Shipwrecked in an alien culture

Shipwrecked in an alien culture

(This will make sense by the end I promise…)

I’d like you to imagine the following. You are ship wrecked on a distant island with no hope of rescue. As you begin to explore you find that the island is home to a rich and vibrant civilisation, thus far completely unknown to the rest of the world. The natives are not hostile, but somewhat curious about you and they take you in and care for you.

Language barriers are just the start…

Soon you realise their spoken language is strangely similar to English. Quickly you begin to learn the words for things and soon you are able to make basic requests and understand them in return. But, as you begin to learn their language you start to notice some differences in this native population. They do not smile when they are happy or frown when they are angry. Indeed their words do not seem to correlate with the emotions they convey. This is really odd and disconcerting. You find it really hard to work out when they are angry or sad.

One day you are confronted by an extraordinarily aggressive man bursting into your room. He is shouting at you angrily, frowning and gesticulating wildly. You cower in fear for your life, unsure what you have done to cause such offense. The man leaves looking puzzled. Later it is explained to you that he was simply telling you that they found some of your belongings washed up on the shore. The others then ask why YOU got so angry with him? Baffled you explain that you did not. You tell them you thought HE was angry and you got scared. They look puzzled and ask: “why then did you turn away like that showing your aggression?”

Confused, you think about it and come to the conclusion that in this culture body language and physical expressions of various emotions are different. The man’s angry voice was actually excitement at his discovery of something from your ship. Your cowering away in fear was, in their culture, a demonstration of anger. As you observe further you see that these difference are utterly pervasive. None of the facial expressions, body language or tones of voice match what they “should”. This culture has, it seems, evolved a completely different set of nonverbal communication.

More problems of communication

Over time you do learn the spoken language fluently but this leads to other issues. You rapidly find that in this culture the language is highly nuanced, laden with metaphor and double meanings. Knowing the vocabulary and correct sentence structure is simply the beginning of effective communication. For example even seemingly tiny changes in inflection can drastically change the meaning of a whole sentence. Furthermore the highly prevalent use of metaphor, idioms and turns of phrase draws heavily upon a long literary and cultural history stretching back millenia. It seems an impossible task to learn this history, but equally it seems it is vital in order to communicate effectively.

More worryingly still, the language seems to be somewhat “sacred”. Mistakes in pronunciation and misunderstanding the meaning of the metaphors so commonly used are not tolerated. Indeed you find yourself mocked and ridiculed for such errors. There seems to be little sympathy for the fact that you are not a native speaker and have no knowledge of their cultural history. You are expected to speak perfectly. When you don’t the natives either get angry (you have learned from bitter experience to read their body language for anger by now), upset, or they laugh at you with cruelty.

This is deeply confusing because they do not seem like a cruel people at all. Their society is peaceful with equality for the sexes and sexual orientations, their laws are fair and just, and those with physical disabilities are cared for with kindness and sympathy. So, you wonder, how can they not make some allowances for you as a foreign speaker of their tongue? Surely they must know that you don’t mean to screw up? Surely they must make some reasonable allowances? But it seems they will not.

Matters get even worse when you begin to mingle further within their culture. You rapidly find that their society also has a myriad of complex social rules and etiquettes, completely different to anything you know. These rules govern things like; who can speak when, what clothes should be worn in what situations, what body language is appropriate, when one should laugh and when not. These rules and rituals are as complex as those governing high society in Edwardian England but, of course, completely different and utterly unknown to you. Every time you think you have mastered a new rule you seem to blunder and learn that there are many exceptions to each of them. You try desperately to understand but the social rules of this culture are layered, complex and seem to have many caveats and exceptions which appear to be deliberately put in place as a cruelty to the uninitiated.

