Autism Awareness Month, Day 7: Etiquette


You know, you should play with Dr. Beeper and myself. I mean, he’s been club champion for three years running and I’m no slouch myself.

Don’t sell yourself short, Judge. You’re a tremendous slouch.

~Judge Smails and Ty Webb, “Caddyshack”

As I write today, the second round of the Masters is at a close. I’m no golfer myself and I hardly follow the sport except during the majors. Golf is a sport all about minutiae and rules, specialized etiquette, guys with British accents talking in quiet stage whispers, and really unattractive pants. In other words, it’s an interesting look into the crazy NT world for an Aspie like myself. I can’t really conceive why middle-aged men like to spend their hard-earned money chasing a little white ball around for hours on end. Perhaps it’s because they’re too old, as my father once observed, to be chasing anything else. I’m not sure. All I know is that when it’s April at Augusta National rolls around, I’m glued to the set.

I promise this post is *not* all about golf. It’s actually more about manners and etiquette, which can be a challenge for Aspies. Think about how many rules we have to follow on any given day. For that matter, think about your state’s Code Annotated or the IRS tax codes. No one, Aspie or not, could ever be expected to know all those rules. So many of society’s rules are unwritten and absorbed through osmosis. For example, it is considered uncouth to serve oneself at a salad bar with one’s hands, or to tell a portly man to his face that he looks like a hippopotamus. These are not things generally taught in school; one is expected to just know. For a literal-minded Aspie, some of these secret codes just don’t make any sense. Why shouldn’t we use our hands? Using a fork and knife is so hard for our uncoordinated selves. And the next-door neighbor really is fat, so why can’t we say so?

It's bad manners to wash one's balls in public

The “Golden Rule” is often used as a standard for manners and etiquette. Don’t do something to someone else you wouldn’t want done to you. It seems logical to an NT. To an Aspie, who may lack the ability to put herself in someone else’s shoes, it may make no sense at all. The Golden Rule is not golden to someone who struggles with empathy. I remember sparring with my parents all the time. A typical exchange might have gone like this:

(At a baseball game)

Mom: You should let so-and-so go in front of you in line for the bathroom.

Me: Why? I was here first and I really have to pee.

Mom: So-and-so is pregnant, honey.

Me: And I still have to pee.

(At the local Red Lobster)

Dad: Hon, try to eat those crab legs a little quieter.

Me: *loud crack* It’s easier to crack ’em this way. And those people over there won’t shut up, so who cares anyway?

 It basically boiled down to logic. I may have had slight breaches of etiquette, but it was nothing next to other people’s capacity to be self-centered assholes, so why did I care? And why would I even think of the welfare of someone I’d never met, when they weren’t about to do it for me?

It’s easy to confuse an Aspie child’s Vulcan-like logic for self-centereredness. Most Aspies I’ve met are not in the least self-centered. They want to live and let live, and other people’s unwritten rules and elaborate dances of manners confuse them. They want only to do what is practical and efficient. Sadly, what is practical and efficient is not always considered polite. Miss Manners and Emily Post would no doubt be brought to tears dealing with Aspies.

Al Czervik, master of social gaffes

On the subject of golf, I’ve always loved Caddyshack because, aside from being a damn funny movie, it’s a comedy about social classes and social expectations. Rodney Dangerfield’s loudmouth Al Czervik and Bill Murray’s demented Carl Spackler could well be Aspies with their strange behavior, idiosyncratic fashions, and unabashed observations. Nobody else but an Aspie would (pardon the pun) have the balls to tell a posh country club’s president, to his face, that he was a complete idiot with a bad swing. Might as well throw Chevy Chase as Ty Webb into the Aspie boat too (although he’s a better dresser than Dangerfield and Murray.) It’s a great movie to share with older kids and get them talking about social interaction and manners, or how to kill gophers with plastic explosives.

Chances are your Aspie son or daughter is not going to grow up to be a master of social graces. That is not one of the great gifts of AS, although they can learn how to be more social (Temple Grandin, for example, talks about how she has learned over many years to handle the social pressures of being a speaker at events.) Some Aspies are more outgoing than others, although they may need to learn manners the way one would learn any second language: through practice. I can offer the following advice to parents, though I’m no expert and I still feel shy and awkward when it comes to manners:

1) Emphasize that certain manners are carved in stone. Saying “please” and “thank you” are skills any child can, and should, learn. Model the expected behaviors yourself.

2) Many movies and TV shows today emphasize that bad behavior is acceptable. Keep up with what your kids are watching and discuss that what they watch is not always a reflection of real life. Talk about why Bart Simpson or Stewie Griffin would be considered rude or disrespectful in real life even though they are funny.

3) Don’t be too harsh to judge breaches of etiquette. Aspies have been known to be completely honest when answering questions (think of the TV commercial with Abraham Lincoln and his wife.) Tell your child that they should be honest, but teach them to be diplomatic as much as possible.

4) Ask friends and family, along with teachers and coaches, to help encourage your child to be polite. Most adults, if they are aware of the AS diagnosis, are helpful and want your child to succeed.

5) Your child may hate it, but try and practice social skills and manners in places like restaurants and family gatherings as much as possible. Reward him or her with time spent alone or a favorite movie or TV show if good behavior is shown (the classical positive reinforcement system, which does work.)

6) Read columns like Dear Abby or Miss Manners together and discuss the questions asked. I’ve noticed Aspie kids may not want to talk about themselves, but often enjoy discussing the foibles of others.

7) Remember that your child is usually not trying to be rude, she is trying to be honest and authentic. (I sometimes think that the world needs less BS and more Aspie honesty.)

As for the golf tournament? I can’t wait to see who wins, whose pants will blind everyone in sight, and who will be this year’s “Cinderella story.” Oh, and whether the course will get blown up. Fore!

No, Mr. Gopher, killing you would just be rude

Be sure to click “Like” if you enjoyed this post and subscribe to P&Q! Coming tomorrow: a writeup of the conference with John Elder Robison (Look Me In The Eye.)

Wonder what they do to women who get caught?

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~ by Howlin' Mad Heather on April 9, 2011.

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