One of the situations that causes me a lot of upset, and I believe I’m not alone in the neurodiverse world in this, is when I don’t know what to do – when it’s not obvious what my next action should be.
For instance, in cafes and restaurants. And canteens. And pubs. It’s going to be blindingly obvious to the people who own and run such establishments how they work. You come in to the establishment in question, sit down, and a waitress or waiter comes over and takes your order. But wait – sometimes, you have to order at the bar. These two types of establishment usually look quite similar, and it can be difficult to know what you’re supposed to do.
Sometimes, you take a tray and walk along toward the till with food on display, and you choose some of what you want to eat, like sandwiches or dessert, but other items of what you want to eat, like a hot main course, you have to order. Then if you do that, sometimes they dish up the hot food on a plate for you to take immediately, but sometimes they give you a number and you sit down and wait for the serving staff to come over with the food you ordered. Quite often, you don’t know what’s available until you get to the right area of the cafe (they’re usually cafes), and you have to read the menu and make a decision while the serving staff are looking at you, impatiently waiting for you to order, and there’s a queue building up behind you.
All of this becomes especially difficult to cope with if you have children with you. There have been many occasions where I’ve become too stressed out to choose anything at all, and the boys have ended up with food they don’t like because they, and I, could not make a rational decision in the face of all of this pressure.
It’s not just eating establishments that have this problem. Doctors’ surgeries and clinics are another example. They all have a different system, and they all expect you to know what that system is without being told. And cinemas – sometimes you buy your tickets from the place that says ‘Tickets’, but also quite often you buy them from the sweet and popcorn counter.
When I first got on a bus in London, I swiped my Oyster card with no problem. But I didn’t know whether you also had to swipe it when you got off (turns out, you don’t). The Tube is different – you swipe in and swipe out. And the trams are different again – I’m not sure I ever figured them out properly.
A genuine question for my neurotypical readers – does this stuff really come naturally to you? Or do you just not feel the stress that neurodiverse people feel when you realise you don’t know what to do?
Recently, I decided to stop caring and just ask. No matter how idiotic it makes me appear, I’ve started saying ‘I’m sorry, I don’t understand – what am I supposed to do here?’ Or in the case of cafes where it’s difficult to find out what’s on offer, with the queues and the lack of menus, I’ll often go somewhere else.
Asking the obvious question worked at the cinema the other weekend, where the counters that said ‘Tickets’ were closed, and there was no-one there. There was one person at the popcorn counter and two people waiting to take tickets. So I said to the two people taking tickets ‘I don’t understand, where do I buy the tickets?’ And they were very nice, and pointed me to the popcorn counter.
It worked at the physio clinic, where the lady behind the desk gave me a string of verbal instructions quite rapidly. I filled in the form as she asked, and then said ‘I’m sorry, what am I supposed to do next?’ And she told me, quite pleasantly, and it was no problem.
It worked when I asked the driver on the London bus whether I had to swipe back out again, although he did look at me a bit strangely.
Problems do happen when you get a, frankly, nasty person behind whatever ‘counter’ you’re having to deal with. There is a receptionist at a particular establishment that I used to frequent, who is really unpleasant. She is deliberately unhelpful, and really quite rude when you don’t know exactly what you’re supposed to be doing without being told.
I don’t go there any more.
Perhaps I’m becoming harsh in my old age, but I’m definitely learning how to hold a grudge, and vote with my debit card. I guess being what I now call ‘somewhere on the ASD spectrum’ and used to call ‘socially inept’ makes me quite vulnerable in some ways. It’s actually a really easy way to weed out the kind from the unkind, and I value kindness above most other qualities in any person. So from now on I’ll be asking questions when I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing, and making a judgement on what response I get back. Anyone who belittles me, acts as if I’m stupid, or is in any way unkind or impatient with me because I had to ask, might just get told exactly what I think of their response. As bluntly and socially ineptly as I can.