Eighty percent of adults with Asperger Syndrome do not have full-time work. This not because they can’t do the work. It’s that they can’t manage to be socially acceptable while they get the work done. ”
Countless studies show people would rather have pleasant and personable co-workers than a co-worker who is always right. I try to keep this in mind each day, and consequently, I spend a lot of time planning my interactions.
But sometimes my plans fail. To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, I’m going to walk you through my most recent parent-teacher conference. Which was a disaster. And while it was a meeting in a second-grade classroom, it could have been a meeting with anyone, anywhere.
1. I can’t tell the difference between social niceties and reality.
I think I’m late. I am bad with transitions — I space out from the stress of change so I drive around the school a few times without noticing before I go in. I am bad with time, because I don’t totally understand how to predict what the next number will be. So sometimes I forget where I am in the hour.
But then I get to the school and I think I am early to the conference, and I go to the bathroom, because the school halls are bustling and I want calm.
I get to the room and the teacher is sitting at her desk. Doing nothing. I think this means she is waiting. So I ask if I’m late. She says no, but I am pretty sure she means yes. I know some people say the answer they think would be good manners instead of the right answer. I stare at her body language for a clue.
2. I get sidetracked by insisting on telling people what they don’t know.
I forget to listen to her talking because I’m stuck on if I’m late or not, but I perk up when she says that my son’s cursive writing is too slow and he needs to print like the rest of the class.
Because I need her to know that spending any time on kids’ handwriting is stupid. I tell her there are no jobs that require people to have decent handwriting, and definitely no jobs—besides wedding calligrapher—that require cursive.
She thinks I’m saying kids don’t need to learn to construct paragraphs, or book reports.
I try to clarify that I mean good penmanship is useless.
She says she’s sorry that I am upset.
This is when I realize that I picked a fight, and parents do not pick fights with teachers unless the parents are jerks or idiots or both. And I don’t even know what I’m arguing for any more. So I try to get out of the argument. I tell her that I will explain to my son that cursive writing is for at home until the rest of the class is doing it.
3. I interrupt constantly and don’t realize it.
She tells me my son is great at math. I tell her that it’s typical of boys with Asperger Syndrome to be great at math, so that’s not what I’m worried about.
I tell her I’m worried about his spelling. She tells me about his spelling and I tell her that he can spell the words he’s missing but he can’t listen and spell and write all at the same time.
I start to tell her about sensory integration disorder, but I see that I am lecturing, so I stop. And then she is hesitant to talk again. That’s when I realize that I’ve been cutting her off.
I feel terrible and tell myself I have to be a better listener. And then I start focusing on how terribly I’m doing and I forget to be a good listener. I am upset that I am offending her. I think about the psychiatrist who says people often mistake someone with Asperger Syndrome as a narcissist. I think this is a moment when the teacher is thinking that I am totally self-absorbed and not caring at all about her.
4. My mind is too scattered to focus on being nice.
Just when I start thinking of how to care about her, she says, “in conclusion” and then I panic. I will not have time to show her I appreciate her.
I remember a photo of the Obama’s going to their parent-teacher conference and Michelle is carrying a vase of flowers. I should have brought a vase of flowers.
I try to focus.
I look at the teacher to focus on what she is saying and she is saying my son is delightful to have in class. I hear this as something she says to every parent. Then she gives me an example, which is that he is very easily redirected when he is not doing what other people are doing.
I tell her that his problem is not that he can’t be redirected. People with Asperger Syndrome are dying to please everyone around them. People with Asperger Syndrome don’t want to stand out or be the center of attention. They just want to get along with people and have things run smoothly.
So of course if she tells him what to do to fit in, he’ll do it. The problem is that he will not have someone around him for the rest of his life telling him that. I tell her it would be a positive thing if he could tell things were going badly and then he knew the right way to get help in order to make himself do what is expected.
I look at the teacher. She is clearly exhausted from dealing with me. It occurs to me that teacher conferences are only fifteen minutes. Of course we cannot cover anything significant in this time. This is a friendly, get-to-know-each-other moment. It’s a small-talk-and-smiling moment. And I should have known to ask someone to come with me, to cue me, so I would do what is expected.