Selective Muteness, a condition where you can’t speak up

We know what it’s like to sit at a party or workplace, where trouble is brewing and no one is comfortable saying something to change it. People are being too loud, the boss is insulting your workmate, the drunk on the train is complaining about Those People again.

When no one speaks up, we all freeze in something known as the Bystander Effect. People who didn’t have anxiety a minute ago suddenly feel they can’t getting involved, even though they know they can shut up the train racist or that the people nearby will tone down the noise.

People with selective muteness live like this. The name makes it sound like a choice but it’s not. It’s an anxiety disorder, that is, a feeling of doom that follows you everywhere and dictates how you act. It stops you from speaking, especially when you need to speak. It happens a lot to people on the Spectrum — the Selective Mutism Center calls it a childhood anxiety disorder, but I know plenty of adults with Asperger’s whose instincts shut them up in important times. Some can’t talk around others at all.

It reminds me of the common story where a child never talks until they’re about three years old, then one day they unleash a full sentence at their parents. People say the same thing about Einstein, but what they have him saying and at what age are so various that I don’t believe any of them. We have enough stories about regular people on the Spectrum to make up for all those Abraham Lincoln Gandhi quotes that the Internet credits to Einstein.

But once people know you’re not 100% mute, it can be difficult for them to understand sometimes-muteness unless it’s explained to them.

If you experience selective muteness at work, you’ll probably have trouble working.

Most work depends on communication. We have to tell and be told what’s happening today, this week and in the few coming months, and we have to show that we’ve understood all the instructions that workmates give each other. Without this common chat, there’s no way to know what work you should do, can do or what others are doing. You can’t plan.

It’s that important. No communication, no work. But if workmates communicate to each other well, and feel comfortable speaking up, business tends to go well and the workers tend to be happy. This isn’t common knowledge in any world — there are mean bosses and workers who aren’t great listeners, and their workplaces tend to be unhappy. Every workplace has a different idea of what’s normal and how happy their workers can expect to be. And if you have a way of communicating with workmates, you can contribute to that idea of what normal is.

Can we work while we have selective muteness?

Of course we can.

Because we still need to communicate, we need to find ways around the anxiety. First, the obvious: Selective muteness is not just being a quiet person.

You’re allowed to be introverted. It will help you in most workplaces. Introverts tend to be better listeners. They get to know their workmates better than an extrovert who talks a lot, which makes them better leaders. This is especially true for an introvert with a cool head. In The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome, Tony Attwood says that people on the Spectrum are remarkably good at keeping calm when things go horribly, traumatically wrong. Way better than neurotypicals. An introverted adult with Asperger’s who can keep themselves from melting down might be the perfect worker, and eventually the perfect boss.

So let’s pay attention to when we’re more comfortable talking less (introversion), and when we want to say something but our brains won’t let us (selective muteness).

Next, we figure out ways we can communicate.

What kind of communication can you successfully give to a workmate? Are you capable of writing on a post-it, or sending them an email? If they ask why you don’t just speak to them, is there any other medium where you’re comfortable telling them you have an anxiety disorder? It might take some time, and this might be exhausting. If your workplace deserves the good effort you give them, they will try to help you and will not make fun of you. Work is how we keep society going, so it makes sense that everyone at a workplace should be nice and helpful to each other. Anyone who’s not helpful when you have a problem is missing the point of work.

When you’ve found a way you can comfortably communicate, see if your workplace can allow you to keep using that medium. A time might come when you’re ready to move past your selective muteness, and a cognitive behavioural therapist or other professional can help you. It took me years of therapy and the support of many friends to get comfortable speaking. You’re making an effort and that’s all anyone can do. If you’re trying, you’re doing fine.

And if we just can’t communicate?

This happens. It’s debilitating and frustrating, and we can survive it.

There is a possibility that if you’re not communicative, you won’t be able to do the work your job needs. We all deal with it our own way, so let’s consider something positive:

Jobs you can do without too much communication.

Most low communication jobs involve technology. Working with machines takes plenty of logic and order, which is a nice antidote to anxiety if you can handle it. We can even put things together in a factory for okay money. Programming involves learning the language that we put into machines, but you’re talking to a machine, not a person, and they only understand purely logical communication. If you can handle the occasional instruction that a machine doesn’t understand because someone put in a typo (and occasionally that someone is us, because everyone makes mistakes) this can be soothing too.

Jobs where you can be alone are good. I know security guards on the Spectrum, though if anxiety is your issue I don’t recommend a job where you scare off danger. Though if you want to try it, the training looks fun — and you’ll learn a bit about crowds.

Hell, here are some jobs that pay well and don’t need much communication according to Business Insider:

Train operator

Miner

Machine maintenance

Data entry and processing, including mail

Sysadmin and software development

I will always recommend technology to people who need to work alone. It’s a sweet spot where there’s a lot of work to do and money to make.

Hating people: What you can do about it

Now and then, we can be miserable bastards.

We have decent reasons. Many of us get bullied or live with the memory of old bullies riding on us everywhere we go. When we were small and developing, we learned that people can’t be trusted. There’s one thing I want to point out in this article:

We were wrong.

