Social cues are one of the biggest headaches for autistic people. I know. I’ve suffered cryptic, ambiguous, abstract, indirect messaging for years, and haven’t always known how to handle it.

When you discover you have Asperger’s, you can think, ‘Ah, I now know why I’ve had
trouble understanding people, and why they always had trouble understanding me. It’s not
who had the problem. It was me all along!’

Problem solved. Or is it?

Working as I’ve done in the arena of personal development, I’ve had the biggest education both as an instructor in human growth and as an aspie. I’ve been able to study, first-hand, the way people communicate and interact with one another. Being also a synesthete - another story in itself - has played its part in giving me a clear, if outlandish, sense of seeing exactly who does what, in what way, and why.

As an example, I was once in a room with a person who was cryptically babbling away about something which was totally incomprehensible. That was confusing enough. This person was unfortunately also giving off an unsavoury body odour at the same time, which others in the room had also noticed, having made mild jokes about it while the person had been absent from the room. This person, a lady, was to my synaesthetic sense, a sucking quicksand. I began to see her something like a bog, as strange as that sounds: the image was solid and cinematic, as many of my synesthetic images are. This kind of experience is also a clear indication that I suddenly needed to be running away, rather urgently. But running away whilst holding my own group is out of the question, and that’s how I’ve learned so much about human nature. I’ve been forced to stand still.

While people were smiling and showing they were interested in the woman, it was difficult for anyone to think about anything else with the overload going on in one’s nostrils.

‘You smell,’ I therefore said, suddenly in the middle of it all. The newly offended lady stopped talking and looked at me abruptly.

‘You smell,’ I said again, looking directly at her. 

It didn’t trouble me to say something which most would consider rude, because who was being rude? If you smell that badly, isn’t it the best and most constructive thing to point it out if you’re unable to see it - or smell it - for yourself?

The rest of the group, expressing both relief and dire concern at the same time, for they didn’t know how the lady was going to respond, continued smiling, talking among themselves nervously, as though I might have said, ‘What strange and unusual weather we’re having today!’

The offended lady naturally retreated into herself, and although continued talking in a somewhat subdued tone, took my accusation seriously. Had I been out of order? What could be done to rectify the situation?

She wrote me a long letter two weeks later telling me she’d been in turmoil over my comment and hadn’t realized her situation. And she came to visit me a couple of months after that, having washed herself, and didn’t smell at all.

OK, so my direct comment by every social standard was out of order, and she might have rushed out of the house in disgust and I might never have seen her again. That is the risk one takes whenever my aspie-style announcements are made. But I rarely say anything that isn’t happening, nor anything that isn’t the truth. I always put it as tactfully as I possibly can, and when running a group one has to speak on behalf of everyone else.

So back to social cues then. In this situation, what would I have done neurotypical terms? Should I have gone out of my way to ignore the smell and social discomfort and wait for it to somehow resolve itself? Was I supposed to listen to and even pretend I was enjoying her presence?

I know aspies have a reputation for talking, me being one of them, but no aspie I’ve ever known ever talks nonsense. They invariably make a whole lot of sense and speak clearly, directly, and a lot of the time eloquently about their chosen subject, often to the point of obsession; they just don’t seem to know when people are feeling exasperated. Apart from which, if you were to tell any self-respecting aspie clearly that you have to go now and can’t listen to any more, he or she will usually cease talking abruptly and will go and do something else, mostly without offence.

Although this incident I’m using with the lady is a somewhat dramatic and socially intense one, it makes me feel that we cannot expect autistic people to learn cues from neurotypicals when neurotypicals are often also clearly guessing what social cues are.

More simply, you can’t look at an ant and pretend it’s an elephant, which I see people doing so much of the time in their efforts to communicate. 

If you’re standing behind two old ladies in a post office queue, as I was the other day, and you hear one laying down the law and playing the victim, while the other is itching to get away because, quite rightly, she doesn’t know how to deal with the situation, isn’t that a confusing cue? It’s what I would term indirect or ‘cryptic messaging’. You end up giving off what you don’t mean, while saying what you wish the person to think you mean. Confusing or what? The second old lady can’t turn to her neighbour and announce, ‘You are jawing my ear off and you’re also wanting far more sympathy than I’m prepared to give while waiting here in the post office line. I only came out to buy a couple of stamps anyway.’

Please let’s get social cues in perspective, and please, for the sake of all autistic people everywhere, let’s get real. We’re often saying something while communicating something entirely different. Dogs and cats would react very strongly to cryptic messaging, probably by running and hiding under the sofa with paws over their ears, if not simply looking at you cross-eyed! They don’t understand such behaviour and neither do I.

All I know is that people need to stop expecting autistic people to read social cues that aren’t actually there. In a nutshell, how can autistic people learn if people are not learning what cryptic, abstract, ambiguous messages are in communication?

Enter the Natural World Language. It is clear, precise, concise, direct and to the point. All animals speak it, the natural world speaks it, and so do autistic people. In NWL black is black and white is white. In NWL I’m saying I’m going out of the front door when I’m really going out of the front door. I’m not saying I’m going out of the front door when clearly I’m coming in the back door. The ant cannot be the elephant. The spring cannot be autumn. Does it cost us so much to be just a little bit clearer and direct? Is it such a problem? We cannot expect everyone to be mind-readers.

I see that the world is in a critical state where communication is concerned. I believe that communication, or the lack of it, is at the root of many of our social problems. It is a strong social cue itself to see that everyone is in need of help.

In the meantime I see strange trolls and bogs and walking volcanoes passing along the high street; I see frogs and landslides, hyenas and blizzards in the supermarket; I see dark clouds, snarling dogs and hurricanes in cafes. OK, I see such people in my synaesthetic way, which some may believe is cryptic in itself, but these cinematic images are a result of cryptic messaging, rather than being cryptic themselves. Rarely do I see a summer meadow, a gentle stream, or breeze in the trees in the people I meet these days. There are sadly few of them around.

My good friend, Tris Leigh Savage - who is incidentally, to me, also a wild deer - says his computer and his cat, Tilly, are two non-cryptic beings that he entirely trusts, because in their cues they never utter a word or show behavior they don’t mean. Tris and I both see life in a very similar way, which is refreshing to share. Give me my computer or the dishwasher, or Tilly, any day because unless these break down or become sick, I understand what they’re going to do, every single time. They speak my language. They speak the Natural World Language. Yes, even a machine does. Machines and animals will never be cryptic, no matter how much they try.

Where cryptic messaging is concerned, we on the spectrum can make a difference if we’re only given the chance to do so. Temple Grandin started the ball rolling with animal communication. Now let’s take it all a step further.

If you’re on the spectrum, keep on seeing things as they are, hearing them as they are, and don’t let anyone tell you you should be studying social cues in order that you communicate better if you feel you know what’s going on and how things are.

The Natural World, animals and birds all over the earth, computers and dishwashers, spectrum people and everyone, will be waiting to see, hear, and know you.

As will I.

Synaesthesia is a neurologically-based condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. People who report such experiences are known as synesthetes’. Example: hearing color, seeing sound. Ordinal-linguistic personification (OLP, or personification for short) is my own form. It is a form in which ordered sequences, such as ordinal numbers, days, months and letters are associated with personalities.