Same same but different: What the Thais and wallabies teach me about the human species and autism spectrum conditions

Last week’s post was ‘inspired’ by a recent encounter which brought up the issue of how best to react when talking to someone about their autism or other invisible condition. I am not telling people what they can or cannot say (although my personal preference is to shut my mouth if I have nothing better to add). The point I’m trying to make is whether people intend it or not, what they say carry consequences and it is not so much the language or choice of vocabulary but their attitude and intention, including how the listener perceives their attitude and intention. Added to the confusion, people on the spectrum may have difficulty interpreting the situation. The encounter brought up the exact issues I mentioned in one of my earlier post, “Dear Lucy, I have autism” in which I mentioned “I can have someone telling me “I don’t look autistic” and I am perfectly fine with that response if I felt that person has listened and acknowledged my problems.” (bold my emphasis)

The sadder

This post is a continuation of last week’s post. In less than five minutes of our encounter, I was told, “You don’t look like the other autistics I’ve met. You must be very high functioning.” I was not sure if it was meant to be a compliment or sarcasm but that automatically triggered my self-defensive mode. When I tried to illustrate some of my traits related to autism, the person remarked “I have the same problem too” and all I could come up with was a pathetic, “oh really?” (Pressing the self-defensive button once more.) When I mentioned some of the challenges I face, I was told “That is so typical of people of your generation” and all I could think of at that moment was to say, “Yeah, I know. It is hard for me to explain.” By that time, I was hitting the self-defensive button non-stop, I was confused because that person was supposed to help but our interaction was sending mixed messages. I didn’t know what was the intention of the person, I had trouble deciphering the meaning behind those remarks. Was the person trying to say “I have the same problem therefore I can empathise with your situation” or “Your problem is typical, it is very normal, you just have to try harder.” In the midst of confusion, it didn’t occur to me that I should clarify with the other person, nor did I think about what I wrote in the post “Dear Lucy.” I just felt I was under attack and couldn’t think of a more appropriate response. I think I hit the panic button at the same time. I panicked because I perceived myself to be in an adversarial situation which required me to be firm but I am not a confrontational nor assertive person by nature and hate to appear rude or accusatory. The irony is that because of my ability to show concern for the feelings of others, that person would have probably taken this as a sign that I am not autistic enough, as based on that person’s previous encounters with other autistic individuals, people with autism tend to be abrasive and easily offend people with their bluntness.

First, I was told I don’t look autistic. Then, I was made to feel that my problem was trivialised. How could I better respond? I half answered my questions in last week’s post:

What about the trivialising, dismissing and belittling “That is normal/ Everyone has a problem/ Everyone is a bit autistic”?


What have the Thais and wallabies got to do with it?

One of the things in Australia that fascinates me is their abundance of wildlife. Each time I came back from a trip, I learn something new about different animal species and find out what their names are. I am very impressed and find it pretty cool that the locals can readily point out an animal (or plant), identify its name and describe its features. There is a whole wide world of knowledge and I know only a minuscule. I can point out that the colourful creatures I saw flying and chirping on the trees are not just birds or parrots, they are rainbow lorikeets; and those pretty pink ones are not just birds or cockatoos, they are galahs. Ravens and crows look the same but apparently, they are different.

I remembered asking, “Wallabies are just smaller kangaroos, aren’t they?” To which, my lovely tour guide replied with a smile, “Same same, but different.” If you have been to Thailand, you probably notice that this is a very common and popular phrase that is used in Thailand (and the South East Asia). I do not know of the origins of the phrase but its usage is versatile. Whenever I hear this phrase, it reminds me of the smiles (or cheekiness) of the Thais when they try to sell you something which you are not after or not the exact one you were looking for. Perhaps, there is much to learn from the Thais in this respect, a phrase I could adopt and put into good use for future encounters.

Photo credit: Scroll over or click on the link to refer to original source.

Do you know that the potoroos belong to the same group as kangaroos even though they look more like rats? And that rats may be mistaken for possums which are marsupials?

Same same (like rats) but different? Can you identify these animals?

Photo credit: Scroll over or click on the link to refer to original source.

So what am I trying to say?

With my limited vocabulary and knowledge, I can merely use “rat-like” creatures to describe the above animals. I am not an expert in this field but I don’t need to become one to acknowledge that my description is not entirely accurate and that they are different. If I am interested and care enough about my environment and habitat, I will read and observe to understand their behaviour better instead of jumping to immediate conclusions that they are just the same like rats.

The wiser

What do you mean? How so different?

Same same

Well, I am just a human being like everyone else. I have good days, bad days, strengths and weaknesses. People on the spectrum have feelings too just like everyone else; I get upset when my efforts are not recognised; I get annoyed when it is too noisy; I find it stressful to commute to work etc. Many people will feel the same way too, my problem is typical, same same.

But different

Humans are born with different genetic makeup, different skin colour, different ethnicity, different culture, different environment etc. Autism spectrum is a neurodevelopmental condition that affects how a person perceives the world and interact with others. In the case of Asperger and in particular, females with Asperger, (where for the ease of explanation, some would describe it as mild autism or high functioning autism) the characteristics may not be as unique or extreme as classic autism. However, difference still exists and lies in the strength and dominance of that characteristic. The difference may not be visible on the appearance but it is not a reason to disregard the difference.

“There is nothing about (the characteristics of) Asperger that is completely unique. It is the strength of it, the dominance in that person’s life and it is the pattern that is significant.” Professor Tony Attwood

If you insist to treat the two as the same and lump their problems together, if you insist to call wallabies, kangaroos, you are looking at the symptoms, not the root cause. (More on this in a later post…) 

Photo credits: Unless indicated otherwise, the photos belong to the author. 

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