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.

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.

32 responses »

  1. I have that especially with analyzing my own behavior. My mother found it very hard to accept ‘I don’t know’ as an answer when she asked me why I did something (at an age where most kids don’t understand their own behavior very much). For the most part I reacted by becoming very self-analyzing, but if despite all my self-analyzing I don’t know why I did it, I’ll make stuff up. I’m trying not to do that lately, but it’s often unconscious.

  2. I am learning a whole lot from your posts, and a fair amount of that is realising things I think I already knew but hadn’t properly reified. Thank you.

    What is the distinction between the UK and US understandings of “learning difficulties”? (I ask as a British person with diagnosed AS living in the US; I’d never realised there might be a difference before.)

  3. In the UK, “learning disability” means “intellectual disability” (what would be known in the US as “mental retardation”). In the USA, “learning disability” is a blanket term that means roughly what “specific learning disability” would mean in the UK, as in, dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, hyperlexia, and all those sorts of things.

  4. Oh, I want to tell you about the time I tried to fly into a certain country to visit friends and was detained because I couldn’t remember the date I last flew. Totally blanking on that. I don’t think I could even put my last “n” journeys into chronological order.

    “Eh… sometime in the spring, I think. March, maybe?”

    “Your passport says it was April!”

    “Well, given that my passport is the official document, I would go with the passport.”

    So they led me away and shut me up in one of those little rooms with the height markings up the wall for taking your photograph. It was pretty alarming. They kept coming back and saying “Do you remember yet?” and I told them I wasn’t going to lie just to please them. But eventually they let me go.

  5. Thank you, thank you, thank you! There were so many times growing up that I got in trouble for what was essentially forgetfulness. Dunno if anyone ever mentioned autism or Asperger’s to my (adoptive) parents. Dunno if it would’ve made any difference. They essentially tried to bully me into being an NT-acting, proper Yuppiespawn. It failed hideously. And I’ve spent way too much time wondering if maybe early IQ tests were massively wrong, or if there was accumulated brain damage. It would be so nice if people could just accept “I don’t know”, “I can’t remember”, or “Could you repeat that please?”, and just move on from there.

  6. So liberating. *Applauds fervently*.

    But I’m afraid that saying I don’t know really means I don’t care or I can’t be bothered.

  7. “But I’m afraid that saying I don’t know really means I don’t care or I can’t be bothered.”

    No, sometimes it does just mean “I don’t have any knowledge”. Eg, I don’t know what someone else reading this is thinking right now.
    If someone asks me a question and I don’t know the answer I will say “Oh, I’m not sure about that”, or “it might be …, but don’t quote me on that”. But I do have a tendency if someone is talking to me and, in the few occassions it happens, if I lose understanding of what they’re saying, rather than asking them to repeat what they’ve said I come up with the standard replies of “hmmm” or “oh” or “right”.

  8. I used to use (echolated from somewhere, I think, because it was one of my stock phrases) “I’m not entirely sure” until someone blew up at me and said “WHY DON’T YOU JUST SAY ‘I DON’T KNOW’?!?!”

  9. I need to get into that habit myself. I have finally gotten my boyfriend to realize that “whatever” means “I’m not paying attention” instead of “yeah, do whatever you want”, though. That helps a lot.

  10. Yelping recognition to the first part. (I can’t read the second part with meaning yet: having that trouble with your posts a lot lately, which I think has to do with PTSDishness.) And going to send to a friend whom I need to understand some of this stuff.

    Thank you.

  11. These sound like good rules to me. I wonder how I can teach my son how to say “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand.” These simple phrases would help so much. I find if I sing things to him or ask him to draw that he can respond a whole lot better. So much emphasis is placed upon talking as the only way to communicate. Are there certain methods of communicating which you are more fond of?

  12. as i’ve gotten older, i’ve found that saying “i don’t know” can actually be freeing. now, i can say that and not have to stress about making a wrong guess. i say it to my kids and they’ve learned that no one knows everything. they don’t seem to think any less of me for it.

    and the people who would think less of you for it, don’t give a damn about you as a human being.

  13. Thank you for this post. I’ve been accused many times in my life of being a liar or of “fantasizing” because I start talking about possibilities or approximations when I don’t actually know what to say. I’m either in trouble for thinking things through (and taking time to do so) or for *not* thinking things through and coming up with an immediate answer.

    What is the term for people with amnesia who try to cover for lack of comprehension in a conversation? You mentioned it in your post but didn’t give the specific term.

  14. I forgot to mention that I was once denied employment because I failed a computerized “honesty” test that didn’t allow for an “I don’t know” answer, and my approximate answers and guesses were inconsistent, which supposedly indicated dishonesty.

  15. Oh. (thwacks brain). The term is confabulation, which I did use but not explain was the medical term for this sort of thing. (Not just in amnesia, but that’s usually where it’s used. It has some specific meanings in some circumstances that don’t always apply, like involving false memories rather than just false explanations, but I think a similar concept is what happens when people unconsciously fill in a plausible explanation without meaning to, it doesn’t have to be that they remember it that way, although it can happen that way.)

