The Most Important Autism Awareness You’ll Ever Use

My good friend Dana Baxt Smith pointed me to this piece by “Dr. NerdLove”. First off, it’s got some great points:

  • Any individual has the absolute right to socialize with, befriend and date whomever they want — which may or may not include you. Maybe you’ve been misunderstood, maybe he or she is being unfair or even bigoted. That and roughly $4 will get you a gallon of gas (in the U.S.). You can like and be attracted to whomever you want — you just don’t get a vote in the other person’s decision.
  • Girls and women have reason to be particularly cautious. They’re more commonly targeted by predators who want to hurt them in various ways. A typical predator tests potential victims by crossing their boundaries in little ways — joking about sex, violence, rape and the like, approaching too close and even touching — and seeing how well they defend themselves. If the victim-to-be doesn’t respond firmly, he (or sometimes she) escalates.
  • That’s exactly why we have basic social norms include things like what you talk about, when and how you shake hands (your main if not only opportunity to actually touch someone you don’t know well) and how you approach someone (whenever possible, no closer than maybe a yard/meter for someone who’s not already a good friend or date — oh yeah, and not from behind or the side either). They’re not necessarily written down and may not even be spoken to you in so many words, but you’re expected to know and abide by them.

    For example, as personal safety expert Gavin de Becker has pointed out in his The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us From Violence, not everyone is thrilled with the idea of someone getting their contact or other personal information from any source other than them directly — not even their own public profiles. (In my experience, people vary widely on this.)

  • There’s another set of norms — how you perceive and respond to things. Since girls and women are especially likely to “let you down easy” by using body language, hints and excuses instead of telling you directly that they want you to leave them alone, rightly or wrongly they’re going to expect you to pick up on these signals and act just as if they had been explained in so many words.

    Among other things, if someone — particularly a girl or woman — just doesn’t respond to you after you’ve contacted her a couple of times, likely she doesn’t want to hear from you. The less you know each other, the more likely that’s what it means. (For example, someone you don’t know at all, or just met, versus an acquaintance versus a friend versus a boyfriend or girlfriend…but some people will even “ghost” or “Irish Goodbye” a close friend or boy/girlfriend if they feel something is wrong and feel that discussing it would be too uncomfortable. Ask me how I know!)

  • So, the other person — especially a she — is going to notice how well you conform to these norms, and will judge you accordingly.

    Yes, she knows that not everyone who follows the rules about boundaries is a good guy, and not everyone who breaks them — especially the lesser ones, such as stepping too close — is a predator. Thing is, they are related, a bit like wearing dirty clothes and being a sloppy person, so it’s a good place to start. Also, many if not most girls and women prefer to err on the side of safety — better to risk avoiding a good guy than trusting a bad guy.

    From your perspective, if someone decides they don’t like you it’s a lot tougher to reverse than if they
    do. Why? Well…if you don’t like someone, how much are you going to want to be around them — and hence give them a chance to change your mind?

Fair enough.

The next question is: Once you (including an Aspie, male or female!) feel your alarm bells going off around a guy, what’s safe to assume…and to do?

When discussing socially awkward guys, Dr. NerdLove says [all emphases in original]:

“[B]eing anxious or socially clumsy or inexperienced isn’t the same as being creepy. Someone who is socially awkward will occasionally trip over somebody else’s boundaries by accident because they may not necessarily understand where the line is in the first place.”

Well and good!

“A socially awkward person frequently realizes that they [mess]ed up almost as soon as the words are out of their mouth and will often freeze up or try to verbally backpedal; a creeper who is using ‘socially awkward’ as an excuse on the other hand, [may] rely on others to do their defending for them.”


“You can almost always track the exact moment they realize that they’ve done something wrong by the way they desperately try to backtrack, apologize and generally try to reassure the other person that they didn’t mean to and they’re so embarrassed and are kind of freaking out and, and, and…”

Not so much. It depends.

Remember Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s famous mention of “unknown unknowns”? Those are things you don’t know that you don’t know!

Knowing right after the fact where the lines are drawn isn’t so great by any means. But at least then you still get a chance to do said freezing up or backpedaling. Otherwise, if you don’t know, you can’t freeze, backpedal or give any other sign of regret — especially if the other person is being subtle and “nice”. And if someone else puts in a good word for you, it looks like you’re “relying” on him or her to defend you because, after all, you didn’t even know any defending needed to be done and hence didn’t do any.

So this is much more a matter of case by case judgment.

Here’s an example — and pace Dragnet, not even the names have been changed to protect anyone.

