As an autistic person, I hate the question, “How are you doing?”
When I say that I hate the question, think Grinch-loathes-Whoville-and-Christmas level hate.
Seriously, it’s a horrible question. Why haven’t neurotypicals figured this out yet?
As most autistics do, I learned about the insanity of this question the hard way. People may ask this question, but they don’t want to hear the answer.
No matter how you actually feel, neurotypicals expect to hear, “I’m fine. And you?” in response. This doesn’t come naturally to autistics, and it isn’t a habit to learn quickly.
An exhaustive thought process occurs from hearing the question to verbalizing the response.
Want to know what it’s like? Peek into my head. Come on; I won’t bite. Get in here:
A co-worker walks by and says, “Hey, Sarah. How are you?”
My thought process:
Ugh. THAT question. I don’t know. How am I? I’m hungry, but he doesn’t need to know that. I’m depressed because I hate my job. If I say that, does it make me a Debbie-downer? Maybe I should avoid that subject since he is a co-worker. But perhaps he feels the same way, and it would be nice to know someone else hates this place, too. How well do I know him? I think he has kids. Should I tell him that I was excited about my son’s promotion in swim class last night? Does he want to hear about my son? Probably not…What part of my life is he asking about???
Oh, yeah. He probably doesn’t want an answer. Why do people even ask this question if they don’t want the answer? What’s up with not telling the truth? They ask me how I feel but don’t want the answer. They want everything to be fine – let’s lie to the world and say everything is fine. Why ask the question if you don’t want the truth? Geez.
Okay, slow down. Sllllloooooowwwww down brain!
Just tell him you’re fine – isn’t that what people expect. Quickly. Before too much time has passed. He’ll think I’m ignoring him.
There. I said it. Wait. He’s just staring at me. Shit. I forgot something. He’s looking at me weirdly. What did I forget? Oh, yeah…
Okay, he’s fine as usual. But wait, he can’t be fine. His face is red, and he’s gripping his pencil so hard his knuckles are white. Dude, you aren’t ‘fine.’ Why would you lie about that? I know you are lying to me.
Is it his mom? She was in the hospital for a while. Maybe his wife? Is he sick? Did his boss chew him out? Is he mad at me? Was my tone off? Did I come across as rude? Too abrupt? Am I smiling to let him know I’m not annoyed at his question? What else am I forgetting here?
Seriously, WHY IS YOUR FACE SO RED????
Shoot. Did he just ask me another question? I missed it…
So, why is this a big deal to autistics?
- Cognitive Empathy
According to Sara Hodges and M.W. Myers, cognitive empathy is “having more complete and accurate knowledge about the contents of another person’s mind, including how the person feels.”
Unfortunately, mindreading isn’t in the autistic skillset. Neurotypicals can weigh the type of relationship they have with someone to predict what’s in their head.
But for me, the expectation of invoking cognitive empathy adds another round of wheel whirling in my head. There are too many variables to consider.
If I’m too tired to go through this thought process, I’ll start answering. I’ll pour out the details or stumble my way through as I attempt to shorten the response. All this takes energy to reign in the details because the question isn’t specific enough. How am I? There are so many paths to go down for this, and I have no idea which one to take.
- Literal Interpretation of Language
I remember the first time I heard the phrase: it’s raining cats and dogs. My mother was standing at the front window with the curtains open. I ran to the window to look because, you know, cats and dogs are falling from the sky, right? Gotta see that!
To my disappointment, there were no cats and dogs – just rain. That was my first lesson in idioms.
To this day, I go through a translation process in my head when I hear that phrase and many others. Same with the greeting, “How are you?”
Autistics take language at face value. What you say is what we expect you to mean. If you ask, “How are you doing?” then answering the question honestly should be the expectation. It feels fake otherwise.
If you don’t care to hear the answer, then a simple “Hello,” is greeting enough.
The point of sharing this is: If one greeting can cause this much anxiety to an autistic, can you imagine the anxiety and exhaustion of an entire conversation? We’re expected to communicate by neurotypical rules. It’s complicated, exhausting, and confusing.
For many neurotypicals, all of these “unspoken” rules come naturally. Neurotypicals can read an interaction and relationship enough to respond to this seemingly simple question.
But for autistics, it isn’t apparent. How do I know if someone is willing to hear the honest answer? When is the “I’m fine” response expected?
I just want people to mean what they say….or ask in this instance. Is that too much to ask?