People are generally good, but the more we’re taught not to see good deeds, the less we see them.

I plan to show you why there’s no need for us to be miserable bastards, even when it feels necessary.

Bullied or not, there’s probably been a time when you were treated as less important than others. We’re vulnerable to Less Than treatment. So many of us achieve things later than the people around us, because we have extra steps. And that’s okay. Still, people underestimate us. Sometimes it’s a weakness, sometimes a strength, but we inevitably seem like we learn slower, or are weaker or dumber than others.

And when you’re treated as Less Than, it feels like you’re an inferior species.

We equally deserve to be here and we deserve all the nice things that others get. Still, when we’re not invited to things, not given important information or fall out of the loop, our brains don’t quite get the message.

So of course some of us are miserable. Being isolated does that.

This leads so many of us to misanthropy, or worse, becoming Underground Men.

There’s a novel called Notes From Underground by the Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky. He wrote The Brothers Karamazov.

His main character considers himself an ‘Underground Man’, someone who lives separate from mainstream society. People don’t hear from him, they don’t know what he’s up to. The more time he spends paying no attention to the outside world, the more he thinks he’s better than everyone. And the worse he gets at life.

He meets up with some old friends, but his superiority complex takes over. He insults them and ruins his old friendships. 

The worse an Underground Man gets at life, the better he thinks he is at life. The less he thinks he needs others, the more he needs them. For more on this phenomenon, look up the Dunning-Kruger effect.

So, what’s the solution?

There are a few. They may not all apply to you today, but hopefully one or more prove themselves useful.

You may find out you weren’t always being bullied.

In-jokes are popular among friends because they bind people together. They’re secrets that make the people who hear them feel good. For this reason, there are a lot of crass in-jokes that sound hurtful but are actually the biggest compliment a person can give.

Here’s an example. On certain finance forums, when a person announces they’re rich now and can retire, users answer “Fuck you!”

This is their ultimate congratulation. It’s funny because they’re pretending to be jealous. Some really are jealous, and when people accept all the humour and catharsis in those Fuck Yous, they realise it’s okay to feel jealous. There’s a deep acceptance happening.

This is why so many people in Australia call good friends ‘Cunt’. It can be an expression of friendly love, especially in areas where a person doesn’t need a perfect reputation to succeed in life (like areas with a lot of farmers). In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell calls these societies non-honour-based societies. Not nearly enough has been written about them, considering most of us live in one.

Some friend groups make fun of each other to show that they’re all welcome.

Crass in-jokes are an advanced social skill that have a little potential to hurt people, and a lot of potential to feel good. This may have happened to you.

What’s more, if you assume that someone is being nice to you in a purely social setting (don’t try this with a mugger),  you will naturally be nice back to them. And then, no matter how they meant to treat you, they will now be tempted to be nice back.

It’s called mirroring and it’s human nature.

If you assume people were not mean to you but were accepting you, isn’t that soothing? You could be right. You could have been wrong about the bullying. This state of mind is much healthier.

However you look at it, a person will aim a joke at you to

  1. Feel amused, or
  2. To cover for their own insecurity.

When someone insecure attacks you, they’re saying you’re better than them. You’re a threat because you look superior. Creatures only attack their own tribe if there are threats around — any other motive is a waste of energy, and of social status when they make enemies. They’re scared of you.

When people bring us into their jokes and make us a part of their amusement, and they’re not doing it because of their own inferiority, they’re including us. They’re welcoming us. In every scenario, it’s okay to be here.

Even for a couple minutes each day, tell yourself that it’s always been okay to take up space and enjoy your oxygen. People will find you more pleasant, and most of them will want to be pleasant back. You may even feel better.

Life lessons from Ancient Greek hobo philosophers

Stoicism has gained massive attention this decade. It’s an ancient philosophy that’s all about hanging back, letting the world be the way it is and accepting that you can’t change things that are out of your control, like bad weather or a video game before patches come out.

It started in Ancient Greece with thinkers like Zeno of Citium, then made its way to Rome where the great emperor Marcus Aurelius accidentally left us a stoic masterpiece in the form of his personal diary.

There was another philosophy in Ancient Greece that could use a revival. If you have trouble with social interaction, you might already be practicing it. It was called cynicism (from the Greek word kynikos meaning dog) and it was all about living as simply and honestly as you could, the way a dog does.

These days in the English language, being a cynic is seen as a bad. This negative image has followed just about every handy philosophy. Pessimism (started by Schopenhauer) was about preparing for the worst and always being grateful for the good, but now people think it means only seeing the bad. Stoicism was about mentally letting go the need for control, but now people think it’s being blank and not feeling anything. Cynicism was about being free and able to depend on yourself to survive, but now? Cynicism means bitterness.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

I’m excited about this philosophy and what we can learn from it. For someone with autism, to interact with statues as if they were people, stim in public or to speak with inappropriate tense, formality and honesty are quick ways to get in trouble. Those things can make anyone uncomfortable, but the earliest cynics found a way to do them all. They wanted to show that no matter what your needs are, you can belong.

