As a person on the autism spectrum, I’m often told that, as a result of poor Theory of Mind and a lack of empathy, I am remarkably intolerant of people who do not share my opinions. This is not true at all. I’m remarkably intolerant of people who do not share my knowledge. That’s something different altogether.
I mean, if I know something, everyone else should know it too, right? How can they not? Are they stupid? Yes, poor Theory of Mind and a lack of empathy means I struggle not to be a dick to those less well-informed than me.
This wouldn’t be a problem if not for the fact that I know pretty much everything. That’s another consequence of my autism – I’m obsessed with facts, I have no problem recalling information, and I care more about being right than people’s feelings. Whenever at job interviews I’m asked about my weaknesses, I reply that I’m a perfectionist and sometimes I work too hard (ha ha), and then quietly slip in that I don’t suffer fools gladly.
That’s an understatement – I don’t suffer fools at all.
Over the years I’ve learned to control it, mostly. I’ve come to understand that people don’t spend their time looking up facts and figures and memorizing them, so my favourite pastime is educating others about things that interest me and should therefore, by rights, interest all of mankind – the equivalent ranks in army, navy and air force, the reason the days of the week are so named, what distinguishes a barque from a barquentine, a brig and a schooner, and so forth. I’ve learned to appreciate that people might not have had the opportunity to come across these facts in their everyday lives and therefore I am more than happy to address the gaps in their knowledge – I’m a giver, you see.
But what I cannot tolerate – what really brings out the beast in me – is when people are unaware of things I think they really ought to know. Things that you don’t have to go and look up to understand. Things you couldn’t have missed unless you’ve chosen to switch off your brain and walk blinkered through the world. That’s when I go ‘full Aspie’.
Like when I meet someone who doesn’t know who won the Second World War. Or who the belligerents were. Or that Hitler was a bad guy.
How uninvolved with the world around you would you have to be not to know that? You didn’t know about the Arctic convoys or PQ17? Fine. Didn’t know about kamikazes or the Battle of Leyte Gulf? Forgivable. Didn’t know Hitler was a genocidal madman? Oh come on!
The reason I bring all this up is because I’ve got in a little trouble with a work colleague. She’s very nice and she does the job fine, but boy is she ill-informed about the world. I’m not sure I’ve ever met someone quite as ignorant as she is, and it is triggering all my worst behaviour.
Right off the bat, she didn’t know what Brexit is. Admittedly, nobody does right now, least of all our politicians, but you’d have to be living under a rock not to know there was a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, we voted to leave by a small majority, and it’s torn our country apart for the past three years. Her excuse – ‘I don’t watch the news’ – makes me want to tear my hair out, or would if I had any. How she’s avoided hearing about Brexit, when it is the dominant topic on sitcoms, panel shows, current affairs programmes and at family gatherings, is nothing short of a miracle. What next? Who’s Trump?
Another time she came in all excited to tell me she’d seen a document – no matter how many times I correct her, she seems incapable of using the word ‘documentary’ – that said autism is caused by vaccination, and isn’t that amazing? Rolling my eyes, I said it might have been, twenty years ago before it had been thoroughly debunked and is now only believed by celebrities, crazy people, and whatever overlaps there are between the two. I proceeded to tell her all about the MMR scandal, and how, far from ruining his life, Andrew Wakefield is now a feted celebrity in America with no less than Elle Macpherson as a lover.
‘Elle who?’ she asked.
‘The supermodel? Nicknamed The Body? Magazine covers, catwalks, movies, TV? Was in Friends as Joey’s roommate? Ring any bells?’
The next snafu was when she insisted that September 11 was an inside job and the Twin Towers were brought down by explosives in a controlled demolition, which inspired this rant (9/11 – the Truth) a few weeks ago. In the course of that conversation, it became clear she didn’t know who Osama bin Laden was, had never heard of Al-Qaeda, didn’t know why Palestinians might be upset with America, wasn’t aware of the previous attempt to blow up the Twin Towers in 1993, had zero knowledge of how the Twin Towers were built, and thought that despite its name being the World Trade Center, it was residential. But no, she was convinced it was the naughty government that did it and nothing I said would change her mind.
