One day at work, I (Jerry) passed a co-worker and she asked absently, “How’s it going?” It was clear that she was in a bit of a hurry to get wherever it was she was going and wasn’t really looking for a detailed answer. She was just trying to be polite. But feeling a bit ornery that day, I caught her off-guard and proceeded to tell her exactly how my day was going. Her rocking back and forth motion made it more than clear that she was ready for this conversation to end so she could be on her way. She hadn’t been trying to be rude or insincere in her greeting. Saying “How’s it going?” was just her way of saying hello.
So how often in your day to day experience do receive the greeting, “Hello! How are you doing?” or some variation? If you work away from home, you probably hear that phrase several times a day. Perhaps you are passing a fellow coworker down the hall or in the parking lot. Whatever the case, the greeting is often said in passing, with little attempt to acquire a deeper response to the question. We simply say, “Oh, hi! I’m fine. And you?” Then they say that they are fine as well and you both continue on as you were, without a further thought. It’s just become the standard operating procedure when encountering a familiar face. It’s the “polite” thing to do.
Having children on the autism spectrum reveals a new angle to the conversation, and also helps us understand and see things about ourselves. Our boys, especially our second child, Josiah, tend to be quite the literalists. If we say, for example, “Boy, that sure stinks,” Josiah will probably respond by saying, “What? I don’t smell anything.” Then you’ll have to spend the next couple of minutes explaining the meaning behind the expression.
The same problem arises when approached with a common greeting, like, “How ya doing?” From the greeter’s perspective, it is nothing more than a quick greeting, made in passing. To the autistic child, it is potentially much more. If you ask Josiah that question, he will assume that you literally wanted to know how he was doing. He would expect you to stop and hear his (detailed) reply. Anything less would be rude.
Picking up on social cues and applying them to conversations is never an easy thing for someone with autism. That is why Josiah has become a boy of a thousand questions. He never seems quite sure that his perception of a situation is correct, so he constantly asks questions like, “Is that right?” While this can be annoying at times, Josiah absolutely needs this affirmation because he never knows, for sure, whether he is responding correctly or not.
Asking someone how they are doing isn’t only problematic for people with autism, though. The questioner usually expects the response to be, “I’m doing fine.” But what if the person asked isn’t doing “fine?” What if that individual is struggling to just get through the day? What if asking the question only reminds them of how bad their day has been, or how alone they are and no one really cares about them? Not wanting to rehash their horrible day, they might offer an, “I’m fine!” with a quick, fake smile to satisfy the greeter. However, they are anything but fine. Worse, they could burst into tears and let it all out.
We must be careful not to assume that everyone is ready to meet us where we are. Just because we may be having a good day, doesn’t necessarily mean those around us are. Sometimes a very innocent question can unintentionally stir up negative emotions. What was meant as polite gesture could have quite the opposite effect on its recipient.
So, I guess the moral to this story can be summed up in following quote:
Seriously though, we ought to be more mindful of how we address those around us. We must be careful not to assume they are “doing fine” before we ask. And we shouldn’t make ourselves so busy that we can’t spare even a moment to offer a friendly ear to someone who desperately needs someone to listen. If you are going to ask how someone is doing, you need to try to be prepared to get an answer.
Since I (Jenn) have always been quite a literalist myself, I tend to have a no-nonsense kind of approach to discussions. I assume people are honest and straightforward with me. So when I ask someone something, I expect they’re telling me the truth. When they ask me something, I assume they want to know the answer. I have learned over the years that people don’t really want to hear my life story when they ask me “How are you doing?” so (usually) I can refrain from telling all. Sometimes, I still slip and let it all out. But I try not to ask how people are doing unless I have a few minutes to listen to them. I tend to say, “It’s so great to see you!” instead. Still a good greeting, but doesn’t leave the responsibility on the other person. They’re free to respond however they wish.
We would do well to heed the advice of Jesus’ brother James in whatever circumstances we are presented with:
Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath:James 1:19
God bless! And go be a blessing!