I’m an autistic writer. Sometimes, I think people forget that about me. My fellow writer friends often try to help me out or make suggestions about how I might get more done and write faster.
They tell me that an eight-minute blog post didn’t really need to take me four or five hours to complete. As much as I know they want to help, I don’t like how it feels. Like they’re telling me what to do. I resent the suggestion that there’s something wrong with me.
Slow processing time is a frequent challenge for people on the spectrum. When I take my time to write and figure out what I want to say, I’m really just operating in the way my brain is naturally wired.
At first glance, it might not make much sense, but I would rather my friend make me feel understood than try to fix me. I don’t think I’m the only one in that either. Most people don’t want to be fixed. They want to be understood.
I bristle a bit whenever other writers act as if writing a blog post should be quick or easy. I doubt I’ve ever written a good one in under two hours, and I don’t believe I should feel bad about that.
There are different types of writers. It’s not that my work is so damn incredible or earth-shattering but it is very personal and close to my heart. The truth about my writing is that I write to process my life and manage my emotions.
Like most folks on the spectrum of autism, that processing often happens at a snail’s pace.
My friend is neurotypical. They very innocently want to know what I’m doing for three hours at a time because I cannot possibly be typing for all of it. And they’re right. I’m not typing the whole time at all.
Most of my time as a writer is spent thinking. What am I trying to say? What do I want to say? How do I feel? What lesson can be learned?
Some stories flow for me more easily than others. Other pieces falter under the weight of my own mind. I’m not always in the right headspace to be super productive.
That’s something that has made for a lot of bad days at work back when I held jobs in offices and even when I wrote from home for a social media marketing agency. I used to have these days where no matter how hard I tried, I felt like I was working outside of my body.
It was so slow I felt like I was in a fog that I couldn’t shake off of me.
Something I love about my life as a blogger is how I no longer feel guilty for those days. Sure, there are times when I spend hours on one blog post and that’s the only work I get done for the whole day.
I don’t feel bad about that, however. I understand that I am doing my best and there are some things about writing with autism that are always going to be an uphill battle. At least, they’ll be uphill for me.
This concept isn’t limited to writing, autism, or friendship. For the most part, nobody wants you to swoop in and fix them. And even if you really believe that they could be doing something “better,” they don’t want your advice. Not the way most people give it.
The most powerful way to help anyone who hasn’t asked for your help is to understand them first. But it’s important that they feel understood by you. It’s not enough for you to decide that you get it. It’s not enough for you to tell them that you really understand.
Understanding of another human being is something best shown, not told.
As much as I love my friend and know they mean well, there’s been a pain point where I feel they don’t understand my autism. When they make suggestions, all I hear is a neurotypical person telling me to quit being so atypical.
And that hurts.
I might not talk about it a lot, but I carry a deep wound from the fact that my autism was diagnosed in my thirties rather than my childhood. The reason it’s so painful is because I spent my youth with teachers trying to change me. At every turn, the people I trusted tried to change me without any regard for the way I’m wired.
From the way I hold my pencil, to how quickly I think or speak, people have gone to great lengths to tell me I’m wrong. To insist that I could “do better” and “try harder.”
What most folks haven’t done is try to understand me.
Understanding is a special thing. The reality is that none of us can ever really understand another person. Not completely. But understanding is still a deep prerequisite to feeling secure and loved.
When I think about the people who have been really good at understanding others, I think about Mister Rogers. It’s obvious that he tried to understand folks first and foremost.
We talk a lot about how Mister Rogers cared for others and how much he taught us about love, but at the heart of that love there is always the desire to be heard and understood.
Mister Rogers made such an incredible impact because he didn’t preach at people or tell them what to do. He didn’t offer unsolicited advice or suggest that something was wrong with the other person.
His brand of love was understanding, and it worked like magic because we all long to be heard and understood. This is closely linked to validation. We want to matter.
“You are a very special person. There is only one like you in the whole world. There’s never been anyone exactly like you before, and there will never be again. Only you. And people can like you exactly as you are.”
The word special gets a bum rap today. People often mock the notion and shut down opponents with this idea that they’re a special snowflake that can’t handle the real world.
It’s unfortunate because Mister Rogers’ message that we are each special (as in, unique) is really quite profound. The implications of such a belief leads to a better understanding of each other and a much more harmonious outcome for humanity.
The belief that we are all special invites positive curiosity as we strive to understand each other and what exactly makes each of us so unique.
By asking questions and listening to the answers without passing down judgment, we help others feel loved and understood.
This is so important for all of us, especially those who have always felt a bit like outcasts.
Many women with autism who were diagnosed late in life have spent most of their years feeling like they have done something wrong. Of course, we haven’t done anything wrong by existing, but we still carry the burden of disappointing a world that has long expected us to behave differently.
As a result, we don’t want our friends to repeat the same old wounds.
When I was a young child, older kids used to question and tease me a lot about my speech impediment. “Hey, Shannon! Say Peter Pan peanut butter.”
Say this. Say that. Answer our questions. Make us laugh.
In their defense, the older kids weren’t mean. They thought my voice and inability to properly enunciate was cute. I spent all of my grade school years learning how to properly pronounce my R’s, TH’s, and ST’s, but it took much longer for people to quit asking me to say certain things.
Even after I got over my speech impediment, people asked me to repeat various words because I’ve got a Minnesotan accent. It makes sense. I was raised in the Twin Cities, had seven years of speech therapy in Saint Paul, and neither side of my family has been in America for very long. About 100 years.
Generally, I don’t like being put on the spot and questioned. I don’t like it when people treat me like an oddity. If you ask me questions and show an incredulous response, I will probably walk away because that poking pressure hits to close to home.
It presses on the old wounds.
One of the hardest things about creative work is that we all do it differently. There’s no “right way” to draw, paint, write, or sing. There is only finding your voice and making sense of the various rules.
Few rules in writing are hard and fast. Nobody can rightfully tell you that you take too long either. Every writer has a creative process, and just because it’s not your process that doesn’t make it wrong.
My writing and recovery as a person with, um, issues is deeply intertwined. Writing helps me manage my mental illness along with my autism. I’m very proud of where that work has brought me.
Because it’s not all about money or professional acclaim. For me, writing has been about healing. It’s helped me to find myself and become a better mother. I’ve learned how to be alone without falling apart.
And I’ve learned how to put myself back together when I do fall to pieces.
I wouldn’t have any of those things without my writing. So, I suppose I’m not ready to bemoan my slow speed.
Sure, it’s easy to get caught up in what others are doing. Easy to compare my work to others’ and fret that I’m doing it all wrong.
But my real writer’s journey is a holistic one, and I am most content when I focus on that.
Again, none of this has to be about writing. Or autism. It’s true for any sort of high quality life. If you find yourself wanting to offer unsolicited advice, it helps to remember that the person you want to help probably w want you to fix them.
That’s good news because they’re not your puzzle to solve. They’re not your project.
And many people won’t really give you the time of day until you prove to them that you are at least trying to understand.
When you come from a place of understanding, people are more likely to let you in. It’s not too complicated, we just want to be truly seen and heard.
So? Ask questions, but then wait for the answers. Make sure that you’re actively listening instead of chiming in to fix something you don’t actually understand.
When you make understanding your mission, even those of us who are particularly set in our ways will take notice.