Over 53 years I’ve learned to navigate the neurotypical world to an acceptable degree. I’m good at eye contact and small talk. I’ve been steadily employed for almost twenty years now—after ten years of trying after college. I don’t shun the unfamiliar as much as I once did. The unexpected doesn’t upset me so much.
I even smile when my picture is taken—when I remember to do so.
But I don’t quite have the hang of group conversation, and I don’t think I ever will.
One-on-one, I do well, often very well if I’m being funny. Add another person, however, and that’s when things start getting tricky. The game speeds up. I still can follow the ebb and flow of conversation, but I start to fall behind. By person three I’m deep in the weeds. The back and forth of their talk has the whip and crack of an intense game of tennis doubles, as played by people good at tennis. Others know when to speak, agree or disagree, laugh, begin or end. It’s fascinating to me. Often, I’m content just to listen.
A video exists of a garden snake striking a house cat. The cat not only dodges the strike but also slaps the snake aside, and the video helpfully explains the cat is roughly twenty milliseconds faster than the snake. It’s a razor-thin margin of time, about one-fiftieth of a second, but enough that the snake is unable to hit the cat.
In conversation, I’m that snake. Everybody else is a cat.
Autistics have a reputation for interrupting others, stiff-arming their way into the discussion, the proverbial bull in the china shop. Sometimes it is to hold forth on their special interest, but not always. Often, it’s a desperate attempt to keep up with the conversation before it pulls away again, and they forget what they had to say.
Just as often the autistic cuts him or herself short, especially if they’ve been previously corrected for perceived rudeness. I’m firmly in this category. I can stop on a dime. The problem is that I end up like a broken radio transmission, with sudden starts and abrupt stops. As author Bill Bryson says, it sounds like you’re coming in from the Russian Front.
Often the transmission ends entirely. Somebody sometimes notices, and remarks that I’m being awfully quiet.
Usually, I nod in reply. The conversation is on the horizon by then and I’ve either forgotten my contribution or it’s no longer relevant. What do I do then? Carry on, as the English say, and keep listening politely.
Mike Minnis is a guest blogger and client. His books can be purchased on Amazon. Visit his website at: www.michaelminnisbooks.com/index.htm