Another time I discovered she had never heard of the Cold War, or the USSR, or knew that we pointed nuclear missiles at each other with our fingers hovering over the launch button for forty years. Her excuse this time gave me a nosebleed – ‘I wasn’t around then, it was before I was born.’
Yup, we can’t know anything that happened before we were born. Since I was born in 1979, I don’t know who The Beatles were; don’t know about the moon landings; slavery; the Holocaust; Queen Victoria; Vietnam; Woodstock; the Kennedy assassination; or Martin Luther King, Jr. If only there were some way I could discover information about the past, information I could access from anywhere in the world with a mobile phone signal, whether in written, audio or visual form…you can see how hard I had to work not to call her out on this bullshit!
When my manager asked me how things were going with her, I was honest. She’s a good worker, she’s good at her job, but oh my gosh I just want to scream at her for being so…I don’t know what word to use. If she was on a quiz show, I’d be shouting ‘idiot’ and ‘moron’ and ‘dumb-ass’ at the screen, like I did this evening to the guy on The Chase who thought Charles de Gaulle was from the Middle Ages. But I don’t think she is ‘thick’, for want of a better word, just completely blissfully ignorant of anything you might expect a 30-something to know.
My manager told me I had to accept that not everybody is into the same things as me. Fair enough, I said: maybe she’s just totally cut off from politics so doesn’t know about Brexit; wasn’t properly trained, so doesn’t know that vaccines don’t cause autism; has never heard of Elle Macpherson because she’s never opened a magazine; believes whatever rubbish people tell her as she has zero knowledge of geopolitics or structural engineering; and is unable to learn about the past without access to a time machine. Okay. It drives up my blood pressure, but I’ll find a way to get past it.
But I really struggled to hold my tongue when I discovered, in a conversation about the murder of Lyra McKee, that she’d never heard of the IRA.
‘The IRA.’ Blank stare. ‘The Irish Republican Army.’ Blank stare. ‘Oh my god, are you seriously telling me you’ve never heard of the freaking IRA? The Troubles? The army patrolling the streets? The bombings? The Guildford Four? The Birmingham Six? Bloody Sunday? They fired mortar bombs at 10 Downing Street. They killed the Queen’s cousin.’
‘When did it happen?’
‘Since the late 60s.’
‘Before my time.’
‘They blew up the BBC in 2001. You’d have been 14.’
‘No, I don’t remember that.’
Well, I got cross. I got cross because it frankly boggles my mind that somebody can live in this country and not know that for a period of thirty years, 3500 people were killed on our streets either for or because of the cause of Irish Republicanism. I got cross because I grew up in the 1980s, and even as a child was well aware of the risks of bomb attacks whenever I went to town, got on a train or saw an unattended bag. And I got cross because I was profoundly affected by the 1993 deaths of three-year-old Jonathan Ball and twelve-year-old Tim Parry, a boy almost the same age as me, killed by an IRA bomb planted in a town centre.
It more than boggles my mind – it offends me that somebody should be so ignorant. She will have come across it multiple times in her life – at school, on Remembrance Day, in films and books and music and everyday conversation. She knows all the words to Zombie by The Cranberries and has seen the music video, what the hell did she think that was all about? It means she’s chosen not to take it in, not to pay attention, not even to notice it, and whether it’s my autism or just me, I find that impossible to understand.
But the real bust up, the real head-to-head, came from something small and insignificant, as do all straws that break the camel’s back. It came when she picked up a roll of fly paper with the words Fly Paper on the side and said, ‘What’s this?’
‘What’s fly paper?’
‘You don’t know what fly paper is?’
‘Oh my god, have you spent your whole life living under a rock with your eyes closed, how the hell can you not know what fly paper is?’
