Quirk Monster #11: Left or right? The struggle is real
In January 2017 in the midst of a ‘new year, new me’ bender, I decided to take up swing dancing.
I’ve been wearing 1940’s and 1950’s inspired dresses for years. I own swing dresses. It made perfect sense to me. I was freelancing, job hunting and isolated, so two nights a week where I could get out of the house but be too busy moving to talk to anyone sounded great. I signed up for a beginner class in the next suburb over and was delighted to find they had a safe environment and a no bullying policy. Being autistic I really struggle with hand-eye coordination and don’t instinctively know which way is left and which way is right, so I was looking for a safe place to get out of my head for awhile.
During my very first beginner class, the instructors progressed through the basic steps quite quickly. I found it very hard to follow what they were saying but figured I’d just youtube it later. The thing I found most challenging was when we started dancing with partners. In order to at least have a decent crack at it, you needed to have a good understanding of left and right. It didn’t go well. One very rude man told me off for it and said I didn’t belong there.
I was upset but determined to make it work so I emailed the instructors that night. I kept it light and positive and mentioned my autism. I explained that left and right is a real challenge for me and asked if they might be willing to meet me halfway with a direction based hand signal here and there.
They gave me a hand signal alright.
Two days later at the next class, the instructors opened the session by saying that ‘someone’ had complained about the pacing of their teaching. Rolling their eyes, they also mentioned that “some people in the room apparently don’t know the difference between left and right” clearly referencing my email. Everyone laughed and then one of the instructors made an ‘L’ shape with his thumb and forefinger and pressed it to his head while groaning derogatorily over the increasingly roaring laughter of the other students. Even I know that doesn’t mean ‘left’!
Suffice to say, I immediately retrieved my belongings, made a quick and quiet exit and never returned to that ableist shit show of bad behaviour. No bullying policy, hey?
It’s not a joke.
If someone stops me in the street and asks me for directions, I really struggle to translate what’s in my head into neurotypical-friendly left and right. In my mind it’s ‘that way’ or ‘over there’. Sometimes it’s ‘follow that path’ or ‘go where that red car went’. My brain doesn’t think in terms of left and right. My reference points and anchors are contextual and situational. If I want to switch to left and right reference points I have to make ‘L’ shapes with my thumbs and forefingers, stare at them, figure out which one looks like the letter ‘L’ and then connect that up with the 3D map in my head that’s constantly evolving because I’m absorbing an enormous amount of information at any given moment. It’s a slow process that tends to annoy people and result in turns being missed if I’m in the front passenger seat of a car.
All I can say about this one is, please be patient with people. Recognise that different brains work in different ways and it’s not a bad thing.
This short article is a lived experience example shared from my life to help you understand a little bit more about what it’s like to be autistic. I am just one autistic person in a really big world. No two of us are exactly alike. I can only speak for myself and to my own experiences. If you want to know what other autistic people think — and you should — look them up, talk to them and read their work too. We all have our own voices and this is only mine. This article is part of a mini content series I publish to LinkedIn when I can. You can view the other articles in this series via my LinkedIn profile.