Intolerable intolerance

What is worse is that the society is as equally intolerant of social faux pas as it is of mispronunciations. You are laughed at, shouted at and even physically assaulted when you inevitably make mistakes. There is no recognition or understanding that these complex rules are not natural to you. This problem is compounded by the fact that no one seems able to teach you the rules either. Those that have tried don’t seem to be able to explain things very well. The rules are so instinctive to them, so deeply embed in their psyche that they do not even have to think about them. Their understanding is effortless without conscious thought and so is actually hard for them to explain in words.

So to recap: your problems are thus:

  • It is very hard to work out what people are feeling because their facial expressions and tones of voice are “mixed up”.
  • It is very hard to understand the complex rules of social interaction and no one seems able or willing to teach you.
  • This leads to many unintentional blunders on your part which are met with hostile reactions.
  • There is no sympathy for the fact that you are new and still learning.

This means you find interacting with others incredibly stressful. You are in constant fear of offending or upsetting someone. Not only that, you often don’t know if they are offended or upset because you find it hard to understand what they are feeling. so you never can be certain of whether a conversation went well or not. This doubt nags at you before, during and after every conversation. The effort required to focus on social interactions leaves you exhausted after even brief conversations.

Imagine how stressful this existence would be? How would you cope? Would you be able to hold down a job in this new culture? Would you be able to integrate at all? Might you run fowl of their criminal justice system simply by error? Might you thus conclude that it would be better to stick to your own company? To minimise your contact with others? Over time how might this loneliness affect your mental health? Would depression and anxiety follow fairly quickly?

This is autism

If you have imagined this vividly you have just imagined a scenario similar to that faced by autistic people in our society today. We neurotypicals are this “alien culture” to our autistic peers and are often just as cruel and unforgiving as the imaginary society outlined above. The good news is that, generally, it is an unintentional cruelty born of ignorance. The imaginary society above was full of good people, liberal and open minded in many ways, but they could not comprehend that anyone would not understand the rules of language and society. As these rules were universal, everyone in that society just understood them instinctively. It was inconceivable that anyone would not get these rules, so any transgressions were just deemed rudeness. This, I am afraid to say, is how the neurotypical world often treats autistic people. And it is just as cruel and damaging as the imaginary situation above.

In order to build a better understanding of what it might be like to be autistic in a neurotypical world I invite you to ponder the above tale and really try to imagine what it might be like. Imagine how you might feel. If you can draw on any similar situations from real life, perhaps embarrassing situations in foreign countries, then that will make the imagined journey all the more real. It is probably impossible for us NT’s to imagine what it is like to actually be autistic but the story above is perhaps a half way step, something that we NT’s could envisage and relate to. My hope is that this could build better empathy and understanding.

Where did this come from?

The inspiration for this post came from several conversations I have had on line with adults with autism. It struck me that I have only really met small kids with autism and their parents. Soon though, the Bean will be a teenager and then adult with autism. I wanted to find out more about how that might look. So I dove into the interweb forums, chat rooms and youtube looking for answers. My conclusion was:

“Most of the problems faced by most autistic people stem from the lack of awareness and understanding by neurotypicals.”

So autism is not the problem. We are. That’s a sobering thought. But the good news is that no one really wants to be like that. No one wants to be the ignorant yank laughing at the foreign tourist who mispronounces a word or commits a social faux pas. When we act like this towards autistic people it is not through malice but simply through not understanding there was a communication problem in the first place. I hope this post does something to raise awareness. Looking back to my pre-autism days I know I have made these errors myself. All of us will have interacted with someone on the spectrum, whether we know it or not. Perhaps that rude person was not rude at all? Maybe that irritating man you had to deal with was not being deliberately annoying at all? Maybe that “bratty” kid was not a brat? Is it perhaps possible that they were all shipwrecked foreigners in an alien culture?

In the next post I’ll address some of the specifics of the things autistic people struggle with and how we can meet them half way…..


  1. as a visitor from this alien world, this is how i felt in our world. i was mad when i started to understand it at first, but the human world makes more sense to me now than ever before, when i view myself through this lens.

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