A couple of hours ago I had an experience that nicely illustrates one way in which being an aspie impacts my life. I received the following email from an undergraduate student enrolled in one of my courses:
Hello sir ,
Is there a way in which we can access today’s reading because it’s not online.
It was the second such message I had received, and while my emotional response to the first one was frustration, my emotional response to this one was anger. Why? Because the claim is patently false.
Some Back Story
We have a gated academic content system at my university, and for this course most of the reading to date has been book chapters that I have scanned and posted on the course site in that system. Students have grown accustomed to finding the readings for class there. The last reading, the one for today, and most of the future readings, however, are journal articles, and rather than upload them to the gated site, I expect the students to locate them and access them online. They practice a very basic online skill, including learning about gaining access off campus to materials that are freely available from the .edu domain.
So what does being literal have to do with anything? I take peoples’ words seriously: text (as opposed to subtext) dominates my interpretation of what I read and hear. And that is not terribly common. Indeed, human beings are outstanding at quickly considering multiple possible meanings, and selecting the one that best fits. I, like most aspies, am relatively poor at that. This is another way to think about the issue: I (unconsciously) put very little responsibility upon the listener for decoding what is being said (whether I am listener or speaker). For most folks, the responsibility is shared by speaker and listener. I lock into the first meaning that strikes me as reasonable, and struggle to even realize that I have done so. Hence, much of what people say strikes me as curious, sometimes frustrating, and even angering.
Let’s return to the email. The student wrote: that the reading is not online. My brain responded: “What?!?! Of course it is!!!” This is what I wrote in response:
Hi, it most certainly is: type the title into google. If you are off campus, you will need to login to the FSU library off campus link, and then do your search through that system (I would use the journal title). Being able to do so is a basic college skill.
Then I fumed in my head for 10 minutes or more. Shortly thereafter, a thought crossed my mind: Might the student have meant “the course site” when using the term “online”? And I literally felt anger drain from my body. I wished that possibility had dawned on me from the get go. What an improvement that would make.
On the positive side, I seem to be getting slightly better at recognizing situations where my tendency to be literal produces miscommunication, making both myself and my interlocutor(s) worse off. I am far, far away from real time, but insight is insight, even if delayed. And who knows what the future might bring.