‘Because I don’t, okay? And you having a go won’t change the fact that I don’t know what it is, so why don’t you just tell me?’
‘It’s sticky paper that you hang up to catch flies!’
And I won’t tell you what I said next. My manager tells me I need to be more tolerant of people who have had different life experiences than me. I get that, I do, but surely there are limits, right? I wouldn’t get annoyed with someone who has genuine reasons for their ignorance – they have a learning difficulty, they have only just moved here from another country, they’ve been in a coma the past fifty years – but someone who is, by all accounts, ‘normal’ has no excuse or justification for being so ignorant.
Like I said, maybe it’s my autism or maybe it’s just me, but I cannot understand how people like this even exist – people who either don’t know or don’t care who’s running the country, don’t know about major things that are happening or have happened in the world around them, don’t even know about pop culture. What on earth do they do with themselves? What do they talk about with their friends? I don’t get why somebody would come across a word they don’t understand, or hear something referenced that they’ve not heard before, and not look it up. Do people do this? Go through life so happily ignorant that they simply skip over everything they see and hear that they don’t understand? How can they understand anything?
Let me put it this way. If you don’t know about politics (Brexit, Trump, the growing polarisation of society); current affairs (Climate Change, #MeToo, terrorism); pop culture (Star Wars, Kurt Cobain, Batman); high-brow culture (Jane Austen, the Mona Lisa, Picasso); science (medicine, plate tectonics, evolution); or history (Pompeii, the Crusades, Pearl Harbor); then what the hell do you know? And where have you been all your life? And why should I listen to anything you have to say? Because without knowledge to back it up, your opinions are worthless.
Hmm. So maybe I am remarkably intolerant of people who don’t share my opinions. Or maybe I just don’t suffer fools gladly.
6 thoughts on “Suffering fools: an Aspie perspective”
I’m not sure I could manage to stay in the same room with someone that ignorant, much less work with her, in whatever capacity.
Thank goodness it’s not just me!
Maybe it’s just me, but nowadays when I encounter such a clueless person I start to worry in what world Have they been living in. Are they perhaps depressed or abused or something so that simply nothing else fits in their world? Do they have so much anxiety that they simply cannot read or think about anything even remotely negative?
As a persons mind breaks down, I think usually their whole world shatters and they start questioning everything. When there are days that you cannot remember your name or whether you have eaten it’s easier to just say I don’t know and get the rage (and usually also the explanation).
Or maybe they’re part of some secret organization?
Yeah. I think too much.
The thing is, she’s a really happy, bubbly individual…unless that’s simply the front she puts up. If so, she does it very well.
Thanks for your insight, maybe she has a tragic background and I should go easy on her. I will try harder to accept the limitations of her knowledge.
[…] hunting, conspiracy theories, psychokinesis, homeopathy, UFOs, or the the anti-vaxxer movement. I don’t suffer fools gladly, and I most certainly don’t appreciate people with zero knowledge of medicine or […]
Ok…. here’s my primordial example of this…. I’m two and a half years old, and for unknown but probably perfectly forgivable reasons my mother has once again done THE UNTHINKABLE and just casually left me at the neighbors house while she ran some errand. Now, the house was fine. In fact, it was more than fine as it had, on average, 5.5 different types of snacks in the pantry within reach of tiny-folk vs maybe 1.5 at my own home. The neighbor herself, moreover, was not bad. Sometimes she would forget to put away the chess board from the previous evenings play — players unknown to me — leaving an interesting story to “watch” in my mind imagining previous and subsequent moves.
My appreciation for such good things was unfortunately short lived, because while otherwise perfectly fine for a brief visit, the house was INFESTED with THEM! Yes, it had a very bad case of THEM, almost all the time. The day after Christmas from 2:24pm to 3:15pm it had been completely free of THEM, but that was the only time.
