How I Stopped Caring (and started asking “obvious” questions)

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.

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8 Responses to How I Stopped Caring (and started asking “obvious” questions)

  1. Alan Garde says:

    Our doctors has added an electronic check-in system since last time I had to go back for a medication review and I sat there doing exactly this, this week. OK I”ve checked in, so now will there be someone coming out? Will there be an unintelligible voice over the tannoy? Will it flash up on a screen? Will I just sit here for ever, and ever, and ever (or at least til they close)?

    This used to stress me out beyond belief, to the point I would avoid places if I didn’t know “how they worked” because of the internal voice in my head that said “well everyone else does, why don’t you?”. Places in the US, at least they normally have a sign to seat your self or wait (I like signs) but then it comes to paying! Do you just leave the money on the table (which feels totally odd to a Brit, walking out without someone taking it and giving you the pat to say you paid properly), do you try to get eye contact with wait staff, do you have to find a hidden counter somewhere?

    Maybe its getting older, maybe its the medication keeping the anxiety from being way OTT, but I came to the same sort of realisation. I’m the customer, I’m here to give them money so if they don’t make it obvious, whats the shame in asking? I am not quite sure why I convinced myself that we are supposed to be born with this innate knowledge of how queues/restaurants/things are supposed to work, You’ve effectively vocalised one of my internal stressors (which I’ve never thought of clearly enough to put in words) and I started asking questions simply because I didn’t want it to stop me doing things in the US in the limited time I have with Mavis.

    Thanks for putting this in words. There is no shame in not knowing what to do, there is shame in someone treating you with disrespect, like not a person, for wanting some help. Businesses can be held accountable for who they hire and how they treat others. So yeah, vote with your wallet.

    Oh and for the doctors? I just made myself relax, watched what happened around me, resolved to ask if it didn’t make sense. Much easier that way.

    • I think that’s the point here – that voice in your head that says ‘everyone else knows, why don’t you?’ I’m guessing that NT people don’t get that. They assume they know, or if they don’t, that’s not a big stress so they ask. My opinion, totally unqualified by any academic or scientific study, is that it’s about the pack mentality, and that a part of the autism spectrum is missing some or all of the social genes that enables someone to be part of the pack/herd/social group. If you think about it, in the wild, an animal that is not part of the pack, that doesn’t have that gene, will be ostracised at best, left to fend for themselves, and killed at worst. So those of us who don’t have some of those genes, who feel like misfits, are (in our heads) at serious risk. Probably why it’s so hard and stressful to ask the question – we’re risking being shown up as ‘not part of the pack’, ‘not one of us’…

  2. I think this is one of those times where something invented for autistic people would actually help everyone. The world needs more social stories. Or in the cases you outlined a clear set of symbolic instructions would definitely do the trick. Maybe when I’m in charge of the world I’ll make it so 😉

    • Alan Garde says:

      There is a gorgeous place on the Isle of Wight, a bread shop, basically you take what you want in terms of cakes, soup, coffee, tea, bread, etc, and at the end go and tell them what you had and they charge you. They have very nice signs telling you what to do but unfortunately they are out of date so add more confusion ;-). Worth the struggle through though, til my kid become wheat intolerant *sigh*.

      I like flow charts. Why can’t the world just have flow charts everywhere!

      Another “gotcha” that occured to me this weekend. Places that deliberately make things difficult so you have to talk to a sales person so they can try and upsell you things. I’m probably going to be moving from Reading to Cardiff soon, and I started making enquiries at the self-storage places, just to get an idea of the costs in case I needed somewhere to store stuff in between places. I like online pricing quotes. I just want to get an idea of things, I don’t want to get hassled by someone trying to sell me stuff. I don’t need to discuss dates and sizes and availability as I’m just forward planning. Just give me the basic details so I can get a cost in my head, plan around that and then get the full details later.

      So great, they give you the cost, but won’t give an indication of insurance costs (which is mandatory). What use is that? Even worse, the last few days I’ve been hounded by calls from the self-storage places to “discuss my needs” so am ignoring any Cardiff numbers at the moment til they go away!

      This bugs the hell out of me and makes me avoid getting these sorts of quotes, especially when they won’t take the “I just needed an idea of the prices, I’ll call back when I need to know more”. Several were crossed off my list because they wouldn’t take that as an answer…

      • I had exactly that with a web hosting company the other day. They needed to ‘discuss’ pricing with me, they ‘weren’t empowered to send emails with details’ ??? Well, they’ve lost my business…

  3. susanlanigan says:

    When I was in school and we had our end of year performance, or in choir when performing, the bit I dreaded most was when we had to enter the room in pairs up the aisle and take our places. I always struggled with where to go and what I should be doing. I’m not autistic, but my spatial intelligence isn’t the best.

    The actual singing I loved.

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