Shades of Gray

The other morning, my husband and I got into a small argument (disagreement? me being stupid? I never know what word to use). In a nutshell, more frequently than I’d like, I say things that hurt his feelings or frustrate him. Anyone who knows me, or us, hopefully knows that this couldn’t be further from my intention, but it is the reality. Of course, Ben’s feelings are valid, even when it’s not how I expected or wanted him to feel.

The issue seems to stem from the fact that I don’t see how the way I say things is more _____ (insert word: mean, rude, harsh, critical, etc.) than the alternative that Ben suggests as a “better” way to say it. For example, for this particular morning spat, I asked Ben what he was doing while I was out. Somehow my tone or word choice conveyed to him that I was criticizing his choices or thought he was wasting time. (I didn’t. I wanted to know how he had filled his last hour because I missed him.) When you’re a couple, the relationship reminds me of nodes of Ranvier on nerves or the simultaneous graphs of sine and negative sign. Since some people may not be as nerdy and strange as me, I’ll try to make a less geeky analogy. A relationship in my mind looks kind of like links in a chain. When you are physically together, your experiences and conversations likely overlap. Perhaps it’s a Saturday afternoon and you’re watching a show together, maybe you’re on a date at a restaurant and talking, or you might be walking to the library together. Either way, you are privy to at least an idea of what the other person is doing, thinking, and feeling. These are points on the chain links where the loops come together (or the intersections of the periodic functions). Then, there are the times that you diverge. Different responsibilities and expectations, varying interests and commitments, pull your paths apart for some time. Sure, you can surmise what the other partner’s experience was like during that time, but you don’t actually know unless you talk about it when you converge together again. What went on? How did you feel?

I asked Ben to teach me how what I said was “wrong” and what I should have said, given my intended meaning. I’m doing social skills therapy with a professional but I am all about pulling out all the stops. Why not get 24/7 coaching when possible, especially from the person I am most interested in communicating with. This happens frequently and he’s always able to rephrase it. The difficulty is my reception of what he’s trying to teach me (and what prompted this blog post).

I don’t see a difference. Sure, I hear different words actually being strung together, but I am completely blind to which is “better” or “nicer.” Both the differences in word choice and apparent tone are completely imperceptible to me. The analogy I made to him is this:

We can consider the colors black and white and then understand that besides just this dichotomy, there is gray. I can hear that the two sentences are different. But instead of being black and white and a shade of gray, it’s like the scale changes for me. In my nutty brain, there are so many, many, many, many shades of gray between the black and white sentences. Imagine getting the big box of 256 crayons. Inside, instead of all the vibrant colors, there is one black crayon, one white crayon, and 254 varying shades of gray crayons that ever so gradually span the difference in hues between black and white. Instead of the two possible sentence choices falling on opposite ends of the spectrum, or even relatively far apart, they are two adjacent shades of those 254 shades of gray with such indistinguishable minutia between them that their difference is invisible to me. To keep with the crayon analogy, I can roll the crayon on its side and read the color name and then try to match it to its designated order, but unassisted, I have absolutely no idea that they carry different meanings and especially, no clue as to which is better (or kinder).

This creates a very frustrating cycle, both for me, and I imagine, for Ben. Because I don’t understand the difference in social phrasing, and especially tone, I can’t learn the pattern or the “rule” and therefore, I can’t learn (or even program!) myself to correct my behavior before it happens. Why is it that I can learn about so many things that fascinate me (and even those that don’t) quite readily, but when it comes to communication and social behavior it just doesn’t stick?

I never want to say something harsh or hurtful, especially to someone I love and respect so deeply. For now, all I can do is harness my frustrations in my social blindness and deficits and try to divert it to improving the synchronicity between my intentions and my communicative abilities. For Ben, my family, my current and future friends, and myself, I will try as hard as I can to learn the social skills so that I can express verbally what I feel in my heart. It is with such pain, heaviness, and anxiety that I carry this insufficiency. It even prevents me from getting close to people or reaching out because I’m afraid I’ll say something stupid or confusing. In my own autistic brain, the words carry a different meaning. Why is it that I can sing and play instruments with a full appreciation of different tones and pitches, but when it comes to speech, I am completely tone deaf? I often struggle to interpret and differentiate different tones and moods. It’s amazing how many gaps exist in language comprehension when you miss or misinterpret the layers conveyed by tone. (For example, sarcasm is completely lost on me.) What can I do? Keep trying my best to figure out this puzzle, keep communicating as clearly and honestly as I can (sometimes writing is best for me!), and keep asking for patience and understanding from those around me.


  1. Hey Amber,
    I’ve read all your posts so far- please keep writing (especially since you write so well)! I’ve learned a lot about “life on the spectrum” from you and it has opened my eyes to what others may be experiencing! The line “Why is it that I can sing and play instruments with a full appreciation of different tones and pitches, but when it comes to speech, I am completely tone deaf?” really stood out to me. That analogy made it easy for someone like myself to try and grasp what you’re experiencing. I also didn’t know it might be hard for someone with autism to recognize sarcasm- I use sarcasm fairly often so I hope I didn’t say something sarcastic to you in class and it came off as mean/offensive/rude.
    I look forward to reading more,

  2. Amber, I think this is so interesting. As someone who does not identify as autistic, I still experience milder versions of many of the discomforts you describe, which makes me think that the spectrum is far-reaching and probably very subtle in many people, maybe myself included. As a musician, your analogy to music makes me wonder if hearing vocal “intonation” is something that can be practiced and learned in similar ways, or if it engages a completely different part of the brain? It also makes me think of the many problems people encounter with texting, where the “tone” is lost and misunderstandings ensue (hence the evolution of emojis to bridge that gap).

    Keep writing! You’re so inspiring.

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