Random acts of kindness: Speaking in gestures, an autistic way of communicating

I was, randomly, thinking about a poster I came across the other day in the style of an art deco 1930s travel poster (I love these!) but on a Tolkien theme, depicting hobbit houses nestled in rolling green hills with the strap line “Come Home to the Shire” (by artist Steve Thomas if you’re interested). I then, equally randomly, thought how I would love to buy it for a friend of mine who is a Tolkien fiend, though she is much more of an acquaintance really, we’ve met just a handful of times and crack jokes on facebook. But in the logical “shape sorter” part of my Asperger’s psyche I can well imagine she would love it and (in another world with far less limitations) I would so enjoy to be able to delight people with unexpected gestures like that. Back to reality, of course, I know people don’t just go around making such gestures towards people they hardly know; its considered weird and frightens people more than being well received, as well I know. This is just an example of how my mind thinks…all the time.

So, of course, I dropped the thought into the pile with a million other such thoughts that I have had over the past 50 years or so, though a small part of my, actually, highly logical brain felt deeply unfulfilled by the about-face. Sometimes you can just see that something and something else fit together and it’s a kind of private hobby of mine, a secret satisfaction, to contemplate those things, even if I have learned to stay shtum or not act on them.

That part of me likes to make connections, to join dots, to notice this thing fits with that person and to see it though to fulfilment. It notices patterns, groups things together, remembers small details that lead to appropriate kindnesses and timely acts of helpfulness. It’s the part of me that fantasises about doing or giving something to someone and they say “how did you know?” with such incredulity…all because I remembered some minuscule nugget of a conversation long ago or was observant enough to realise that this thing, seen in one context, fits like a glove with that thing of another context and should rightfully be together. Its my jigsaw-puzzle champion autistic brain, doing what it does best and it never grows tired. I could be on holiday abroad looking in a shop window and I see something that makes me think of something someone said in conversation months earlier and some part of me get the kick out of putting them together. Or I notice someone is struggling and I see a poem or a few lines in a book and I feel so called to send them on to them in a message or a card in the hope they might help; is that so very weird?

And that part of me is a part that I have used all my life in an attempt to make up for my social shortfalls, my lack of innate popularity with the in crowd, my inability to say more obviously appropriate things to endear myself in the heat of the moment…by being that person who takes their time and notices when someone is looking down, and remembers they like such-and-such so, perhaps, I could cheer them up by offering it or telling them where they could get it, etc. I pay attention and I reach out through well thought-through deeds or even words if I can write them down….or at least I used to, though less so now (though I feel its a part of me I would love to revive, along with some of those other traits explored in my last post) and why the hell not since its harmless and well meant?

In other words, I am a natural born shape-sorter, so why not use it to make overtures towards other people, especially when I have never found that “relationship” part of life especially easy or successful.

The thing is, these kinds of overture are often not taken well; and I don’t just mean the silly example I gave before but more common or garden versions in everyday life. My mother, who I now recognise to have been autistic in some very similar ways to me, though we none of us knew at the time, was always doing such deeds of one plus one to help other people, as in, when she saw a need she just logically stepped forwards to fill it if she could. Never for personal gain or accolades, she hated all that fuss, but “just because”. For instance, when we had a surplus of vegetables or flowers from our garden, which was often, she would fill the arms of virtual strangers walking past the gate. When an elderly person round the corner became too infirm to do their housework or collect their groceries, she automatically stepped in. When they were lonely at Christmas she invited them to our house or, if they were too reticent to do that, she walked a full-blown Christmas meal around to their house and collected the plates after sitting with them for an hour to two.

Yet people often avoided her, crossing the street or picking up their walking pace to avoid the embarrassment of her hollering as they walked by. You would have thought she was going at them with a pitch-fork, not handfuls of free food and a kind word yet they simply didn’t seem to know what to make of her and, as a child, none of this escaped my attention. They would look so perplexed at the arm-full of veg she proffered and adopted slightly clenched tones of speaking as though to dampen her ardour to offer things; “what does she want from me?” being their unspoken (and quite illogical) question but I could see this was what the problem was most of the time. They didn’t want to “be in her debt”.

The same with the string of elderly neighbours she helped over the years; mostly well-received by those she helped but there were many rounds of suspicion directed at her by the relatives of these people who would question “what was in it for her?”. One grown-up daughter, who seldom bothered to visit her stroke-bound mother, even accused my mother of trying to get into the will and threatened legal action if she continued to go round there, preferring that her mother be alone and unable to manage than accept the help that she was clearly so suspicious of, by virtue of the fact it was so freely given. My mother’s spirit was crushed after that painful episode, which left her perplexed and so worried for the woman she wanted to help but who was too afraid to go over the advice of her daughter.

