‘Reading’ People

It was almost exactly a month after my last journal entry when I wrote this: my third and final journal entry from four years ago.

To give some context, I wrote this entry after I’d done a great deal of research into the things I hadn’t known I didn’t know.

At this point, I was getting rather overwhelmed and was beginning to burn out in a big way. It was, quite frankly, both intimidating and depressing to realize how little I’d known and how much I still didn’t understand about how other people communicated and apparently expected me to communicate in return.

I don’t think I want to learn how to “read” people. I don’t know that I want that much responsibility. Once I learned it, I would feel obligated to use that knowledge and “reading” people seems too much like putting intentions on others that they may not have had. I’m not any good at it. It’s mostly guesswork at this point, so if I did somehow become good at it, I don’t think I could shake off the feeling of prying or making unfounded assumptions about people.

First of all, I want to address my above expressed feeling of obligation. I’ve read a great deal more recently about how expectations change. Once an Autistic person can do something, people tend to expect us to be able to do it all the time. So, if I went to a party once, then I should be good to go to all the other parties, right?


This is not at all how it works. I understand now that I can take it slowly, learn things as I feel up to the challenge, and utilize that knowledge only when I’m able to do so. I shouldn’t feel obligated to use that information/ability all the time if I’m not able to for any reason.

Regardless, it still does seem like a lot of guesswork is involved, at least for me, which means that I don’t generally try to read into things. I also cannot know what’s going on in other people’s lives if they haven’t told me, which means that there are often many potential unknown variables.

After all, maybe someone who’s being rude to me has chronic back pain or has been experiencing a terrible day for other reasons. I can’t imagine assuming that someone was upset with me specifically, without any concrete confirmation, and taking that on when there are so many other unknown possibilities.

I can always ask for more information or offer a disclaimer if or as soon as I notice that things seem to be “off” in any way.

What precipitated this overwhelmed feeling? I took three more tests yesterday about reading facial expressions, voices, and feelings of characters in scenes and I did abysmally. There we have it.

I’m discouraged and I don’t know that it’d be worth it to spend so much time studying people’s non-verbal communication when I’m clearly so bad at it. Maybe I would get better with studying and practice, but it’s so overwhelming that I doubt I could ever learn it all.

Ah, if only I could tell the me of 4 years ago that I didn’t and don’t need to learn it all.

I would also feel responsible for using my new knowledge if I did learn it well. I’d feel an obligation to start actually reading non-verbal communications and that thought really scares me. I’d be responsible for assuming what other people were feeling and thinking. What if I made a mistake? If I studied it and felt obligated to use that knowledge, then I could still mess up.

More misplaced feelings of obligation that, undoubtedly, contributed to my burnout and shelving of the possibility I might be Autistic until I could afford to get a professional opinion. I reasoned that, at least if it was official, I could get some support with the overwhelming feelings of inadequacy and obligation.

I know how much I hate having people “read” me so how can I possibly justify “reading” other people even if many/most of them actually expect and like it? I’m so bad at learning foreign languages and this seems like a foreign language to me.

Written languages I could probably learn eventually, but this is not written. It’s not nice and concrete like words on a page are. Non-verbal communication is so transient, constantly ever-changing, and daunting that I don’t know how I could ever understand it enough to reliably translate in everyday situations.

It’s not always kind to treat others the way that I myself would want to be treated because they aren’t me, but as long as I’m meeting them partway and am willing to listen/learn then it shouldn’t be a huge problem that I’m terrible at reading people.

I don’t know that I will ever be fluent enough in non-verbal communication to reliably translate it in most everyday situations. And that’s okay. I can always use disclaimers. I’ve been using disclaimers about my face-blindness for a long time, and I can also use them about my difficulties in other areas in order to let people know where I can use help. Then I just have to trust that the other people will actually tell me when I mess up.

Basically, I can do my best. I can’t do any better than that even if I study tirelessly and catapult myself into another several years’ of extreme burnout fatigue, which wouldn’t benefit anyone.

It’s important not to be a jerk.