_Sometimes_ it would be ok, if they just left me alone. That rarely happened, though, for reasons that sadly often included the adults always by default assuming that just because I shared non-adult age with them that I somehow belonged to the same species. Homo juvenilus amentes brutus. The ugly, mean, bullying, pushing, yanking, pulling, punching, screaming, yelling roving hoard. THEM. They always found me. I knew that some of them lived in the house and others may as well have lived there on account of their ubiquitous presence. Of course I didn’t know or care which. In retrospect, it now occurs to me that each of them must have had a name, though at the time such trivia was completely irrelevant and therefore unknown. They were in the back yard using long plastic tubes and various plastic spheroid objects to transfer momentum amongst each other. I was safe inside.
Inside I had the TV to myself. At 10:30am on that day on channel 4, looney tunes were on. In particular, bugs bunny. I related to that irreverent character of abundant zest for life. I admired how he was ever able to live with confidence and peace in the world of antagonist characters unable to relate to him. He was my second idol, along with Mr. Spock. Somehow those two polar opposites constituted an orthogonal axis pair that could map a dimension of behaviors that could protect against the humans,.
My peace was broken. Suddenly I was surrounded by THEM. Ages maybe 6 through 12, now sharing the TV room with me. Their presence suffocated me. I could still breath in air, but somehow their violent actions and random sonic emissions in such close proximity to me rendered that air contaminated as I drew it in. I planned to extricate myself, but I knew that if I could just wait long enough they would lose interest and be on their destructive way elsewhere. For the moment, though, they too liked Bugs Bunny.
So, here’s the primordial memory. Bugs is in an airplane. Some disaster unfolded. The plane started to crash. Headfirst, the plane spiraled directly toward the ground, going faster and faster. A crash with the ground was eminent. When the plane was just feet from the ground, however, it suddenly stopped. The protagonist was saved. The reason? The plane had ran out of gas. By coincidence the plane had ran out of gas just feet above the earth and therefore had no choice but to simply stop and hover in mid air.
Such nonsense didn’t _really_ bother me. It was just like how other cartoon characters might, after being outsmarted by protagonist characters, hover over a cliff in mid air for seconds, not beginning their fall until looking down to realize their predicament. Still, with some disappointment I let out a “that’s so stupid”. Oops. THEY heard me. Interaction was on its way. Doom. “What do you mean that’s so stupid?”. And so began an archetypically completely useless conversation wherein the gang of brutes teamed up to mock me for being so stupid as to not realize that the hovering of the airplane was exactly how objects in the real world act. They stressed their point with some measure of shoving. Sure enough, once the commercials came on they left.
At the time I knew such to be _typical_ behavior of THEM infestations. It didn’t occur to me, though, that such would prove to be archetypical, for years and decades to come. Some arbitrary force causes me to be grouped with an instance of THEM where inevitably it would only be a matter of time that I would experience ugly stupidity poured upon me, contaminating my pores and leaving a nauseating stench that would last for minutes if not hours.
Eventually I learned that just because the humans sounded and acted like that didn’t mean my safety was at risk. By age five when my 8 year old cousin revealed the blasphemy that she _actually_ didn’t know how blimps stayed in the sky, it actually _physically_ hurt within me, in a region from my neck to my lower abdomen, but I liked and otherwise knew her and I knew that despite the pain I’d be ok. At age 15 when a same age female friend once said to me with great excitement “Did you know that shooting starts _AREN’T_ _ACTUALLY_ stars???” the visceral pain was possibly worse: somehow my orphaned expectations of humans were apparently age dependent. I was utterly speechless, Cognitive dissonance. How could this person actually be one of my best friends?
Now, decades later, I can’t say that I learned to evolve beyond that visceral response. Sometimes I don’t have it at all. Other times I’m hooked and sunk. The difference, I suppose, is whether the sheer stupidity is inert-singular (this I can manage) vs sheer stupidity used as part of a verbal attack upon me. The later sends me into SIBs, sometimes years after the fact.
But, yeah, that’s some of my experience with the humans.