Here lies the crux of the matter; the sticking point in every case as I see it and very-much one of the sticking points of our world, being the neurotypical obsession with “what’s in it for me?” which is assumed to be the universal motivator…but no, not for some one with autism.

In this world, no act of kindness is simply taken for just what it is anymore but is generally assumed to be transactional, or to be a cover up for some other kind of self-interested ploy, a trade-off, point-score or manipulation. Yet all of these motivators leave the autistic person perplexed and non-computing; we simply don’t operate like that at all and, in fact, it is one of the markers looked for when diagnosing the trait. Its also one of the reasons we feel so out of place in this world because we simply don’t, and can’t, play by its rules…which come into everything, from personal relationships to business and everything in between.

It’s simply beyond our wiring to think in those ways; we are what you see and if we do kindly acts we mean them as they come, no strings attached. They are overtures of kindly communication, of engagement, an attempt to be sociable the best way we know how. Nothing more and nothing less. We are not boiling any bunnies, proposing marriage or trying to get one over anyone. We just saw a hole and a plug and put them both together in an attempt to make things better.

I want to add, these kinds of gestures are IMPORTANT to some of us autistic folk. They are often how we communicate best. Perhaps to make up for a shortfall in easy conversation, I have reached out to the world through such gestures of thoughtfulness or well-meaning suggestion, through art and yes though my writing (where I am not so inhibited as in my conversation) all my life. I’ve never thought of myself as “non-verbal” until reading some autistic topics lately which made me reappraise it doesn’t have to mean you don’t talk at all but that its not your default (though I can chat the hind leg off my most trusted people). As a young child, I would hold up pictures to show people I loved them, which went really well with my dad when I was small but became the hurt of all hurts when he seemed to loose interest in my art, even to undervalue its merits versus academic achievements, later on. To this day, I own that I “do art” primarily as a communication starter, a way of joining in and when it is passed by the hurt and disappointment I feel is not about failed career or flailing ego so much as no one heard me articulate; I spoke but was met with silence. All through school, I didn’t talk to teachers, I showed them what I could do, all the way through to the end of higher education (where I was, in hindsight, painfully mute in seminars). Yet I still long for connection, the same as everyone else…quite the conundrum when you don’t use the same method as everyone else!

The long and short of it is I have to be extremely comfortable to chat (or, these days, I can mask through the use of well-practiced neurotypical behaviours including a pretence at being interested in small talk for maybe just a few minutes when I meet people in some social situation…but it all feels shallow, a surface act). I really talk through heart-felt gestures, art and writing and when that is met with silence (not because I seek accolades, praise…but some sort of opening to communication) its as though I have been sent to coventry and wounds me very deeply, hard to explain how much…which is why I find “sharing” on social media so abrasive and even blogging can hurt if no one seems to respond (thank you, deeply, to my loyal followers and commenters…you are the longed-for voice in the lengthy silence of life).

I’ve had friends in the past who simply didn’t feel they had to respond to a deeply personal email, not even with a short acknowledgement, even when its in response to them emailing me asking for my input or help first, which I would never ever fail to respond to (maybe they didn’t want to encourage me to keep going in my written verboseness, which is simply part of who I am, or perhaps they also got all they needed from my response and didn’t feel the need to reciprocate…but I have tended to prune such friendships these last few years). Anyone who knew me 30 years ago knew me to be a substantial letter-writer and those who responded in kind have tended to remain my lifelong, most valued, friends. I recently sent a gorgeous posy of fresh flowers to a friend who was going through a rough patch and it wasn’t until I got over my awkwardness to enquire if she had had anything arrive, because by then I was imagining they must have gone missing in transit, that she said thanks for thinking of me and, though I could understand she was distracted, it was hard not to feel like I had said something heartfelt the best way I knew how yet had been rebuffed; to me, the equivalent of saying something outloud, which takes a lot of courage and forethought, only to be met with stone silence.

Some NT’s notice what you don’t do most (a late or non-existent birthday card, not wanting to come to their big social gathering even though they know you don’t like crowds and have health issues) but don’t pay attention to what you do via acts of unexpected kindness, when you ask after them or step in with help at times when other people give them a wide berth, the fact you are there in the lean times as well as the better ones and can sometimes make things feel better with unexpected pearls of clarity or oversight since these are an autistic forte. It can be a long, lonely monologue speaking through gestures but it is often the autistic path!