  16. “But I’m afraid that saying I don’t know really means I don’t care or I can’t be bothered.”

    You could say, “I don’t know right now, but if I figure it out later, I will tell you.” You could use this in the situation where it might be important and the person has a right to an answer eventually.

  17. When I was diagnosed (in the Netherlands a few years ago), I was given a list of words (in Dutch). I was asked to repeat them in order, but couldn’t recite more than two or three. However, when they asked me if a specific word was in the list, I got it right nearly all the time. The psychologist explained that this was one of the classic features of autistic spectrum disorders: that the information is “there” but hard to recall unless given a specific trigger.

    Here in the UK, one of the ways of supporting autistics at work is to get the employer to provide written lists of tasks needing doing and procedures for doing them. The employer is told to point at the list if the autistic employee is not sure of what to do.

    Maybe in some cases you could do something similar, and tell people where they might find a written answer e.g. “Look in my blog”?

    Then again, there’s the “Donald Rumsfeld problem”: there are things we know we know, things we know we don’t know, and things we don’t know we don’t know. (Perhaps someone can explain this more clearly?) Rumsfeld didn’t mention the fourth category: things we don’t know we know, i.e. we can’t remember if we even know the answer. I find this the trickiest to deal with.

  18. “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.”

    Yay! We made the same decision a while back (although there are occasional relapses). Their incredulity is not our problem (unless they make it so, but few do).

  19. Mom to Max –
    Amanda has a video about her language of relating to the environment, which is famous in youtube. also you can search language category on this blog. (^_^)

  20. 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.

    I can very very much relate to this. Learning to avoid this tendency (which I apparently had starting at a very young age) has definitely been one of the things that has made me “more functional” and better able to actually communicate effectively.

    However, learning to avoid this tendency has probably also made me come across as somewhat “less normal”, at least superficially, because now I am more likely to make use of non-spoken communication when necessary (e.g., writing/typing — I am trying to figure out a more workable TTS solution) and I also try very hard to have people slow down, repeat things, or just let me process something before I will actually say that I understand it.

    For years it always seemed like there was this looming cloud of chaos hanging over me, resulting from the fact that I had all these “loose ends” of communications that weren’t. I always felt like I was scrambling to cover up my “knowledge gaps” (I invested a LOT of time and energy in trying to pick up enough language fragments and bits of partial comprehension so as to allow me to avoid getting in trouble or mocked). I also got the distinct impression at one point that there seemed to be things that I was simply not allowed to “not know”, and this scared me. I’ve gotten some very strange reactions from people when admitting to not knowing something — either they won’t believe me (since I know something else they see as related), or they tell me that it isn’t a good idea to admit to not knowing something because “people will think I lack confidence”. I don’t know about anyone else, but to me it seems rather silly to “have confidence” in knowing something when I don’t actually know it!

  21. I am lucky enough to have a good psychiatrist. And he’s been working with me on this a lot. Until he told me it was ok to say “I don’t know” or “let me think about that” or “I don’t understand” I had no idea it was ok. It’s still hard for me to do, but it makes a huge difference

  22. I keep trying to remember to tell people “Ask me in a day or two (or in a month)” but I’m so confused trying to come up with an appropriate reply that it doesn’t occur to me to explain that I need to compose a reply after I’ve had time to “upload” the relevant information.

  23. It’s actually okay to say “I don’t know”? Or “I don’t understand”? Or “I don’t remember”? It’s actually okay? To say those things?

    So much, so many times, so often I don’t know the answer to something, or I don’t understand what I’m being asked, or I don’t remember whatever. But I’ve learned, over the years of (abusive) shrinks and (abusive) parents and relatives getting mad at me for telling the truth like that that saying such things isn’t allowed (and isn’t believed, either).

    The first shrink I was ever taken to, when I was six or seven (and was obviously “odd,” though I still don’t have anything other than a self-diagnosis as an Aspie and various misdiagnosises such as bipolar disorder), told me flat out, when he asked me some question or other the first time I saw him, that “I don’t know” was never an acceptable answer.

    So people are always saying I should be honest, but when I am honest I’m punished for being so? Somehow that doesn’t make sense to me, but I guess that could just be me.

    As for “I don’t understand,” well, because of what seems to me to be undiagnosed auditory processing issues, along with various severe sensitivities to sounds, smells, lights, touch, and such things, I often have trouble following what someone is saying (even more so when in a situation with more than one or two other people). Yet “I don’t understand” or “What did you say?” or “Could you please repeat what you just said?” aren’t allowed as “accepted” responses.

    Once again, being honest and trying to get enough information to process stuff and answer questions is punished. Still making no sense.

    As for “I don’t remember,” due to various abuses along with just the way my brain is structured (to catalogue stuff, it seems, but not to bring it back to where it can be accessed without the proper, usually very specific, cue, so to speak), I have very few memories prior to age 10 or 11. And even after that age what memories I have are very scattered, tend towards the bad or scary, and are also hard to retrieve. Yet, once again, being honest is punished. And still makes no sense.

