Coffee Please!

Yesterday I shared an article on my facebook page, along with a few of my thoughts and a few of my husband’s thoughts. Several of my friends made comments, and what struck me was the difference between the comments from my autistic and introvert friends and my non-autistic and extrovert friends. I was going to reply to a couple of the comments on the thread, but, as the reply formed in my head, I realised it was really much too long for a facebook comment, so I’m now turning it into a blog post instead!

The original article had started with a picture of a board outside a coffee shop, stating that customers who went in and said “Small coffee” would be charged $5, those who said “Small coffee please” would be charged $3, and those who said “Good morning, how are you, please could I have a small coffee” would be charged $1 (or something like that – the values and exact statements might have been different, but the sentiment is the same). The point of the article was that baristas work damn hard for very little money and that they are, apparently, grateful for recognition in the form of people saying please and exchanging the kind of small talk pleasantries that strike terror into the souls of those of us who are neurodivergent.

And so, of course, the article had been picked up in a number of neurodivergent groups and cited as “ableism”, and I eventually decided to share it on my wall despite the potential for triggering and using up valuable spoons and energy dealing with the fallout of all those who might accuse me of being rude and having no manners. I shared it with my own short commentary added to that of my husband, who had also shared it. The gist of what I said was “This is the sort of thing that would seriously put me off even going for coffee on days when I’m struggling to cope. The message I receive from it is that the world is not for me. I should stay home because people think I’m rude. It makes me feel like giving up on life” and the gist of what my husband said was “This is why the neurodivergent and those disabled by mental ill health can’t have nice things. When we have dismantled every barrier, “manners” will remain as the last bastion of exclusionary entitlement. How’s about this – everyone with the neurological privilege to demand good manners start campaigning for baristas to be paid the wage they deserve for being the life-giving superstars they are; and for coffee shops to be accessible to those for whom eye contact or social interaction are as draining as thinking.”

Several of my friends had shared the article without any sort of commentary. And a couple said so on my thread and said that the difficulties autistic or very introverted people might have with such things hadn’t even occurred to them. This was not unexpected – if you are able to speak without rehearsal and remembering to use words such as “please” is something you don’t have to do consciously, with effort, every single time you do it, because you know, for some reason, that people like that sort of thing, then it wouldn’t occur to you that a sign outside a coffee shop telling you that you have to pay more for coffee because you struggle with social codes and so on, would be, on some days, sufficient to make you burst into tears and vow to give up coffee for ever because the whole business of trying to get it was just so stressful and you were so frightened of getting it wrong (and, of course, because you can’t hold down a job because of the same issues that cause such stress over buying a coffee, you don’t have enough money to pay the expensive rate if you screw up and get it wrong, which, given that your anxiety levels are by now through the roof, having read the noticeboard and realized that this is going to be a difficult experience on which you will be judged, you probably will).

So, I got to thinking about this, ironically, on the way home from having a coffee at my usual coffee shop (where, thankfully, I know the protocols and I had enough energy to ask for coffee in an appropriate way and because the place is familiar and I always eat the same things for breakfast there were no decisions to be made or other problems to be dealt with (I have, over the years, frequently gone somewhere to try to access food and gone away still unfed because simply asking for food or deciding what to have was too difficult)). I tried to imagine what it might be like to go out for coffee and to be able to just ask for the coffee with a load of fancy language that you hadn’t rehearsed several hundred times in your head during the drive to the place. I couldn’t, of course. Improvised speech seems like an extraordinary concept to me (and I assumed, until last year, that it simply wasn’t something that anyone did – only when I started questioning non-autistic people about their speech rehearsals on the way to social events and when they looked blankly at me and didn’t seem to understand what I was on about, did I realise that there are people who are able to improvise conversations on the spot without getting utterly shattered by it and having to go home and sleep for hours to recover)!

So I translated it to the area in which I am, rather seriously, privileged. My mental health is poor, my executive functioning is shockingly terrible, and my social skills are either lacking (if I’m saving spoons) or practised and exhausting (if I’m masking and doing what I have learnt over the last 40 years is the “correct” thing to do). BUT, I’m physically robust, and fairly fit, and probably of more than average strength for my age. I constantly use the huge privilege of a robust physical body to compensate for my social and mental deficits – at the autism conference I was able to go all day without eating or drinking properly or going to the toilet (If I’d been diabetic or had continence issues that wouldn’t have been the case). I think nothing of walking or jogging several kilometers which means that I can basically avoid using public transport in everyday life – if I have to park the car several miles away from where I’m going then it’s no big deal – I’m great with maps and I can walk a long way (I can even climb over gates having done 90km in an ultramarathon when I’m at my fittest). If I see a big flight of stairs then my first thought is “Wahey, hill training”. This is all because I am massively privileged as far as physical ability is concerned.

And so, just as my non-autistic extrovert friends don’t notice how intimidating signs about “how to ask for coffee” are to me, I skip around town and bumps in the pavement or kerbs or steps or flights of stairs or any of those things don’t even register on my radar unless I consciously think about them. BUT, I constantly remind myself, and am reminded by my friends with physical disabilities (whether they be things such as heart conditions or whether they require wheelchairs just to get around), that these things can be huge obstacles. Maybe I’m at an advantage here, because it’s easy to visualise how difficult it must be for someone in a wheelchair to deal with a step, but much less easy to imagine how difficult it might be to deviate from your usual script when faced with a sign outside a coffee shop?

I absolutely don’t blame those to whom it has never occurred, because for many of them, how could it have – I know it from the inside so it’s easy for me to understand, and one of the reasons I write this blog is to try to explain to others what it’s actually like and to assist with understanding. I’m also all in favour of people not ACTUALLY being rude to other people. The notion of being rude to someone who’s making coffee for me is abhorrent to me – I’m deeply grateful to them for doing something for me that I can’t do myself and for making my day better with a cup of something delicious. Maybe I’m just not always able to express that gratitude as perfectly as I should, according to the original article, be able to? Maybe this is where my natural language differs from that of many other people – my husband brought me an unexpected kebab last night and I didn’t thank him in words – I flapped my hands at him, because that’s the language we use at home, not the conventional language of society that we use consciously when we step out of the door!

I’m running out of words at this point and have now backed myself into a corner and am also desperately worried that I might have offended somebody because I’m not well enough versed in the language of disability to be sure that I haven’t screwed up. If I have, then I apologise profusely, because, contrary to the implications of the original article, if I get it wrong, I really don’t mean to. My lack of eye contact and social interaction with strangers is, at the moment, the only way I can actually manage to get out into the world at all and do anything – it’s a protection mechanism to prevent my mental health disintegrating further than it already has.

The last thoughts I had on my drive home from coffee this morning were of two of the “risk factors” that have been identified on my report following my autism assessment. One stated that I was at significant risk of being misunderstood and thought badly of because my levels of social interaction might cause me to appear rude, and the other stated that in order not to appear rude I was inclined to make huge efforts to follow social codes consciously and that doing so was seriously damaging to my mental health! Over the years I have, of course, tried so hard to get it right that it has left me burnt out and hardly able to function at all.

Anyway, whatever I might have got wrong here, I got one thing right – this really was a bit too long for a comment on a facebook thread!!!

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