The other day I needed to make reservations for myself and my youngest daughter at a restaurant. This particular restaurant doesn’t take reservations online, so I had to call them.
It wasn’t a call I needed to make immediately, so I thought about it off and on for a couple of days. Or rather, the thought that I needed to make the call would pop unbidden into my thoughts from time to time. I would acknowledge the thought, “Yes, I need to call and make that reservation.” And then I would start doing something else and “forget” about it.
Then one evening I called up their contact info on my computer screen and left it there for a few hours. Finally, as it neared their closing time, I picked up the phone, took a deep breath, and dialed the number.
A person answers the phone and I run through my script. Reservation. For two. On this day. At this time. And finally, what has become a standard note, “We both have celiac disease and will need gluten free options.”
And that’s when the call goes sideways. He introduces himself and tells me he’s the executive chef and starts describing all the things they can do gluten free. He reassures me that they have a lot of people with celiac disease who eat there and know how to avoid cross-contamination. He asks if I have any questions about the menu. He gives me his cell phone number so I can call if I have any questions. He tells me he would like to come out to our table to talk to us when we get there. I know he’s being helpful and friendly and I respond as best I can. Mercifully, the phone call finally ends.
Here’s the thing. We’ve actually eaten at this restaurant a number of times in the past year. The executive chef even came out to the table and talked to us on one of our early visits. I figured out after the call that I should have mentioned that we had eaten there before when he started describing the menu. Or even mentioned that we had met once when he said he was the executive chef.
But during the call? The only thing I could try to do was keep up and respond appropriately. I had planned to call and make a reservation. That’s the script I had ready. I can handle a little spontaneous small talk along the way. I’ve made allowances in the script. But when the call changed into something else, I just wanted it to end.
So now things are a little awkward. I know that gregarious, outgoing people like this chef tend to remember faces, even though they meet many new people every week. If he comes out to talk to us and recognizes us, he’ll wonder why I didn’t tell him we had met before. He probably won’t say anything, because I’ve learned that people usually don’t in such situations, but still…
And the part that makes it even worse? I know what the “normal” response should have been. When he said he was the executive chef, I should have immediately said something like, “Oh, we’ve met! You came out to our table to talk to us last fall on our first visit.” But I could only identify the correct response after the call was over.
And that’s been my “normal” for my whole life. Even after decades of working on it, sometimes I still completely miss social cues. If she’s present, my wife will usually point that out to me, often by asking why I didn’t respond in a particular way. If not, I will generally work through what happened on my own, though it may have to happen multiple times before I actually notice. I have a lot of practice with that process. And once I understand what happened and what would have been an appropriate response, it will be added to my extensive catalog of social rules. At this point in my life, I know how to respond appropriately much of the time, at least in theory.
Unfortunately, knowing and doing are very different things. I have to recognize and connect what someone says and its context with the appropriate situation. And I have to make those connections in real time on the fly. All the while, I’m trying to monitor my own tone, facial expressions, and body language so they fit the context and what I’m saying. I also need to make sure I react non-verbally to things the other person is saying. I do some of that without thinking now, but it still requires constant vigilance.
I manage to keep up moderately well as long as the interaction stays more or less on script. But when things change suddenly or go in an unexpected direction, I fall behind and often can’t quite catch up. And in this case, I was already more anxious than normal because it was a phone call. (Have I mentioned how much I really, really, really hate making phone calls?)
Discovering I’m autistic explains why it’s so hard for me, and that’s actually helpful in some ways. But it doesn’t make the process itself any easier. I still have to interact with people. I still even have to make phone calls. And it’s all still very challenging and exhausting.
Things that are simple for most people really aren’t simple for me at all.