It was meant as a highest compliment. It was the second season of the maid cafe, and the hotel just had revoked our catering permissions ten minutes into the start of our special Saturday evening VIP show. The guests were already seated in the meeting room we’d decorated for the show. The games were already set up, the food was delivered and ready to be served, and the hotel was pulling some seriously messed up bullshit to try to make more money.
They framed it as “food safety concerns”, but our team had already jumped through the hoops before the show. It really was all a cash grab by the hotel. We had been able to get outside catering for $5 per plate, we had ServSafe certifications for the maids who would be handling the food. It was brought in insulted carriers, and was within safe temperatures for service. But the head chef from the hotel’s restaurant nixed it at the last second. The hotel liaison offered a “compromise” that we could move all 80 guests to the hotel restaurant where they could still get dinner, and we’d be paying the hotel $35 per head.
Needless to say, I was very pissed off. Six months of planning had gone into this show, but there were ten women and 80 guests who needed an instant solution. This was one of those situations where a spiky autistic brain really comes in handy. I came up with a new plan, and started barking out orders within ten seconds. But it came at a cost. (Besides the financial one, I let the convention chair take care of that later…) I went into instant burnout, and couldn’t maintain “Kaede Mode” for even a second more.
As we paraded the guests through the 40 degree weather from one end of the hotel to the other, I marched and shook a star shaped tambourine over my head, like demonic pied piper. I was furious, but trying my best to make it seem like I was really just very excited that we had to scrap our hard work to go on an unplanned tour to a facility that would not meet our needs. Once we got there, I quickly surveyed the table layout, and tried to rearrange to best accommodate our purposes. The hotel liaison tried to offer “help”, but I put my hand up to her face and said, “Don’t fucking talk to me, or any of my staff.”
I realize that this probably seemed uncalled for and unprofessional, but I had no energy left for niceness. I barely had energy to stand up.
We pulled a whole new show out of our asses, the guests were fed and entertained, and we all had a great story to share with future cafe staff about “how bad it could be”. Also, the team had now seen me as Katie, instead of Kaede, and were amazed and terrified.
For someone seeing it from the outside, it can look like a Jekyll and Hyde situation. The super competent person who suddenly breaks down and loses their cool for “no reason”. In the case of the hotel that night, I had been using a lot of energy all day to maintain “Kaede” and interact with people in a way that seemed more normal. Working as a convention organizer is already a lot to juggle, but the most difficult part for me was the face time. When I suddenly had to deal with change AND tap my problem solving skills, I couldn’t keep my camouflage up, and I looked like I went from being “den mother” to “ice queen” in a matter of seconds. On the outside, it would have been jarring, from the inside I was thinking:
“We don’t have enough table games to divide, so we’ll need to only do games that don’t require physical objects. It will take twenty minutes for guests to serve themselves at the buffet, so we’ll need to move the third performance to the beginning to keep the rest entertained. I’ll pull ticket staff to cover the extra tables. We’ll need time to set up the sound system for the first performance so I’ll have the ladies stall with line games. We’ll give out free merch as an apology for the walk and the wait.”
The concept of the autistic skill set is one that is well understood by many autistic folks, but not so easily understood by neurotypicals. In large part, it’s because it’s not a consistent skill set from person to person, so trying to categorize it, let alone recognize it, isn’t easy.
For example, I have several skills that I’m very good at. Decision making, problem solving, spacial thought, and pattern recognition. If someone met me, and recognized that I was good at those things, they’d assume, incorrectly, that I was good at related things like team-building, social networking, time-management, and mathematics.
On the other side of the coin, there are things that I’m not good at that other people consider “basic” skills. Small talk, social norms, and not picking my nose in public. By association, they assume, incorrectly, that I don’t know how to take care of myself or my home, or that I’m lazy or self-centered.
I read an article recently that does a great job at explaining this phenomenon, especially as it applies in the workplace. For someone at my age, it’s difficult to explain to people that I wasn’t magically born with the skills I have. They were practiced, over and over…. and over, until I got to the point I’m at today. But all of that focus into small sets of skills meant I didn’t spend as much time on others.
Even things that you’d think I’d have “picked up” from day-to-day experience don’t stick unless I make a concerted effort to beat them into my brain. Makeup and hair is still something I always feel like I’m doing wrong, despite years of having to doll myself up to appear on stage. Also, don’t ever show me a picture of your baby’s first ultrasound and expect me to do anything but nod. It’s not like I don’t know you’re excited, I just don’t know how I’m supposed to react. (So far, I’ve learned that people don’t like it when you compare the blurry picture to phlegm.)
I’ve learned that I can’t function in an office environment surrounded by neurotypical folks because I just don’t fit. They want to gossip, I don’t. They want to talk about TV shows or movies. I don’t. They ask why I don’t eat spicy food, or why I don’t drink alcohol, or why I always wear earplugs, and my answers are never satisfactory. My lack of participation is taken as a personal insult.
The assumption, based on the known factors of my competence with highly complicated tasks, is that I think I’m “too good” for them. I’m described as snobbish, or elitist, or cold. When, in reality, I’m very much a toes-in-the-grass, down-to-earth chick. I like to catch tadpoles, and sit with my chickens, and eat cheetos, and play games with my son. I love sending gifts to people on the other side of the planet just because they were having a bad day. I love to make people laugh.
Not caring about beer doesn’t mean not caring about people who drink beer. Not caring about a TV show doesn’t mean not caring about the people who make or watch it. The fact that there isn’t a correlation between a lack of interest in a topic and lack of interest in a different topic is not a difficult concept to grasp. So why can’t this be applied to skill sets as well? Why do we expect that if a person is good at “thing A”, they will also be good at “thing B”? I’m good enough with my feet to dance, and I’m good enough with my hands to play piano, but I can’t drive a stick shift.
Next time you encounter someone who seems like they’ve spontaneously lost their marbles, or who doesn’t seem to care about “normal” things, try a different approach. Instead of trying to make small talk, or trying to figure out why they are “different”, ask them how they learned to do something they’re good at. Sometimes, there’s an awesome person in there who just doesn’t know how to connect, and you can use your skill to meet them. – K