It started with Socrates’ student Diogenes. As a philosopher, he wanted to live a good life and not depend too much on others. He created a rough idea of cynicism that would evolve into a craft and culture over time. One of his first observations was that wild dogs were happy, because they could survive wherever they went and had no shame. So he decided he wanted a dog’s life. Here are the ways he lived his dream:

He lived in a clay tub. Well he said he lived everywhere, but the tub kept out the rain. His only possession was a bowl, until he saw a boy drinking water in his cupped hands, not needing a bowl or cup. Then Diogenes decided to own nothing.

He didn’t care about a person’s importance. When Alexander the Great offered him literally anything, Diogenes told Alexander to move out of the sunlight.

He called himself a citizen of the world. Diogenes invented the term ‘cosmopolitan’. He didn’t need to conform to one society or live by its limits, and didn’t seem to fear punishment. His teacher Socrates got a death sentence for following his own philosophy, and Diogenes had once been a slave. Speaking of which,

When slave buyers asked Diogenes what he was good for, he said he was a leader of men. This was a great joke because a lowly slave would never get to run an army or a city, and it showed that he didn’t want to play by the slavers’ unfair rules.

He asked statues for money to get used to being ignored while he begged. It’s practically impossible to properly diagnose dead people with autism (still, keep relating to da Vinci or Picasso if you’re into them), but come on.

When Diogenes disagreed with people, he was theatrical and harsh. There was a single prostitute’s son throwing rocks at people, so Diogenes said to the boy “Be careful, you might hit your father.” Plato was famous for saying that humans are featherless bipeds, so Diogenes plucked a chicken, threw it over Plato’s outside walls and yelled “Here’s your human!” When the men of Athens gathered for important business, he walked around with a lamp at daytime saying he was looking for an honest man. He wasn’t just living his philosophy, he was teaching it in a way that he’d learned would get people’s attention. These days, though, we have to be nicer because a person can die living alone on the street like Diogenes did. His points weren’t good because they were mean, but because they were funny and surprising.

He did many more inappropriate things in public. Don’t do any of these. People now are more difficult to shock than the Ancient Greeks, but we still punish offenders. Greece was a modest society. So when Diogenes masturbated in public, it shocked people. He defended it by saying “If only I could rub my belly and stop being hungry!” If people disturbed him, he barked at them and threw things, and urinated on someone who called him a dog as an insult.

Tyler Durden in Fight Club is based on Diogenes, and it shows.

Some of this behaviour was mind-bendingly awful, but people loved Diogenes and the cynics who followed in his footsteps. A whole movement started, people who travelled around wearing nothing but a fur and owning nothing but a staff, because these things kept them safe and were things Hercules was said to have owned. Hercules was a mortal man who could survive anything and did things only gods could when he put his mind to it. Crates of Thebes was a rich man who gave away everything for this life. Hipparchia of Maroneia moved to Athens with her parents, then completely disappointed them by choosing to live on the street as a cynic … and marrying Crates of Thebes, who became the teacher of Zeno (who invented stoicism, remember?) Even a lot of cynics disagreed with the ‘dog wedding’, since they didn’t want cynics to be seen depending too much on others, but Crates and Hipparchia didn’t care how they looked. They wanted to be happy. For the rest of their lives, these radically honest philosophers could go anywhere and people would let the couple stay in their homes.

Once they started writing down their beliefs, the cynics made it to Ancient Rome where people like Menippus wrote cynic stage plays and left us a lot to read and learn.

If you want more, I suggest Cynics by William Desmond. Penguin Classics also has a great volume called ‘Anecdotes of the Cynics’ for two bucks.

Our right way may not be theirs anymore. We get away with a lot more blasphemy and a lot less nudity than the Ancient Greeks, for example. There needs to be a balance between what people in public are comfortable with, and what they could get used to if we exposed them to it. But isn’t it interesting to think that for a few hundred years, there were people who refused to be normal and still found their own place in the world? Some of them chose to be outcasts, but the ones who really committed to being themselves were loved for their genuineness and what they could teach everyone else.

A pet would probably help you. Here’s why.

Can pets do things for us that other humans can’t?

 

In her ground-breaking book Thinking in Pictures, the autistic animal scientist Professor Temple Grandin talks at length about spending time with farm animals and learning to gain their trust. She also wrote a chapter on the brain chemicals that can help neurodiverse people to be happier, more comfortable and even to help shed the various ways our nervous systems derp on us. Continue reading “A pet would probably help you. Here’s why.”

Autistic people are neglected in education. Here’s how we can get a job anyway.

A recent study by the autism research body Amaze shows that more than half of children with autism don’t get the education they need. A large number go on to lack proper teaching afterward. This seems to correlate with poverty — a third of adults on the Spectrum rely on welfare payments.

So much for the professors and blackjack sharks that Hollywood makes us into.

What can we do? There must be a way to get along in society and not be left behind. We’ve made it this far, most of us have friends and opportunities.

And there are solutions.

Continue reading “Autistic people are neglected in education. Here’s how we can get a job anyway.”