all the time.
— from http://musingsofanaspie.com/2012/10/10/you-scare-me/
I've endured a great many suggestions from "superiors" that others are afraid of me. Yes, in those words. To be told others are afraid of you, distrust you, and believe you are in some way mentally unstable is deeply troubling. Trying to explain that I struggle with my vocal tone (and volume) and my facial expressions was insufficient to address the complaints that I made others uncomfortable.

Since 2004, I have been teaching at the university level. My students, at least the majority, didn't appear to share this apprehension of me — but I cannot be certain. Student evaluations and their personal notes to me are the only information from which I can draw conclusions. The one or two students expressing negative views tended to have other conflicts. I doubt most university students pay much attention to their professors beyond what is required to earn a decent grade.

Yet, my professors and my colleagues have said I make them uneasy. One professor even asked that I be removed from her course; I completed my work online and endured a formal investigation of my supposedly threatening behaviors. It was a miserable experience for me and my wife. Only the kindness and understanding of a university dean helped us navigate this horrible minefield of professorial ignorance and insensitivity. Silly me, getting a migraine in her classroom and having a seizure. How thoughtless of me.

I've written at length about the miserable experience and it does haunt me. It will, as many other experiences do, replay in my mind for the remainder of my life.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I assume most people do not understand how dehumanizing it is to be told you are scary. If I were equipped with a deep voice and imposing stature, I might accept that people are intimidated. If I had a tendency to destroy objects and punch people, I might understand the assumptions about me — because they'd be supported by actions.

Instead, the most anyone could claim is that I have a "strange tone" and "shake" at times. I seem "angry" because I don't smile enough. I am "unhappy" because I give voice to my concerns and my suggestions. If you do not want my opinions, do not ask me questions or ask for my ideas.

I am distrusted because I don't like secrets or office politics — and dare to say that office politics are childish and disruptive. I do not know the limits of petty feuds and nonsensical rumors. I hate the fact that people talk about each other, instead of asking questions directly and in person. I despise how people behave in the workplace. That is stating it mildly.

A supervisor said I need to appear "happier" to make people feel better. My wife has suggested such "workplace advice" be included in my revised edition of A Spectrum of Relationships because other autistic adults will encounter similar situations. People like "happy" and "charming" people; not being skilled at social graces is a severe obstacle to success in some workplaces.

With the recent shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, I've heard media personalities discussing autism and violence. The Sandy Hook incident has once again allowed ignorant people to associate Autism Spectrum Disorders with murder. That isn't going to help me convince colleagues they are mistaken to assume I am a threat. Professors are human, falling victim to misguided stereotypes of various disabilities.

Many autistic individuals have found refuge in academia. I have not. It might be my fields of study, or it might be that I simply stumbled into a few people I could not educate about autism. I have spent many, many hours over the last eight years trying to understand why a career path I thought would offer acceptance has instead led me to constantly doubt myself and my place in the world.

I've applied for other teaching posts, as I am openly on the job market for the next academic year, but I also fear that I might not find a setting that tolerates me as I am — and appreciates that I am willing to teach others about my challenges and experiences. It is not as if I hide that I am "different" from my colleagues, or even my students. That I do speak publicly should indicate that I'm more than willing to discuss why and how I might need some assistance at times.

While in the midst of pondering my future, trying to gather myself during the Winter break, someone commented on my lack of a smile and my rather unhappy nature. I was asked why I wasn't smiling as a financial matter was being settled. My reply, probably taken as rudeness, was that "Things are finally done." In other words, why should I be "happy" because a matter was being settled properly? I don't get excited by things being done properly and professionally — that should be normal.

Normal doesn't thrill me. I am excited when someone goes above and beyond what is expected. I'm not going to smile and do a "happy dance" simply because things are as they should be.

No, I don't smile often. I do laugh and smile with my cats. I laugh at some cute moments in books and movies, but not as often as others might. I prefer not to be photographed, because I realize I don't look "happy" in most pictures. When I do smile, it looks fake even to me, no matter how genuine the moment.

I'm sick and tired of people demanding that I be charming. I am angry and frustrated with claims that I am angry and scary. How ironic is that?

The only person who seems to understand me is my wife. We are here, alone in Pennsylvania, trying to digest and interpret the ignorance and intolerance I have encountered over the last many years. Maybe encouraging my readers to visit other similar blogs and to reflect on the autistic experience will help someone, somewhere be a bit more tolerant in the future.

I'll be writing about this more in the future. It bothers me that people trust the smiling faces of disingenuous charmers while they distrust a set of people predisposed to blunt honesty and a lack of deceit. More than once, when telling the truth to the best of my knowledge, I have been accused of deception. When I have stated a truthful opinion, I have been accused of engaging in politics.

A friend told me people don't want Sherlock Holmes or Mr. Spock as coworkers. They want outgoing and reassuring friends, first and foremost, in the workplace. Being a good worker is less important than others enjoying your presence. I have little reason to doubt his insights, which I have observed in several different settings. Friendships decide more than skills do in many workplaces.

If I am intimidating, tough. I'm done with trying to make others comfortable when so few people are willing to listen and appreciate my perspective. People unwilling to ask questions or accept offers of explanation are unworthy of my time and energy — I've wasted too many years dealing with intolerance, ignorance, cruelty.

Comments

  1. Sharing an interesting news :-

    http://www.edvantage.com.sg/edvantage/features/people/1535536/Asperger_s_syndrome_so_what_.html

    ReplyDelete
  2. I loved reading this and I feel the same and seek comfort that someone struggles with the same issues that I do, particularly in the workplace.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thank you for your heartfelt honesty. Finally I found someone who can spell it out as it is. I feel your pain. I too have been told that I am percieved as intimidating by my boss and coworkers when my only intention is to be of support and do my job well.

    ReplyDelete

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