Daily Archives: August 9, 2007

The right to say “I don’t know”.


I’ve been, offline, for many years, writing down things I do or have done that cause problems, either for me or for other people. This isn’t some kind of self-flagellation or anything. I just figured if I wrote everything down then maybe I could figure out how not to do some of these things.

There’s a few sentences that I have had to work really hard to use on a regular basis and in their appropriate context:

  • I don’t know.
  • I don’t understand.
  • I don’t remember.

I say I don’t pass, and when I say that I mean that if you look at me you know something’s different. The most I ever passed for at my peak of passing was eccentric (to people who liked me) and annoying or crazy (to people who didn’t). But it doesn’t mean that I haven’t developed strategies, without even meaning to, to cover for certain situations in which betraying a lack of knowledge or understanding would earn me ridicule, disbelief, and hostility. So I guess it could be said that I pass, or try to pass, in certain areas, although what I pass for is sometimes worse than what I actually am.

I’m sure this is something a lot of people do. The difference is that when most people cover for a lack of understanding or memory or knowledge, they’re covering for fairly standard lacks in those areas. The areas that I don’t understand, know things, or remember things, are relatively unusual ones. So somewhere along the line I developed a strategy of substituting any explanation that sounded plausible, whether it was true or false. I did this unconsciously, and I did it solely to cover a lack of understanding, not with any malicious intent.

Over the years I have been able to nearly stop doing this. But there are still some situations where it happens. The more of the following are involved, the more likely it is it will still happen:

  • Pressure to produce language rapidly.
  • Pressure to produce answers rapidly.
  • Ridicule, disbelief, scorn, hostility, belittling, or actual physical damage, if I do not produce language or answers rapidly.

This was summarized in more official language in my IPP this way:

She reports that pressure to perform according to other people’s schedules and expectations makes thinking things through difficult or impossible. When form is valued over function in decisionmaking, Amanda is likely to perform in a rote way without full understanding of the range of choices available to her or the decisions ascribed to her.


When Amanda is pressured or overwhelmed, she sometimes reverts to non-communicative echolalia, using responses she has already learned, without evaluating them to see whether they are the ones she wants. Non-communicative echolalia often results in others believing she has made an informed decision when she has not, and in others assuming that she has agreed to something that, upon reflection, she does not want.

Basically, when I’m under pressure, the focus of word-generation starts heading away from communication, and towards the best possible way to get someone off my back as quickly as possible regardless of what I end up having to say in order to do it. This can be a useful survival skill, but it’s completely useless when it comes to wanting to actually communicate. And the last time I really did a lot of it ended in total disaster.

As to reasons I do it… several years ago, a friend of a friend (I’ll call her Jenny just for convenience’s sake) was talking to me and Laura about me. Jenny was trying to explain to me the idea that I might just be uncomfortable moving beyond my “comfort zone” and trying something new and so forth. Laura replied that this wasn’t usually the problem with me, and that in fact my problem was usually a about whether I believed I was allowed to or had a right to do certain things. While that’s not as much of a problem now, I still catch myself seeing something and going “Oh wow, I didn’t know I was allowed to do that,” and then doing it. It’s not usually a “comfort zone” thing for me, it’s a forgetting that something is permitted.

That’s been the case with “I don’t know.” And “I don’t understand.” And “I don’t remember.”

Because there’s a lot that I know somewhere in my head, but I have real trouble accessing that knowledge. I usually think I’m required to give an answer. “I don’t know” is an answer that is easy to forget is allowed.

And there’s a lot that I don’t understand, things people think I should understand or do understand already. I’m used to thinking I’m required to come up with some demonstration of understanding something even when I don’t. The idea that I’m allowed to say I don’t understand is still a bit surprising.

“I don’t remember” is one of the hardest ones. Because it’s the answer to a lot of “obvious” questions a lot of the time, like:

  • What did you have for breakfast this morning?
  • What did you do yesterday?
  • When did you learn ________?
  • What was your first experience with ________?

My memory, such as it is, stretches back to some part of infancy, although the things I remember from back then aren’t generally things that would interest most people. When something triggers a memory, my memory is reasonably accurate, although fuzzy on some details. But if for whatever reason the thing isn’t triggered by the exact right sequence of events, all you get is blank space. And straining against blank space only provokes frustration and eventually possibly confabulation, not real memory. So, if you asked me what I ate for breakfast this morning, I might say “scrambled eggs” because that’s something people eat for breakfast. But it’s a guess. And it’s probably inaccurate. (In fact I know it is because today I wouldn’t have had enough eggs left to make those.)

