I truly believe that one of the biggest reasons I have mega-anxiety about being approached by people is because they will inevitably ask me what is probably my least favorite question of all time: “How are you?”
I cannot process this question. Or other questions like it, such as “how was your day?” or even “what’s your favorite movie?” What do these questions have in common? They’re all vague, indirect, and indeterminate.
When someone asks “How was your day?” I literally cannot process that question. I know what all those words mean. The question makes sense. But I can’t process the question, because the premise requires something cognitively that I just do not have. I can’t answer the question because it’s not specific enough. My day was a lot of things, I can’t sum it up in an answer. Trying to process this question sends my brain into a confusing spiral, which if I’m already stressed may completely throw off whatever sliver of coherency my own thoughts had.
On a good day I can answer with a scripted, meaningless “fine.” Other times, the response is a long delay while I have a mini-panic and I either can’t do anything but ignore the question or answer with an anxiety-filled “I don’t know.”
For this same reason, I don’t have a favorite song, or favorite movie, or favorite food. I have trouble ordering things like that and picking a favorite, again I think because the question is too vague. Movies and songs and such are so different and have so many layers of individual depth and complexity that I can’t compare them. I get the same confusing spiral trying to think about which of those is my favorite over the others. I often see “what’s your favorite XYZ?” on those lists of “Questions Likely to Confuse an Autistic Person” and indeed that’s for good reason. (I do, however, have a favorite color. It’s green, which according to a study I read, is apparently the most common favorite color among autistic people.)
The question I mentioned in the start, “how are you?” is easily the most difficult though. That’s largely because my emotional perception itself is vague and confusing. There’s a very common thing among autistic people called alexithymia. Essentially, it is a clinical-level inability to recognize and distinguish one’s own emotions. This is of course different than actually feeling emotions, autistic people tend to feel emotions more strongly. However, I have trouble recognizing and understanding these emotions, and so the question of “how are you?” is very difficult.
Last time I posted, I wrote a bit about communication between autistic and non-autistic people. For the purposes of assisting my non-autistic readers in communicating with autistic people, here’s a few tips concerning what we’ve just been talking about:
Instead of asking “how was your day?” be more specific and ask something like “did you enjoy band practice?” or “what was the last thing you were doing at school?” The specificity will make it easier to process and will be greatly appreciated.
Instead of asking “what’s your favorite movie?” ask something like “Right now, do you like Empire Strikes Back or Jurassic Park more?” Two specific options are easier to compare than literally every movie they’ve ever seen, and the modifier that you’re asking about right now eliminates the need to compare preferences and feelings that have changed over time.
Instead of asking “how are you?” you could try asking “Are you feeling good right now?” Or “are you anxious right now?” Specific questions are easier, though not necessarily easy, to answer.
Be specific. Be blunt and direct. Be literal. Worry only about the literal meaning of the words coming out of your mouth, as that’s all autistic people will usually notice. Don’t try to imply things through non-verbal messages or ask coded questions. Autistic people do not naturally consider underlying non-specified motivations, and if we look for them we usually don’t decipher them correctly. Similarly, autistic people don’t naturally or automatically notice body language or facial expressions, and if we specifically put processing power into looking for and noticing them, we very often still can’t read them.
A reason I like writing this blog is so that I can help you help me and other people like me. Much can be made easier if one knows what to ask.