It’s also important to both respect and understand my own limitations.

Disclaimers seem like a great way for me to successfully and simultaneously achieve the above important tasks 🙂

6 thoughts on “‘Reading’ People

  1. Very thought-provoking post! You bring up an *excellent* point about obligation, that once people know you can do something, they expect you to be able to do it any time. They don’t realize that what we may be able to do today, we might not be able to do tomorrow. Thank you for expressing (quite eloquently!) something I’ve been feeling for a while (but was unable to express)! You rock 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! 🙂

      Yes! It’s also quite common in parenting circles (especially punitive-minded ones) to assume that a child (whether autistic or not) who responds appropriately one time should be able to do it every time. I believe that’s the most common basis used to assume “defiance” from small and/or autistic children :-/ It was disconcerting for me to discover that assumption continues on through interacting with adults, but it makes a lot of sense that the same assumption would remain if not successfully challenged.

      That’s the type of mindset my parents had. Needless to say, it was quite ineffective, upsetting, painful, and extremely confusing.


  2. I can read people to some extent. I spent years of formal and informal training in theater from 9 years old an on. I practice and learned how to use my own tone, expressions, and posture as I’ve mentioned. But another huge piece is studying and interpreting people.

    But as you say, just because, you can do something sometimes doesn’t mean you always can. One on one in a relatively calm environment with little emotional stress, I can usually read the other person pretty well. I’m sure I miss some nuance, but I keep up pretty well. And I do okay at also giving them the signals they expect and need to feel comfortable.

    Hmmm. As an aside, that may be a factor in why people have always told me that working with me directly was a lot different than they expected. I’ve actually had people say they were scared or intimidated by my reputation or public persona before they worked with me directly.

    Anyway, start taking those away and my ability deteriorates pretty quickly. Group social conversation or distracting environment? I lose track pretty quickly. I’m not feeling well or overwhelmed, others become a cipher again. Intense or heavy topic and that consumes my attention.

    The ideal setting is not actually very common, so even though I can read people in theory, in practice I’m usually struggling at best and often completely lost.

    It’s always interesting to read things we’ve written in the past, isn’t it? Enjoyed the post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I did a little bit with theatre when I was younger. I then mainly ended up doing music-related things in the end, but I have a bit of middle and early high school-era experience with acting, writing scripts, and making props. It definitely helped with my own masking 🙂 But I never made the connection that what needed to be done while acting a scene actually added *meaning* to the words.

      Looking back, I’m not sure why on earth I never made that connection because it seems so obvious in hindsight. But nobody ever told me explicitly. Probably because it was obvious to everyone else. I was told as a small child (~3yo) when working on inflection while reading out loud that inflection made the words sound more interesting vs monotone that gets boring after a while.

      So, after being told that, I primarily saw inflection/tone/etc as making it sound more interesting.

      Then (and I might stick this next bit into a post at some point) I was a successful birth worker for several years. I was a birth doula and assisted a homebirth midwife. Before attending any births by myself (as the only labor support – there was a doctor there, of course) as a doula, I had assisted at several births and had become quite adept at modeling my own birth-assisting/supporting behavior off what the midwife and senior assistant had modeled for me.

      By the time I attended my first doula birth, I knew exactly how to act and what to say. Also, I’d done my book research. Books about labor/birth/postpartum very helpfully contain detailed explanations of the potential emotional states, their common orders, and how they are best responded to.

      Also! At a birth, there’s really just one primary person to pay attention to: the person who’s doing the birthing! While birthing, people tend to become very vocally honest too, which helps a great deal 🙂 The partner needs some attention too, but not to the same extent. Births are finite lengths of time, so there’s going to be an ending at some point too. It’s not just indefinitely and all the time, like everyday life.

      And yet, even having learned all those things, I still didn’t apply that information to everyday life. I was about two years into my birth work before my boss mentioned the word Aspergers to me.

      Yes! It’s been very interesting to read and comment on my previous writings. I expect I could probably do the same thing with what I write now in 4 more years, which is funny to think about.

      Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed it!


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