    Anyway, the point of all that babble was, I think (hope?) to confirm that it is okay to say “I don’t know,” “I don’t understand,” and “I don’t remember.” Those have never been accepted responses in my life (though I think my husband accepts them a bit more than the rest of the world, at least), and I’m having trouble comprehending that they’re okay things to say. I mean, honesty is good and all, but being punished for being honest seems to say that honesty is bad. I get so confused….

    Sorry for all this rambling. But thanks for the post…as with so many of your posts I’ve read over the last few months, it’s given me new stuff to think about, and I like that. I like thinking, and learning new things, even if I can’t always access or use whatever I’ve learned.

  24. Another big ‘me too’. It’s not just other people: I have trouble retrieving information *I* want too. Very often the names of words. I know which word I mean, I just can’t remember what it is. And I know that if I relax and let it go, my brain will set up the retrieval process in the background, and it’ll pop up in an hour or a day or a week. Often by that stage I’ll forget why I wanted it, I’ll just be like “The word I was looking for is ____. Now, what was that context again?” But I’ll still get that feeling of relief from completing the process.

  25. Comment to Finny from rr: Thank you for writing what you wrote. I also struggle with understanding that it’s OK to say I don’t know, or I don’t understand, or I don’t remember. I certainly have been led to believe that it is not OK to say or even think those things. I think if we *can’t* say those things, we are limited because often saying “I don’t know” is the precursor to knowledge,” saying “I don’t understand” is the precursor to understanding. I can’t say that saying “I don’t remember” would lead to any memories, though! I am just learning this. It seems like such a basic thing that *other* people are “allowed” to do but for me, in my family, I was not allowed to have questions or to not know something that was expected of me.

  26. Since I’ve self-diagnosed as AS, one of the real blessings has been the ability to simply be upfront with my lack of social skills. I no longer feel like I have to pretend I have lots of friends or that I am socially comfortable all the time. The spirit of curiosity makes it okay… if people see that I am interested in these skills even though I don’t have them, then they don’t look down upon me for not having those skills (or knowledge).

  27. Wow, almost everyone seems to answer five minutes after you posted… Oh well, I never heard of you until today (via. that lovely “my language” video), so there’s not much I can do about it now.

    I totally pass. Hardly anyone ever gets to know *me*, since most people expect cute little blonde girls to make about as much sense in conversation as a fish, so they don’t mind if all I do is ask questions with big interested eyes and a smile, and deflect all theirs, or say something bizarre with a cute smile so if they don’t like it they can believe I’m kidding. If they pay attention, they might decide I’m kind of quirky. And if I tell them how it really is inside, they can’t believe that it’s any different from the way they think. I’ve been on stage, literally and figuratively, since I could stand, and I pass really well.

    But from the inside, it’s like Bruce Willis acting – you’d never know he stutters. When *I* ever talk, I stutter so bad I can’t get a sentence out. So *I* never talk, unless someone strips my avatar(s) away (only special occasions, very good or very bad times). Otherwise, I keep the appropriate avatar on at all times to make the people around me comfortable (also so they don’t bug me so much…). I can’t turn it off anymore. I only ever stimm in ways that nobody can tell, even when I’m by myself. Nobody can tell I feel like you (Amanda) about speaking through typing. If I explain it to them, they still don’t understand that by insisting that we always talk out loud, they will never really hear *me*. I can type, and I speak music, dance, geometry, sex, trees, animals, light, and touch. If I’m talking, that’s not *me* at all. Not a lie, just not *me*. It’s a translator.

    I feel so lonely sometimes, like I can see all of them, but they will never see *me*. I’ve noticed that, while NTs define autism as a lack of empathy, most NTs can only really empathise with someone who’s the same as them. Give them someone with a different gender, age, colour, culture, life experience, or some sort of obvious physical disability, and they mostly don’t even bother. They just assume it’s impossible, and they don’t try.

    I always wished I could be the uncommunicative and rocking kind of autistic, because it seemed to me that they just didn’t care what was going on outside. Now I think that’s probably not true at all, but I still kind of wish I could just stop talking. Just force people to interact with *me* where I really am. It might cut down on the number of people who were really enthusiastic to talk to me, but it would probably make it a lot easier to know who really cared about me. But I’m no good at faking, and I don’t know how to do it on purpose.

    I hate that I make up stuff just to make people happy. But I can’t get the words out fast enough for a “normal” conversation, and I feel like if I were to talk all mixed up but honest, they would probably be unhappy with me. Of course, this is (as I’m sure is true for a lot of us) from a lot of personal experience. But now that I think about it, this is mostly experience with people I don’t want to (or have to) experience ever again anyway. I will have to try this “I don’t know” thing more often. Thanks for your encouragement! Anyone who would prefer that I lie can just go find somebody else to talk to who’s better at lying. Ha! I have my own friends who like me just fine the way I am. :-p

  28. this post was so helpful- my memory problems are mainly medication caused as far as I know but explaining to someone that I don’t have a clue what I ate for breakfast is a common problem for me. So are words sometimes. This really has me thinking because I assumed it was the meds but now I wonder.

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