Why we don’t do what we don’t do.


This is another post from my archives, most of which I wrote in July:

I’ve been thinking about assorted reasons that autistic people don’t do what we don’t do. And how often even auties seem to confuse those reasons with each other.

There are people who do not know how or why to do something, but are able to do that thing once they understand it. An example is an autistic person who never speaks because he did not know it was required of him, but suddenly starts speaking when he sees the point of it.

There are people who do not know how or why to do something, but would not be able to do that thing once they understood it. An example is an autistic person who never spoke before because she did not know it was required of her, and now knows it’s required of her but can’t manage to do it for any of a number of reasons.

There are people who know how or why to do something, but still can’t do it. An example is an autistic person who’s always seen other people speak and tried but can’t.

There are people who are perfectly capable of doing something, but are afraid to or don’t want to for any of a number of reasons. An example is an autistic person who knows how and why to speak and could do so if they were not self-conscious, or afraid of being punished, or afraid that if they showed they could do it once they’d have to do it all the time.

There are people who are only sometimes capable of doing something. An example is an autistic person who can only speak some of the time, and may even only be able to understand why to speak some of the time.

These are, of course, not necessarily separate people. Many people are a little of most of them, even in the same area.

What I notice though is that most of what people write with regard to helping autistic people do stuff, has to do with people who would be able to do something if they knew how. Even stuff by autistic people often has the implicit idea that things are just a matter of knowing in your head how or why to do something. Then a minority of what’s written has to do with lacking confidence, being afraid, or being lazy.

I have a ton of stored knowledge. I can’t just call that stored knowledge up at random and get it to work for me. Even if I do manage to get that knowledge triggered, my brain may not be up to doing whatever it’s trying to do. There’s no consistency to this.

There’s no wonderful training technique that will miraculously make me able to do various things on a consistent basis. There’s no piece of information that, if I had it, would make my surroundings and body always resolve into something comprehensible in the exact right way to be able to do a number of things. Overload, shutdown, and differences in perception do not miraculously vanish the moment knowledge, motivation, and calm appear.

Right now (as I am editing this post, in the present, not the part that I wrote in the past) I can’t sit up and read or write at the same time, so I’m flat on my back. I can’t usually ever stand and read at the same time. All the “knowing how to read and write” in the world doesn’t change that. I am not afraid to read, lacking confidence in my ability to read, or too lazy to read.

(I have spoken once with someone who uses a definition of “anxiety” so broad that it extends to the concept of having trouble multitasking, or in fact having trouble doing anything. Personally I think when you expand a word so broadly, it becomes useless, confusing, meaningless, and incomprensible to your listeners, and gives false impressions.)

At any rate, there’s a number of reasons that autistic people (and other people for that matter) don’t do what we don’t do. Not all of them are about lacking knowledge, being afraid, not feeling like it, or being lazy.

About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods, which tell me who I am and where I belong in the world. I relate to objects as if they are alive, but as things with identities and properties all of their own, not as something human-like. Culturally I'm from a California Okie background. Crochet or otherwise create constantly, write poetry and paint when I can. Proud member of the developmental disability self-advocacy movement. I care a lot more about being a human being than I care about what categories I fit into.

6 responses »

  1. If I may be forgiven for being silly, I think there’s a famous joke on this subject.

    The parents were worried that their 4-year old kid, though perfectly normal in every other way, had never spoken.
    Then, one day at the dinner table, he said, “Please pass the ketchup.”
    The parents were all agog, and confused, but when they got their wits back about them they asked the kid, “Why did you not say anything before?”

    He answered, “Up until now, everything was OK.”

  2. Another reason is not wanting others to think they can control your behaviour. In certain conditions, where I am being told to do something I’d rather not do, I get stuck in refusing to do it. In that situations I truly *can’t* do the thing, even though I could do it if someone wasn’t trying to force me to. In some articles about demand avoidance they talk about ‘can’t help the won’t’. At first that was incomprehensible to me but I realized afterwards it described how I get ‘stuck’ in resisting. I might honestly want to do the thing and be capable of doing it, but while someone is telling me to do it I can’t do it, because then they’d control me. Other times I’m fine with doing it. This also seems similar to the exposure anxiety Donna Williams describes, especially when I can’t tell them directly why I’m refusing to do the thing, only hint at it for fear they will hurt me if they know what’s really going on combined with desire to tell them. Once I was dissociated and was trying to explain what was going on but couldn’t get myself to say the word ‘dissociated’ for fear of revealing myself.

  3. Yes! There have definitely been times that someone wants me to do something, but if I end up doing it I don’t want to give them the satisfaction of thinking I did it *because* they wanted me to. Like my girlfriend’s brother-in-law is really obnoxious and acts like he runs the house, and seems to think it’s my “job” to bring in the empty trash and recycling containers from the curb after the trash has been picked up for the week. Sometimes if it’s convenient and I’m feeling generous, I’ll do it, but it’s not something I do for him or because he said to.

  4. I am not exactly sure what shutdown is, but for the half of yesterday and half of today I can either hide under the covers looking at those green things I can see in the dark, or I can be online reading about autism. Something happened, which might seem silly, but after that I seemed to not be able to do anything at all. I got stopped doing something I really needed to do, only have a chance to do maybe once every 8 months, was promised I could have the whole day to do alone… then it turned out that my “support system” for doing it fell through and that I kept being interfered with. I kept trying to do the thing anyway but ended up not being able to do it at all, since I had to keep starting over mentally, trying to remember what it was I was trying to do. I ended up with an anxiety level that was so high that it is likely that the next opportunity I have to do it, I will avoid it (that is, if I remember the past two days, I might avoid it.) I am not sure if only being able to look at things online and not being able to do anything else including eat constitutes shutdown but I think it might.

    I have all sorts of skills that I can’t use right now. I KNOW I have more skills than going under the covers and reading people’s posts online……

  5. WOW this blog is seriously a gold mine. Another thing I can relate to…….

    some or all words here are approximations. Those that took the least amount of effort to bring out. Is this anything like realizing that someone might be right, but because of tone of voice or whatever, one cannot see the rightness? Or something like that. Happens with my mom quite a lot. Frustrating turn of events.


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