Dana and I met as college freshmen; in fact, we lived on adjoining floors. As she posted on Facebook some months back, at least once she retreated to her room…where I followed her. I even waited patiently outside her door so when she came out, we could resume our conversation.

Problematic? Damn straight it was. Awkward? In spades.

And did I freeze or (in this case, physically) backpedal? Nope.

And I’ve since apologized to her.

Creepy? No, because I never even knew that I shouldn’t have done that. I darn sure should have known — that’s what made it so awkward — but I didn’t know. I did not intend to bother her (even though that was the result).

What does this have to do with someone’s right to avoid somebody whom she feels uncomfortable around? Nothing.

Thing is, people — perhaps especially women — tend not to just think “Oh, I just don’t want to be around this guy.” Many, if not most, people go on to judge the other person’s intentions.

And that’s where we come to FedoraBeard vs. Hot Topic Girl. As Dr. NerdLove describes it, a customer visited Hot Topic, saw a clerk he liked, got her name from a mutual acquaintance and then tracked her down on Facebook. He private messaged her — this part is important — multiple times despite a lack of response from her. Finally, she blew up, “read[] him the riot act” as Dr. NerdLove put it — and then copied and posted the conversation publicly*. Including both of their names.

She excoriated him for, among other things, persisting despite not getting a response from her — even though she also said that her delay in responding was due to moving and not having her new Internet connection right away.

Was she within her rights to ignore and even block him? Of course. Was his behavior questionable, even outright weird? You betcha.

Did she need to blow up at him? Not in my opinion.

My read on his behavior is that it’s at least possibly, if not likely, awkward. Among other things, he seemed genuinely confused that she neither answered nor blocked him. A true predator generally would have been quite a bit smoother about it.

In my experience, some people — of both sexes, incidentally — seem to believe not only that silence, and/or gentle hints, understatements and other “soft nos,” is warning him off…but also that the acceptable next step is screams, curses, threats and the like.

I beg to differ. Have more people not heard of the golden mean…in this case simple, direct and courteous communication?

For that matter, this isn’t just a matter of courtesy. As self-defense expert Marc “Animal” MacYoung has pointed out in his (and Chris Pfouts’) Safe In The City: A Streetwise Guide To Avoid Being Robbed, Raped, Ripped Off, Or Run Over, it’s not a good idea to just blow up at someone who makes you uneasy. If he is in fact a violent sort, it just paints a target on your chest — giving him an excuse to hurt you.

(And any witnesses, who are less likely to have noticed the guy’s provocative behavior than your verbal attack, may see his “response” as provoked if not justified.)

Not to mention that it exposes you as someone (1) whose bark is worse than her bite and (2) who doesn’t know where the boundaries are — and thus can’t defend them.

There’s a better way. As Thomas MacAulay Millar points out, even if a “soft no” is (in his opinion) perfectly well understood by most men, an explicit refusal warns the bad guys off by showing you’re a hard target: “Clear communication against the undercurrent that ‘no’ is rude and should be softened is a sign of the willingness to fight, to yell, to report.”

(By the way, Aspies, other socially awkward folks and others should check out Mr. Millar’s post: It includes some good, concrete clues to detect “soft nos”.)

The key here is, as MacYoung has pointed out elsewhere, to be more like a growling dog than a barking one. No one ever says “your growl is worse than your bite” for a reason. And — especially if a simple, direct “no” is seen as aggressive — you can growl and still be courteous.

In fact, de Becker has given us a script that we can utter to people we want to leave us alone:

No matter what you may have assumed until now, and no matter for what reason you assumed it, I have no romantic interest in you whatsoever. I am certain I never will. I expect that, now that you know this, you’ll put your attention elsewhere, which I understand, because that’s what I intend to do.

That puts you on the record as crystal-clear, firm and courteous…and hence not provocative.

[*] Dr. NerdLove provides part of the conversation…right up until, and not including, said riot act reading itself. Interesting, huh?

Also, he seems to believe she posted the conversation herself…though others have said she might have instead given it to a friend who then posted it.

Bottom line: All of us — particularly men — need to tune in to subtle cues going both ways. And yes, that goes for socially awkward guys, too — and Aspies.

Learning these cues is a topic for another day. However, I’ve written up a separate guide to help boost other people’s comfort level around you. For a free copy, drop me a line!

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Jeffrey Deutsch
I have Asperger Syndrome (AS) and give inspirational talks, consult with organizations and train people on how to recognize and work well with people on the spectrum and coach individuals on and off the spectrum.
Jeffrey Deutsch

Jeffrey Deutsch

I have Asperger Syndrome (AS) and give inspirational talks, consult with organizations and train people on how to recognize and work well with people on the spectrum and coach individuals on and off the spectrum.

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