The Terror of Instructions

My autistic brain faces a whole series of seemingly ordinary situations with annoyed, helpless dread.  Gatherings with friends-of-friends that involve changing locales, especially if some of those locales are nightclubs, set my mind into panic mode—do I stay, do I go, which group do I stick with, if they disband again what happens, if I lose them do I wait, how much does my opinion of where to go actually matter, do I even want this evening to continue?  Phone calls from unexpected people disproportionately mean something has gone horribly wrong, and leaving my apartment when the neighbors are in the hallway means I might face the specter of small talk during the contemplative silence of my morning walk to the bus.

Those nightmares pale before the noctilucent stomach churn that is neurotypical people telling me how to do things.

My lab protocols tend to be ten times longer than the ones I receive from my colleagues.  Theirs can be sparse lists of steps that are heavy on specific numbers—concentrations, volumes, centrifuge speeds—and light on procedural detail, but mine cannot.  To write mine, I take the bare-bones versions I receive from elsewhere, ask dozens of seemingly obvious questions, take notes as I practice, and fill in the reason and role of every step in the overall process.  By the end, it isn’t so much a protocol as a short textbook on the theory and practice of that specific task in numbered-list form, loaded with tidbits that other practitioners regard as intuitive and not worth mentioning but which are vital to me.

I do this because those skeletal protocols drive me almost immediately to paralytic time-wasting if I’m turned loose with one.  Other people can just sort of know what various shorthand verbs mean, but this is not a gift I have ever possessed.  The protocol says “homogenize in a glass dounce homogenizer” and that sounds simple enough, but a world of detail is missing.  How many strokes?  Do shear forces matter?  Is it a problem if some of the tissue sticks to the pestle and doesn’t stay in the mortar, and is that problem a better or worse problem to have than shear forces?  When the protocol says “use 30-50 mg of tissue,” what happens if I have only 20?  Does the procedure still work but not as well, does it need some adjustment to work best, does it fail entirely?  If I have 55 mg, do I need to trim off the excess even though it’s too little to use for anything else?  If I make it to the end, the last step is “store under N2,”and the nitrogen flow in the fume hood is empty, have I wasted the past eight hours?  I need to know about all of these what-ifs and caveats and stipulations, because I will eventually face the exact task in step seven being impractical or impossible, I will notice that someone broke the exact specific perfect glassware for step 10 long after I’ve started and need to make a substitution to not waste the previous nine steps, and I will be in a position to order slightly different, less expensive reagents than were here when I started and I need to know whether that switch is going to fuck up this lab’s equipment for generations or whether I just saved the lab a little money that can then go to conference funding and such.

All of this plays directly into one of the neurotypical quirks I hate most: ordinary folks’ habit of giving me incomplete instructions for some task and then designating me responsible for whether that task succeeds or fails.

My most natural response to this situation is to find the nearest cabinet and hide behind whatever is inside it in a fetal position until the task has become so urgent that it’s easier to find someone else to do it than it is to extricate me.  As this is a major social faux pas (I could be disrupting the organization of that cabinet, after all), I instead ask every question that comes to mind about the minor, highly detailed specifics of the task that could make or break it, things that a more experienced task-doer might find so intuitive that they’re not sure how to answer.  I ask questions until I know a textbook’s worth of theory and practice about that specific task and could teach a day-class about how best to perform this task with this equipment and could become the lab’s designated task-teacher thereafter…or until the other person decides I’ve pestered them enough and tells me to sink or swim.

That’s the part I hate: knowing that I’ve been put in a situation where I do not have the information required to instinctively and automatically do it right, but will get in trouble if I get it wrong.  That’s the part that sends me into paralytic spirals of not doing anything or obsessively checking and re-checking every source I can find about how to do the task to see if by checking ten or twenty of them that all emphasize different bits, I can cobble together what the complete instructions might actually look like.  But that dread, that my research into what the people who assigned me this task and who know how to do it perfectly well didn’t see fit to tell me will never be enough and I’ll break or ruin something and they’ll insist it was my fault even though they could have prevented every moment of this scenario from happening at all, and that if I’m clever about determinedly not doing the task I have been ill prepared to do I might avoid blame for that task’s inevitable FUBAR…it follows me.

If I am to be punished for making mistakes, I do not feel free to learn from mistakes.

The world has never been kind to people with this particular need.  Deep in my youth I learned that ordinary folks regard the simple question “Why?” as an assault, whether it is pointed at lofty questions of what it is an omnipotent omniscient deity has to gain by permitting dracunculiasis to exist or the far more benthic concerns of why any of the steps in reheating food are what they are.  I ask “why” and they hear “I think you’re wrong for doing it like that” or “I do not recognize your authority” or “I am deliberately annoying you with these obvious questions so that you gain no benefit from delegating this task to me and will just do it yourself next time,” when they ought to hear the opposite of all of those.

Though, why they thought it was a good idea to delegate this critical task to someone who doesn’t know how to do it is anyone’s guess.

Until the rest of the world catches up and figures out that the combination of not telling someone what they need to know to do a task correctly and then punishing them for not doing it correctly is gaslighting abusive nonsense from start to finish, I must cope.  So, every time I learn something about one of these impossible situations that are in my present or future, I make a note about it, and my protocols swell.  They swell well past the point where people wonder if I ought not to be in an entirely different line of work or in an assisted-living facility or otherwise not in a position to require that much self-hand-holding.  They begin to look as though I were an alien being processing her first encounter with cooking ovens and pipettes.  Eventually, they are big enough to be what a just world would have given me from the start.

That is a largesse I can pass into the future, so that the next one like me does not have to check the cabinets for meltdown space.

The Terror of Instructions