As I said, we are not that bunny boiler type we are often assumed to be (as I have been assumed to be more than once, especially in my early adulthood when I tended to show my keenest to be friends via my actions and little gestures, including being around a lot, even if I didn’t say as much as some other people or sometimes sat there quietly in a corner, happy to watch everyone else getting on…as though I am was too “over-intense” in my overtures of friendship) but that very assumption that you are “weird” or “needy” can stop many a potential friendship dead in its tracks.

Meanwhile (and this is just as important to add) we are not into following illogical patterns of behaviour that try to dictate we have to behave in a certain way and, between varying degrees of simply not computing these behaviours or refusing to adhere to them, we tend to not play along which then offends a lot of people, unintentionally (as in, we don’t do it to offend or be awkward, its how we are wired). In my case, I am rubbish to sporadic at sending birthday cards, even worse at the kind of gifts that are dictated by some sort of calendar date such as Christmas and can be churlish in the extreme when told I “have” to celebrate in the form of a milestone birthday party or something of that nature (we’ve had a lot of those crop up in my family lately and I really don’t know why the need to fuss over an arbitrary number). My gestures are organic and entirely heartfelt but please don’t measure me by whether I remember, or perform appropriately, according to a date in the diary (yet when I am with you or feel needed, I am there with all I’ve got). Those times I am called upon, just as I am, with the skillset that is innate to me, are the times I give my all but, much as I noticed with my mother, I have tended to be taken “all wrong” by all but a very core group of long-time friends and my closer family members, my inner sanctum of, oh, about five people really…nothing compared to the array of friendships claimed by the average neurotypical person. My mother, for all her tireless giving, was the same; she had but a couple of loyal friends, with whom she still had to filter or curb her innate personaility to get by, and us, her offspring, when she died; not much to show for a woman who worked tirelessly to be part of an entire community.

The repeated encounters with a thick, heavy wall of deep suspicion that is rife when you give without expectation (except to open a kind of communication between you and another, much the same as when others make small talk) begins very early in life when you are wired this way. I saw this happen many times as a child when I gave or made gifts for friends to show that I was being friendly or cared about their situation (a classic thing was that I would draw them a picture of their favourite character or motif to cheer them up). In many cases, they only resented me for setting up the precedent, meaning they now felt they had to reciprocate and that was not what they wanted. Or they assumed I was showing off that I could draw and make things. Or, they thought there was some trickery involved; as in, by taking the proffered thing (even an act of kindness such as saving them a seat or the last biscuit), they would be indebted to me or I would have a “hold” over them and so they would rather rebuff me than get into that. I would be left as perplexed and deeply isolated by the rebuff as I later witnessed my mother becoming towards the end of her life, time and time again. Eventually, you learn to hold back, to simply not bother and to accept your fate as the one who doesn’t fit in, either in neurotypical terms (based on the kind of gossip and small talk and perplexing body language and hierarchy that defeats you) or on your own terms of just being a good and observant, considerate and well-meaning friend the best way you know how.

I have had less experience of it lately as I have tended not to mingle over these last few years of chronic health, though I felt it there when I picked up threads of conversation from a previous encounter with a new acquaintance last time I tried to fan the flames of a potential new friendship and, instead of endearing me to her, I could see she looked rather rabbit-in-the-headlights, as though I was being too intense too soon. Rather than be impressed that I remembered a small detail of her life enough to ask about it the next time we met, she seemed to freeze and hold back, as though feeling threatened by my attentiveness, perhaps regretting telling me whatever it was because it now seemed as though I was taking notes on her personal life. Being more mature than the little girl who would have been left in the dark at her behaviour, I now felt quite strongly that I must have transgressed the unspoken rule of women’s social groups, being that everyone keep to the light and fluffy small-talk or the various “safe” and popular topics of group complaint about life, though, to my mind, those kinds of interaction leave so much unsaid and so little real support given to each other. Tragic really, when we could be such wonderful help-mates, if only we dived in a little deeper to the real stuff of life a little more readily, in our conversations, and then pooled our resources and natural generosity to truly be of help and support to each other, including via the acceptance and inclusion of all the inevitable diversity that exists. When we remain open and curious around diversity, we all stand to gain from each other’s innate offerings to the pool of life but, sadly, the trend is to look for sameness and to eliminate anything that threatens to be a-typical behaviour, being the unknown quantity and, thus, “obviously” a threat…and so the ranks of normality close again.

