Friday, July 6, 2012


Iris and I sit at the bar at 20 Railroad Street eating dinner. Iris asks me a question about my day and then proceeds to do her best impersonation of Mark Kaufman listening. Her gaze drifts aways every 10 seconds or so. She checks herself out in the mirror above the bar. She looks up at the TV mounted in the rear corner of the room. She cranks her head around to look at the bar's patrons.

I stop talking. Thirty seconds later Iris notices it. She says, "Yes, you were saying that uh, um... Sorry, what were you saying?"

I continue, though I'm slightly distracted by the pained expression on Iris' face as she tries not to look away. Slowly her will to listen is overcome by her compulsion for distraction. Without moving her head, her eyes dart left to the mirror. She yanks the leash to jerk them away from it.  Same thing happens with the TV and then her neck whips around and back as she to catches a snapshot of the patrons .

I suggest, "Perhaps you'd like to change seats with me?"

Iris breathes a sigh of relief and says, "Yeah, that would be good. I hear all these people talking behind me and I need to see them. Maybe if I see them, I won't be so distracted by them."

I say, "Sounds good to me."

We switch seats. I now face the back of the room, the mirror and the television. Iris faces the front of the room and all its patrons. She's seems more relaxed, but is still struggling a bit. Then she says, "Oh yeah, I didn't take my Adderall this afternoon. Let me take one now."

To make things a bit easier on her, I do what I do with lots of people when I see they're not listening. I shift the conversation back to Iris. It occurs to me that I do this a lot.

People notice it, but not as such. People will often comment that I ask a lot of questions, but that I never seem to answer many. Thing is, I only answer questions if someone asks them and only for as long as I the asker is listening.

As we talk, I notice Iris' Adderall kicking in. Her face relaxes. Her shoulders drop. Her fingers stop drumming. She leans back into her chair. She smiles.

I comment on what I see. The Adderall not having fully completed its mission, Iris says, "I wasn't drumming my fingers... um... OK, maybe I was."

I wait. 

Iris rolls her shoulders, takes a deep breath and says, "You're right. I was doing all that."

I say, "It just occurred to me that people get uncomfortable when you really pay close attention to them, when you notice every little thing."

Perhaps speaking from recent personal experience, Iris says, "They don't get uncomfortable; they get annoyed."

I say, "No, they get uncomfortable. Getting annoyed is just how they respond to discomfort."

The Adderall almost having completed its work, Iris says, "No! They... Yes, the annoyance is an optional response to discomfort."

We continue talking. A minute or two later, Iris starts playing with the sleeve on my t-shirt. I notice her doing so, but keep talking. After a bit she stops and says, "Yes, you're right. Getting annoyed is completely optional."

I ask her what she means. She explains that she'd earlier been annoyed when I'd adjusted one sleeve her shirt to match what she was distractedly doing with the other. However I didn't get annoyed by her doing the same thing to me.

As we talk, I think aloud about the things I'm aware of in others as we interact. I see all sorts of details and not everything I see is directly observable. I sit in my downstairs in my office listening to Iris singing upstairs and I can see how she's standing, when she's breathing and how tight her jaw is. I watch someone playing a bass guitar, and even though I'm looking at him from the front, I see how the back of his neck and shoulders are configured.

Normally I just say what I see. I call out to Iris, "Relax your shoulders a bit and breathe" or  I tell the bass player, "Roll your neck a bit and drop your right shoulder."

Iris points out that although I believe everyone sees things this way, they don't. She says, "I know only two other people who see all the little details that you see and will often just comment on them the way you do."

I ask, "Who?"

Iris says, "Quinn and David."

Quinn and David are two little boys with autism with whom Iris spends time regularly.

Iris goes on to explain that although people with autism are supposed to be unaware of nonverbal cues, it seems that in many instances, Quinn and David are almost hyper-aware of them. There failure to respond to them would appear to result from being overwhelmed by too many nonverbal cues to process, rather than from having missed them altogether.

I notice aloud that Iris is no longer distracted, but seems totally focused on me and our conversation. I notice aloud that she's smiling and doesn't look the least bit annoyed.

Iris, deciding to provide me a nonverbal cue that I can't miss or misinterpret, leans over and gives me a kiss.

Happy Friday,

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