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Thursday, January 10, 2013

How to Be Insensitive

This isn't what you think.  This IS what you think.  We make mistakes in life.  We hope we learn from them.  This isn't a post to talk about recent mistakes, but more a post to talk about how ignorance can turn into insensitivity. 

I've told this story a lot over the past two days, because I feel like it parallels other things going on.  I know this is cryptic, and I'm sorry, but it's going to stay cryptic.  Suffer along with me while I say that the story requires no background and it's just as instructive as it would be if you had background.  It's just a story about a day I was insensitive, but nothing really came of it...except a realization of insensitivity and a desire to do better.

My wife and I took Lily to Chuck E. Cheese.  I won't say which one, it's local, but if the Target thing has taught me anything, it's that I need to be discrete because some people may not love the spotlight in quite the way I seem to love it.  It was a little boy's birthday party.  Lily's teacher and the classroom aids were there to help facilitate things...and to enjoy the time with their kids as well.  It was really cool from that perspective, but that's not the story. 

We approached the gatekeeper (CEC has a guy who stands at the door and stamps parents and their kids with an invisible stamp that they scan upon departure to make sure the kid with you matches the stamp...) for admittance. He stamped our hands.  I don't remember what my wife said to him.  It was "harmless".  She asked him for something.  Let's say she proposed that he stamp her left hand instead of her right because she was holding Lily's hand with the other.  I don't think that was it, but it was something like that.  The kid froze.  Literally a deer in the headlights. 

"Did you hear me," she asked?  He froze again and we stood there...getting irritated.  What the hell was going on?

He filled in the missing information, "I don't handle conflict well."

And this is where I'm frustrated with myself as a human being...we CHALLENGED him on it.  "It wasn't a CONFLICT...we just asked if you could stamp the other hand."

And he froze again.

Are you kidding me?  The boy tells you he has a problem with conflict...so you get into a conflict with him??  We didn't get it.  We tried to use our allistic NT brains to interpret it and it did not intuitively compute.  How dare this kid imply we were getting into a conflict...let's ....um...fight with him about it? 

That's at the heart of the issue then...a lack of understanding...even empathy.  I think this failure to immediately understand somehow generated this...fight mechanism.  Like my failure to understand was somehow his fault.  How dare he say something that is so clearly bullshit...I mean...we didn't even do anything.  And that emotional response based on ignorance or misunderstanding sets the wheels in motion, trading emotional blow after emotional blow, each side getting angrier at the other.  Or it could.

In the case of the kid, the second time was enough for us to figure it out...to back off...to "believe" his disability.  When someone speaks/writes well, makes his/her points clearly and effectively, we sometimes forget invisible disabilities that make conflict...or sarcasm...or jokes or whatever...hard to understand or process.  We just assume they think the way we think...and not thinking the way we think somehow implies they think we think wrong!  But they don't.  And we don't.  It's just different.  Sometimes different means stopping and giving extra time to process, like when I try to count to three in my head after I tell Lily to do something, because sometimes it doesn't immediately sink in.  Sometimes it means changing tacks, or retracing steps, or apologizing and backing off.  And the thing to do then is NOT attack.  NOT accuse.  NOT assume.  The thing to do is to stop...and process.  The thing to do is try your level best to empathize.  The thing to do is take him/her at his word.  "I have a difficult time with conflict."

"Oh!  I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to make that sound aggressive...I don't know what the policy is.  Are you able to stamp my left other hand instead of the right?"  Maybe that would have been a better approach?

The thing I found most galling about the whole exchange was that we try extremely hard to be the nonjudgmental supportive human beings that being the parent of an autistic little girl has helped us become and we muffed it.

I still make mistakes.  And I still hope to learn from them.  I'll probably make this one many many more times in my life.  But I'll try not to.  And I'm sorry for the people who have to suffer through my learning process.

Lily drives...Chuck E. rides shotgun.

60 comments:

  1. Love this post. You're human. Hopefully we're all always trying to be better, kinder, more understanding people. It's a good goal, you know?

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  2. I think many of us could have done the same thing. I know I probably could have. Live and learn, right?

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  3. I count to 6. And you're awesome <3

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    1. Um, I guess I'm Unknown now. Don't know why that happened

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    2. why are you unknown? How did that happen?

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  4. Interesting... the variety of experiences that make up our characters. We can be so similar and yet so different sometimes that it is amazing to me as a student of the human adventure. I love that we can keep learning no matter how old we are; thank you for that reminder today, Jim.

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    1. well...hopefully we can keep learning....

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  5. Great insight by the wise Jim Walter, natch. I expect no less from this Lil Blog. I also commend the young, brave (hats off to all CEC employees) man. He perhaps misidentified the nuances, but he owned it. He recognizes his thinking differences and openly acknowledges, educates and - presumably - tries to work through it with others. How many of us squirm through employee performance reviews? Or that age-old interview question: What are your greatest weaknesses? Would that we all so quickly identified our "weaknesses" and courageously put them out there. In fact, that right there is a remarkable strength.

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    1. I always say my greatest weakness is that I steal stuff all the time.

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    2. Good for you! The first step is admitting you have a problem.

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  6. Oh, and...nope. Not suffering at all. It's a journey, right? How lucky we are to share this journey with you.

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  7. great post....we are all human, and not one of us perfect....nice to hear you admit it :)

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  8. You are a stand up gentleman, sir. You really are.

