I hate asking people for stuff.

I have a problem. I’ve had it most of my life. I’m scared of asking people for stuff.

I’ve written before about my love of Dr Martens boots. What I’ve never mentioned before is how long it took me to actually work myself up to asking my parents for my first pair. Everyone at school seemed to have some. Black, of course. And I desperately wanted a bottle green pair. 

I played through the phrases I would use to make the request. I felt sick. Short of breath. Tense. It took weeks, but eventually I asked them, and they said “yes”. Pester power of a teenage child? Perhaps. But that teenager expended so much nervous energy mustering up the courage to (mildly) pester. And besides, the boots lasted me years. They were a worthwhile investment.

What the hell was I scared of?

To this day, I have never, ever asked anyone out on a date. I don’t have to worry about that any more, of course. But whenever I “fancied” boys at school (is “fancy” the right word? Reflecting back, my crushes were almost always of a romantic rather than a sexual nature), I wanted them to know, but would never have told them. Given how “weird” I was perceived to be, I assumed I’d be rejected.

I’m not sure what it is about asking people for things. I think it’s a combination of factors. I’m less petrified at the thought of making requests by email, so presumably verbal communication is one of the issues.  I’m scared of people saying “no”, and I’m scared of my own reaction when I’m there in front of someone. Oh so often, receiving bad news reduces me to crying meltdowns that seem woefully, hugely disproportionate to the situation at hand. I’m terrified that if I get the wrong response, I won’t be able to control my reaction. I’m worried that I’ll get into an argument, and that I’ll be unable to respond quick enough, and rationally enough, in a real-time, verbal one-on-one duel.

Making requests in writing, and processing any responses given in the same medium, offers me distance. Time to consider. And privacy. I am not exposed and open to the scrutiny of others when I give my reaction.

I fear rejection, a “no”, or the “wrong” answer because I so often take it personally. I worry that if I make a request that is turned down, it’s because I was at fault. Be it as it may that there’s a perfectly valid reason for the other person to turn me down, I’m still at fault. And I worry that that other person will judge me negatively for making that request.

It’s crap, really.

I procrastinate over asking my husband if he can manage the kids’ bedtimes one night so I can meet some friends in the pub. Very often, I’ve had that invitation long before I work up the courage to mention it to him. Even though we’ve been married for years, and I know it’s very likely he’ll be completely fine about it, I still dread making the request.

I procrastinate over mentioning family visits. Even though my husband, though allistic, tends to like at least some prior warning of things, I leave it longer and longer and longer before telling him. It’s caused arguments in the past. He’s been embarrassed in front of friends and family because I haven’t kept him informed, and information, events and activities have been sprung on him when everyone else has known for ages.

Nowadays, I often add events, especially social activities, visits from the grandparents, kids’ birthday parties or work trips that will take me away from home, to the wall calendar in our kitchen – sometimes months before I actually speak about them. I can quite comfortably write things down well in advance.  But mentioning them verbally requires feats of bravery that take time to summon.

I’m better at asking people for stuff at work than I used to be. I’ve had years of practice, and whilst I still do procrastinate, the pressure of knowing it’s part of a job I’m paid to do does eventually kick me up the arse and make me act. But I still worry about it.

Anxiety is debilitating.

It does prevent me getting on with daily life sometimes. It prevents me having fun, God damn it, because I’m too wound up to get to the point where I can just give myself permission to get permission, to have fun.

And even when I’m happy, and life is good, I still hate asking people for stuff.

[Featured image: cartoon me. White person with mid-length brown hair clipped to one side, wearing a striped sleeveless top, fidgeting with my hands. A thought bubble reads “Please, may I…? Um…can I…? Do you mind if…? So, I’m thinking of…”.]

Why I “can’t possibly be Autistic”, Reason #2: eye to eye?

It was only very recently that it occurred to me: I rarely look people directly in the eyes.

Coming from a 36-year-old autistic person, that probably sounds preposterous. Autistic people are known for not making eye contact, aren’t we? And surely I’d have noticed such a major behavioural trait in myself?

I mean, yes, my autism went undetected for most of that time; a good reason for that would have been my ability to socially interact at least reasonably effectively. In all my life so far, nobody has ever picked up on any especial eye-contact weirdness on my part. And neither, it seems, have I.

I’ve been looking at people’s faces for so long when having conversations with them that nothing has ever struck me as odd. I’ve read accounts by fellow autistics mentioning sensory overload, information overload, actual pain, sensations akin to “looking at the sun”, when making eye contact with others.

Why have I never experienced this?

My ease with facing people when listening or speaking to them was one of the many, many reasons why — for a long time, and despite having so many traits — I never quite thought of myself as a likely candidate for autism.

And then I realised. I don’t really make eye contact at all.

There are exceptions. There are occasions when I have looked my husband, and previous significant others, directly in the eye. I can happily make eye contact with my own children.

But eye contact with other humans, outside my immediate family?  I’ve hardly ever even attempted it; at least not in as long as I can consciously remember.

I look at people’s mouths.

Always have done.

My gaze will momentarily scan the other areas of the face. I will ‘see’ the eyes. But they’re not my main point of focus. I will, at times, glance to the side of the person, or down at some ‘prop’ or other that I have at my disposal — a drink, my iPad, some papers, my own child. And then I’ll focus back on the lips.

Such is my difficulty with processing speech as a principle form of communication that — most of the time — I’m following people’s lips intently as they speak, using this as a way of zoning in on speech; a way of trying to filter out other sensory input; a way to reduce distractions; a way to better enable me to keep up with what’s being said, so I can respond appropriately.

And I’ve always done this. It’s so ingrained in me that it’s only within the past six months that I’ve realised, consciously, that this is what I do.

Recently I’ve been experimenting with actual eye contact. And as it turns out, I can’t actually bear to do it for more than a fleeting second or two. I’ve never been able to do it long enough even to discover whether or not I feel pain. I don’t actually want to do it long enough to find out.

So I’ll continue to listen, lip read, and let my eyes occasionally dart across the face of my conversation partner. It’s easier. It seems to work just fine.

But to think, I’ve gone all this time. And here I am, discovering yet another thing I’ve unknowingly hidden — masked — from even myself for so long.