10 Questions You Always Wanted to Ask a Person with Autism
"I just don't know how to pretend to find a bad joke funny."
Photo courtesy of Marlies Hübner
This article originally appeared on VICE Austria
For a long time, Marlies Hübner, 33, couldn't understand why she was constantly having difficult conversations with people – often offending loved ones without intending to. Frustrated, she decided to search for an answer. In her mid-twenties, after several meetings with specialists, she was finally diagnosed with autism.
In the UK, around 700,000 people are on the autism spectrum, with the condition affecting just over 1 percent of the global population. Though Marlies says it's always been difficult to know exactly where she falls on the spectrum, she hopes the personal experiences she lays out in her new memoir, Verstörungstheorien (Conspiracy Theories), will help a wide-range of autistic people deal with their condition.
After Marlies explained to VICE that phone calls can be incredibly frustrating experiences for her – "who says what when?", "how should I deal with pauses?" – we spoke via email to find out a bit more about autism, and how the condition has affected her specifically.
VICE: Do you find it difficult to form friendships?
Marlies: Yes, definitely. First of all I don't really understand how people get to know each other. After they meet, how do they know when it's time to go from being strangers to friends? How often should you be in contact? What do you talk about and do with one another? The people I am close to treasure openness and honesty – they generally communicate very directly with me. This is important because I find it hard to tell when someone is lying to me.
Does this mean you don't really get irony?
I'm often unsure whether people are being ironic. Once I get to know someone better, it's easier to understand what they mean. But I never try to hide my autism, so I simply ask when something isn't clear to me.
Are you often forced to overthink things?
My thoughts are often so intense, they stop me from acting. When an ex-boyfriend told me for the first time that he loved me, I said that I had to think about it. It's safe to say he was a little confused. But I couldn't answer, because as soon as he asked, I thought about whether I felt the same, how I should answer, what the statistical average time is for pronouncing one's love, what the statistical rate of separation is when one pronounces it too early and whether it can be taken back if one decides a week later that they had made a mistake. That's a lot to consider when someone is standing there, waiting for an answer.
Does that make it harder to fall in love?
I can't speak for everyone, but not really. The only thing that can be different is the way we might choose to communicate with a potential partner. Even in relationships we remain on a factual level and are always pretty honest and direct.
Personally, I'll show someone that I love him by forming shared daily rituals. Rituals are very intimate and important to me; when I share them, it means the relationship is getting serious.
Do you find other people's humour difficult to understand?
People with autism can be as funny as everybody else; we just don't know how to pretend to find a bad joke funny. Generally speaking, you could say that I don't understand people particularly well. I understand people with autism better because I assume that they're communicating on a factual level – speaking honestly and straight without much sub-text.
How can I tell if someone is autistic?
You can't necessarily always tell. When you speak to an autistic person, it could be that you notice something peculiar, like a lack of eye contact. The person could either be very silent or speak way too much about just one topic. You can only know for sure when that person decides to tell you.
Do you have a compulsive personality?
Not really, but I hate it when people take books off the shelf and put them back in the wrong place. I don't flip out, but I find it really uncomfortable. For me, it's important that some things are always done the same way. For example, I arrange my cutlery and books in a specific order. I like it because it gives the comforting illusion of security.
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Do many people assume you have Rain Man-like talents, and is it annoying if they do?
Not really. What people don't realise is that Rain Man was a savant, of which there have been only 100 to 150 known cases. I am no more intelligent than most people. However, autistic people do have the talent to absorb vast amounts of information very quickly when they are truly interested in a topic – that's why non-autistic people assume we're all so clever.
Does it ever feel like you're living in your own world?
No, I'm always fully aware that I live in the same world as everyone else. There aren't any alternative planets available to me.
Have you ever dated someone without telling them you were autistic?
No – why would I? It's not something that I have to hide, and it's a great way of filtering out the idiots. I mean, if I don't tell them immediately, when would I tell them? Three years later over breakfast? 'Hey, pass me the milk. Oh, and by the way, I have autism and the dog needs walking.'