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  9. Yesterday is over. All we can take from it is what we learn and apply it to tomorrow. The trick is to recognize that and move on. Excellent post. ;)

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  10. Just stumbled to your blog today via Flappiness Is. Thanks for your post & please let up on yourself a bit. Just because we're parents of kids with autism doesn't automatically give us a perfect score in sensitivity (just like being a parent of multiples doesn't automatically make you perfectly efficient). Thanks for being honest. I know I'm not perfect either and it's nice to know we all struggle, but we can all be forgiven too. :-)

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    1. I'm not beating myself, I promise. But I do try to own it if I eff up.

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  11. It makes me feel better to know that you are human too. Thank you for sharing!

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    1. sooo human. you know...cause of all the erring.

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  12. Ah, you're so genuine and transparent to share even this much. Better yet? It is so lovely how you learn. It's great for me to see that learning process... Like a think aloud. Valuable. That's a great reason for blogging it! We all benefit:-)

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    1. Thanks, Nelda. It would be better if I learned WITHOUT the mistakes and hurt feelings. But if there have to be hurt feelings...at LEAST I can learn something moving forward.

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  13. Jim, I like you even more now. I don't do teams, or sides, (it always feels like bullying if you're in the other one) but I do utterly respect your approach to conflict. We all of us make mistakes, and we all assume we understand another's perspective, even when experience taught us otherwise. You're very human, like all of us. :)

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  14. Took me a bit of time to come here...glad I finally made it. Nice post Jim. Very nice. <3

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  15. Ah Jim, you're a deeply flawed human just like the rest of us, and that's what makes you interesting. But unlike most you also have the class to admit when you're being an ass, and I dig that about you.

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    1. wait...what do you mean DEEPLY?

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    2. Sorry. I meant lightly with a twist of lemon.

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    3. okay...so just a typo then.

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  16. I love this story. Thank you for sharing it, Jim.

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  17. Jim we are all human and have done this and anyone who says they haven't well... they are lying! The fact that you and your wife figured it out... that is the important part! It takes a very big person to admit when they are wrong. Kudos to you! Keep being you Jim... you are fabulous! Not everyone will always appreciate your dry sense of humor, but just like we fight so hard for others to accept our kiddos for who they are, we adults need to do the same especially about ourselves. We are all different and we all are just trying to do out best to make sense out of this great big complicated world we live in! I think if we all just spent a little more time trying to figure out what we have in common with one another instead of what makes us different... well there would be a lot less problems in the world. But that is just this Mama's take on things!

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  18. Don't be too hard on yourself. Not everybody can be as nonjudgemental as I am. It takes practice. (and lying about it) :)

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  19. I know so many people who would benefit from reading your epiphany here...sadly, even if printed it out and handed it to them, they probably wouldn't. These "invisible" disabilities are so tricky. It's so easy to judge someone if they look or act "normal." Love what you've done here.

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  20. I can't imagine the stress of working at a Chuck E. Cheese. The last time I was in a Chuck E. Cheese was over a decade ago and it way mayhem. That you came away with a little introspection is quite impressive.

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    1. yeah, it seems like not an awesome job.

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  21. I do the same thing on occasion. It happens. Also, we call it Chuck E. Cheesistan around my house. The last time we were there, Skeletor couldn't be told that you don't walk up the ramp and gently place the ball in the hole when playing ski ball.

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    1. that WOULD be an awesome way to max out on tickets...

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  22. I'm sorry, I wish I could be more supportive, but as someone on the spectrum and who witnessed the incomprehensible nastiness of your friends being supportive of you over the last few days it really doesn't help that you recognized when you were being insensitive in this instance, not really. For that guy, your treatment of him was just one more in a catalog of indignities he suffered that day, and every day, just like the rest of us on the spectrum do. And we've suffered the last few days, believe me, we have.

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    1. Hmm. I guess I'm not sure what to take away from that, Paula. Ultimately, I didn't post this to show what a "stand up guy" I am, but to show how insensitive I was. I posted it to show that my apology was sincere and that I'm trying to go more than halfway to understand and empathize with the person whose feelings I hurt. While I understand that the community blew up during the middle of it...if you can't "support" apologies and attempts to empathize and understand...what can you support?

      I feel like the hurt you're going through now is being attributed to me. The disagreement between myself and the other party was a personal matter, and I feel like it has been handled personally between the two of us for the most part. How the COMMUNITY reacted to it is something else entirely...whether it was one group of friends reacting to my insensitivity or another group of friends reacting to the response, I wasn't behind the scenes pulling the strings, so if the perception is that I was egging it on. That's an incorrect perception.

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  23. No, I don't think you're egging anyone on. I do think you're unaware that some people took advantage of the situation to be ugly and rude and to make fun of the people their children are going to grow up to be. Maybe they're linear thinkers and can't see that far ahead, maybe they're too young to see, they're your friends, you tell me.

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    1. Pass. I mean, I hear what you're saying, but if you're suggesting that I apologize on behalf of my friends, or provide some sort of explanation for my friends actions, how far do we extrapolate that? Do we catalog all the responses from both "sides" and take turns explaining the responses of each side? I can't do that. This has already blown up WAY further than it had any right to. I am truly sorry for my part in it.

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  24. I think you're right about your first point, that it can't be undone but some damage was done. And it will continue to be done as long as people not on the spectrum decide they can speak for us, tell us how it is. Clearly, we don't agree with that and we never will.

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