The dog wags its tail, and the cat thinks it is annoyed.
The car purrs, and the dog thinks the cat is angry.
Should we teach the dog to stop wagging its tail or teach the cat to understand that when a dog wags its tail it does not mean it is angry?
Should we teach the cat not to purr or teach the dog to understand that when the cat purrs it is not angry?
Communication happens between two parties, misunderstandings that occur are co-created and not automatically the fault of one party or another.
What would happen to the dog if we tried to teach it not to wag its tail? At times when it felt happy its joy would be suppressed by our interventions. We would ask it to suppress its natural feelings and urges and to try and move through the world as if it were a cat. If we managed to achieve a dog acting in a cat-like way, would that be a case of problem solved: no more miscommunication, or would it be more of a case of a problem shifted and multiplied? Sure, we do not have the misunderstandings anymore, but we do have an animal whose spirit has been crushed.
What would happen to the cat if we tried to teach it not to purr? What would it learn about itself? That its happiness was not wanted; that it should not express itself; that it should act more dog-like? Would anyone be surprised if a cat put under this much pressure developed some mental health complaints, or even began to wish not to be alive at all? If all the world wants is dogs, and try as it might, it cannot be a dog, then what is the point of continuing to live as a cat?
What if we tried to teach understanding instead?
I work for myself now, but when I worked in a team, I was frequently the cat in a world of dogs or the dog in a world of cats.
I often fumbled the brief small talk conversation of “Hi, how are you?”
People walk past each other in the corridor:
“Hi, how are you?”
“Fine thanks, how are you?”
At my desk typing I can generate the answer, but when I worked in a team, and was walking, on my way to do the next task, a head full of work-related information, and I was suddenly assailed by a question I did not instinctively understand, I could not generate that answer. It is a question with an implied time limit too: I should answer before I have walked past them.
I have fumbled this question in many ways:
I once assertively answered “Yes!” to “Hi how are you?” and the person looked very puzzled. I had mangled in my head the known right answer of “fine thanks” with the question “how are you?” and produced “are you fine?” to which my certain “yes” was indeed the right answer.
I have stopped dead in my tracks a few times. Alarming the questioner who was planning in their mind a gentle piece of small talk as we passed one another, not an in-depth analysis of my psyche, which my sudden halting implied. But I wasn’t planning more than the general to and fro of small talk either, I just couldn’t generate it before passing them, so I stopped to buy myself more time.
On other occasions I’ve given answers such as “we had a barbeque with friends,” and “yes, we went out to the cinema.” These occasions were all Mondays. I plan ahead for small talk and on Monday mornings people are supposed to ask whether you have had a good weekend or not. I answered the small talk question I thought they’d be asking, not the one they actually asked.
Messing up small talk can be funny. But I have had more serious miscommunications. People thinking I was cross when I was not. People thinking I considered myself above them when I did not. People thinking I did not want to know them, when I cared deeply about them.
These misunderstandings have not remained in the personal sphere, they were brought into meetings about my professionality. I have been given targets at annual review to socialize more with team members. To network more. In essence, to be less autistic. To be cat not dog, dog not cat.
At times the communication divide can seem insurmountable. How could you ever get a cat to communicate successfully with a dog?
But when you come at it from a position of seeking to understand, of checking your understanding of a communication, even if you were certain of it (just as the cat is certain that the dog wagging its tail is angry), then there is hope.
Over time some of the people I worked alongside got used to my idiosyncratic communication style and seemed to get a kick out of knowing what I meant even when, by the communication laws of the land, I got it wrong. I was delighted, finding a dog that knows how to speak cat is a marvelous thing!
Joanna Grace is a Sensory Engagement & Inclusion Specialist and the Founder of The Sensory Projects.
Her book The Subtle Spectrum charts the post diagnosis landscape of adult identified autism.
Her son’s book My Mummy is Autistic, written when he was just 5 years old, explores the language processing differences some autistic people experience and throws a challenge out to the adult world, that if a child can understand neurodiversity what is stopping us grown-ups?