These are just a few observations I wanted to get down because there are so many assumptions “out there” that people on the spectrum lack social skills, lack empathy and are poor at relationships and yet it is simply not true. It’s just that we go about relationships in a different way, a more direct and honest way and we expect less back in a transactional sense (which is not to say we are prepared to be used but that we are open to a more organic kind of give and take than is typical). As in, of course, its appropriate for a relationship to be reciprocal (and if it isn’t then we would, logically, assume there was no actual relationship happening there and sooner or later, at least hopefully, walk away) but we don’t turn it all into barter or a kind of contract. Rather, we simply follow where the logic and the heart dictates, which makes for a wonderfully balanced mixture of both head and heart in unison if you ask me. If there is a need and we can somehow fill it because we have the means or can find the missing puzzle piece, we simply bring those two things together because its obvious and we do this because we are innately well-meaning and without guile. The fact we treat it somewhat like putting a male plug with a female socket does not take the humanity out of it; as in, our logical approach does not negate the deep and often hard-for-us-to-express feelings that bottle-up deep inside when our efforts at communication go unnoticed, unwanted or “unheard”. Loneliness, wounding and unfulfillment regarding friendships is a very big factor in autism, perhaps even more so for adult females on the spectrum and the wound can run very deep indeed, year on year, when our unique offerings to the world are treated as no more than the transactional deeds of neurotypicality when, really, we are speaking outloud and as eloquently as we can via them (or, at least, the best way we know how).

These are, surely, qualities this world could do with more of and I am very glad (now) that I subscribe to this way of being, even if it has caused a great deal of misunderstanding and pain in my past and even if I (so often) have to curb myself from following through on random acts of kindness that might, ironically, scare people away. Reappraising and then reclaiming this communication trait of mine, which is a fundamental part of how I am hard-wired as a human being, feels extremely powerful and all part of coming to recognise the clutch of super-powers that come with being autistic but which, measured against neurotypical behaviour, might come across as desperate handicaps. Some day I aspire to have surrounded myself with just the right number of people who “get me” exactly the way I am, who don’t routinely misinterpret, take for granted or overlook my well-intended gestures, or even judge the lack of them, who (whether they are neurodiverse or not) are prepared to meet me half way by learning these important ways that I communicate (just as I have had to learn how to descipher neurotypical behaviours all my life) and who also wouldn’t have me any other way either.

4 thoughts on “Random acts of kindness: Speaking in gestures, an autistic way of communicating

  1. Your whole post struck a chord, but this passage jumped out at me …

    ‘In my case, I am rubbish to sporadic at sending birthday cards, even worse at the kind of gifts that are dictated by some sort of calendar date such as Christmas and can be churlish in the extreme when told I “have” to celebrate in the form of a milestone birthday party or something of that nature (we’ve had a lot of those crop up in my family lately and I really don’t know why the need to fuss over an arbitrary number). My gestures are organic and entirely heartfelt but please don’t measure me by whether I remember, or perform appropriately, according to a date in the diary (yet when I am with you or feel needed, I am there with all I’ve got).’

    Thank you Helen, this is the first time I’ve ever seen this acknowledged let alone written down by anybody!

    I’m not sure which side of our family my and my sons autism comes from – I guess down the male line – but I don’t think either my Mum or Dad were on the Spectrum.

    My younger Sister is the only one in my family, other than my son, who I think gets it!

    Thank you, thank you, thank you …


    1. I’m so glad, and so touched, this helped articulate something for you too Clive…I can well understand as when I get those moments in my autism reading (I’m deep into a great book at the moment called Finding Your Autistic Superpower) and you finally feel like someone not only describes one of your traits but sees the positive in it, the feeling of validation, liberation and, I guess, of finally being seen and acknowledged “just the way you are” can be very powerful!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks Helen. I learnt a long time ago now to be happy in my own skin, to tread my own path in life – whatever the consequences – and to expect that others would not necessarily understand. I’m trying to help my son to feel the same way – but it’s difficult with pressures from peers and others to be the same as them. And to get a job seems nigh on impossible!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, the work context is the hardest of all…glad I’m out of it but feel so much for young ones trying to balance being truly themselves with the demands and competion of that world. Trying to visualise a future world where everyone can be themselves and still find their place and thrive.

      Liked by 1 person

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