Learning from Experience

When was the last time you made a big mistake?

Typical human beings have an important safety mechanism: that little voice in the back of the head which is constantly saying : “What would other people think of me if I did such-and-such?”

My Aspie brain doesn’t do that automatically, so I have to use my reasoning to anticipate when my actions could prove awkward to others. What do I draw on to make such decisions? Principles about right and wrong, and lessons from the school of hard knocks!

I’d like to share two examples of mistakes typical human beings might not have made. They are both mistakes I have never repeated, because I learned quickly from those experiences – but they were deeply embarrassing at the time.

The first story comes from the days when I was a university student living in a shared house with male and female residents. One day a group of us were enjoying a conversation in the kitchen, and I was standing alongside another resident. In the flow of conversation, I made a comment about something that “would set your heart racing” and to emphasise the point, reached across to tap the resident on the chest.

But the resident was a woman.

Now, I know very well that a gentleman does not touch a lady’s breasts, and I have never groped a woman in my life. But my inner “program” which says “don’t touch a woman’s breasts” didn’t have that extra line of code which says “trying to tap a woman’s chest from alongside her will be interpreted as trying to grope her, don’t do it”.

Fortunately, no harm came of the incident, apart from some teasing among the residents about “the day I tried to grope so-and-so”. But that day I learned a new rule: “Don’t go anywhere near a woman’s chest even if it’s not the breast you are trying to touch.” Could I have worked out that rule in advance if I had thought through the scenario slowly? Probably yes, but it was never a scenario I had anticipated.

The other story comes from my time as a seminarian, when I was on a weekly placement in a high school. Now, what are the principles of school chaplaincy? You are there to “get alongside” the students, winning trust and building relationships. You are not there as a disciplinarian – leave that to the teaching staff. One break time I found a group of teenagers playing some game throwing balls (or were they apples?) at tin cans set up to be knocked over, so I joined in and started “larking around with them”. One of the staff members observed this, and I was called into the Head’s office. I was told in no uncertain terms that this was “unprofessional” – and so on that day I learned a clear limit and I have never made the same kind of mistake again.

I’m sharing these stories because they may be useful for professionals who have to manage Aspies. Has your Aspie made a serious social error like this? I would encourage you to ask them about their track record. Have they made similar errors in the past? Have they been able to learn from each error and not make the same kind of mistake again? If your Aspie is teachable, and willing to learn from their latest error, you can expect diligence in ensuring it does not happen again.

There’s an adage in business that you should recruit for “character, not competence” – because you can train a recruit of good character, but you can’t correct the flaws of a bad but competent character. Please remember that an Aspie’s character is to be ignorant of the social norms which typical human beings intuit, and that for an Aspie, good social skills are an acquired competence.  If your Aspie is a character willing to learn from their experience, you have no need to be concerned.

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