And I know that the responses I get if I admit lack of knowledge, understanding, or memory (in areas where most people have automatic knowledge, understanding, or memory, or in places where I’ve clearly demonstrated knowledge, understanding, or memory in the past) are often really unpleasant:

Some people laugh at me. Some people think I am being stubborn or refusing to tell them things on purpose. Some people call me stupid. Some people add pressure as if they think that will make me more able to come up with an answer (hint: the more pressure you add, the less accurate the answer, so watch out). Some people think I’m lying. Some people think I am being passive-aggressive. In fact, I can vividly remember someone screaming at me, after one of those I don’t understand or I don’t know or I don’t remember moments, “I’ve had it with your passive-aggressive bullcrap!”

I’ve decided at this point that I’ve had it, too. I’ve had it with people who can’t accept what I don’t know, understand, or remember. I’ve had it with people who’d rather I pretend to know something than admit I don’t know it, who in fact find such pretences somehow more honest than my serious and real lack of knowledge. I’ve had it with answering partially, incompletely, or totally inaccurately because people insist I have to, and with the consequences of doing so which are usually some justification for hurling some kind of abuse in my direction or giving me crap later when I try to fill in the gaps or retroactively correct myself or even (horror of horrors) change my mind.

To people of that nature:

If I don’t know something, I’m not going to pretend to know it for your sake.

If I don’t understand something, I’m not going to pretend to understand it for your sake.

If I don’t remember something, I’m not going to pretend to remember it for your sake.

I’ve now explained this. From now on, I don’t care if the gaps in my realtime access to knowledge don’t make sense to you. I don’t care what you accuse me of for taking my time, for refusing to answer questions I don’t know the answer to, or for correcting previous inaccurate or incomplete answers I’ve given under pressure. I have a right to say I don’t know when I mean I don’t know. If people can’t handle this part of my daily reality, that’s henceforth their problem.

And I think in saying this I’m not only speaking for other auties who’ve discovered the same covering strategies I’ve discovered, but for a lot of other people as well. A lot of people who are deaf or hard of hearing (or, like me, have general receptive language problems) end up pretending to understand something, because they know if they slow the conversation down by trying to figure out what people are saying, they’ll get in trouble. This is done so often among people with certain kinds of amnesia that it’s earned itself a medical name. A lot of people with learning disabilities (either the UK or the USA variety of that term) learn to do things like this as well.

And we shouldn’t have to. Other people do not need to be shielded from the inconvenience of dealing with people who doesn’t know, understand, or remember the exact things most people are expected to. Surely the cost of day-in and day-out passing and covering and confabulating is higher for the people doing it (and for that matter those around us) than the cost to those around us of actually dealing with the unexpected gaps in our understanding, knowledge, or memories. And these gaps are nothing to hate or be ashamed of. I for one am not going to cover them anymore.

Yep we do have nonverbal communication.


And can form friendships with each other that include reading and responding to it a good deal more than people expect. This video of D and DJ (D’s mom is an online friend of mine) shows it beautifully:

A friend of mine said that D mentioned that nobody ever uses autism when they’re talking about something people are good at, only when they’re talking about something people are bad at. I think this is a really good example of an aspect of being autistic that’s related to stuff some of us can be really good at, but that we’re often said to be bad at because either the non-autistic people around us can’t see it or we’re never given the opportunity to show it.

I even know someone who I was having a discussion with about our ability to read nonverbal cues. She said she’d never heard anything like some of the things I was saying before. I asked her, since she knew all these parents, whether the parents said that their autistic children picked up on tension in the household. She said “Yes in fact all of them mention that, but I always thought that was strange because autistic people aren’t supposed to be able to read nonverbal cues.” So, instead of seeing that as evidence the prevailing stereotypes are wrong, perhaps many people file it into a bin labeled “contradicts what I think I know” and don’t ever look at it again.

Well, it’s not just tension we pick up on. See my dialects of nonverbal language post for more on this. But as to the question I’m often asked, “How can what you do be a language if nobody else speaks it?” My answer is, don’t be so sure nobody else does.