Thursday, August 2, 2007

Autistic Superpowers: Invisibility

I am waiting in line. “Can I help you?” the woman behind the counter asks. I’m about to step up and give my order when I realize she’s talking to the guy behind me! I’ve been “overlooked” enough times by sales persons to have gotten used to it. That doesn’t mean I accept it, however. “Excuse me,” I say, “I think I was here first”. The counter person seems a bit flustered and redirects her attention but doesn’t apologize or anything.

Since this sort of thing has gone on all my life, I’ve given some thought to it. Is it because I am short? No, I don’t think so. I am below average height, but not nearly so short as to be unseen over the average sales counter. For a long time I assumed the problem, when occurring in higher priced establishments was based on class perceptions. If I was wearing a shirt from a thrift shop (often my preference), I must not have enough money to pay for something from Macy’s, so they would naturally ignore me.

But now I’m thinking that wasn’t it either. I think it is something like what Joel has written about here. There is something unassertive about my very presence I’ve been told. I just seem to “seem” like I’m not really there somehow. Spacey or something. Maybe without knowing what it is they are seeing, people perceive that there is something different, and therefore frightening about me.

Or maybe they think that I will go away if they ignore me. For a long time I did. For years I walked away from situations like the one I described here, frustrated and confused. Without getting what I’d come for, I just left, with the feeling I had slipped into the twilight zone, unsure the experience had even really happened. I never told anyone about these encounters. Why would I expect them to believe me? I was half convinced myself that this couldn't really be true.

Not long ago, I worked in a business where one of the employees had taken a dislike to me. When I said hello to her in the morning, she pretended not to hear. She said nothing at all, unless someone else was there to witness it. The few times I needed to ask her work related questions, she also ignored me. I was determined not to “catch” her rudeness, and always made a point to say hello in the morning and to include her when I offered to get coffee for other staff members.

I described the situation to another person I know. “What did you do to her?” he asked. “You must have done something!” I really don’t think I did, but I may well be wrong. I tried to ask her once if there was something we needed to talk about, but I never got an answer. I guess she didn’t hear me.


  1. If someone is rude to me I retaliate with politeness.

  2. When I was buying groceries last week, the bagger asked "Are you all right?"

    I said, "Yes, why do you ask?"

    She said, "Well, you look distant."

    Unfortunately I was in a hurry and didn't have time to give her a lecture on why it wasn't her business to pass judgment on a customer's appearance.

  3. Hard to tell how literal you're being with the 'people don't see me' thought, but I've experienced literally just that more often than I'd be able to count. It generally happens when I'm sitting somewhere though, not when I'm standing in line... people simply don't notice that I'm there. I don't expect a greeting, generally, so it doesn't bother me when it happens, but it's always interesting to watch people jump when I say something or wave to a new arrival or whatever. I've also had the opportunity to hear several private meetings between my boss and various co-workers because she didn't notice me sitting at the computer near her desk, and I didn't notice that the meeting was private 'till it was too late to leave without it being awkward. I, for one, consider my variant of this more of a blessing than a curse.

  4. Just an anecdotal thought, here, but I have both worked customer service desks and have autistic people in my family -- do you think it's about eye contact? I could see myself, way back when as a young 20-something customer service person, assuming the person smiling at me and making eye contact was first in line, and the person staring off sideways was probably just waiting for a friend. This is what the "take a number" things are for IMO.

  5. I've run into that silent treatment problem too; it was as if I had gotten stuck in some glass box. It’s a strange hollow, invisible kind of feeling. As though I could fade away just sitting there, because my own personal reality has so little bearing on what happens ... brr!

  6. I have many times experienced the phenomenon you describe.

    When I am in corporate attire and on the job people watch me.....follow me, take cues from me. It is very weird for me.....I wonder what is so different about me-if it is perception of power. I am now perceived to have power therefore people are differential to me?

    I have for many years caught attitude from women as described......I think it is a form of female bullying and an alpha/beta/omega animal behavior. I have actually had to call some girls out professionally and tell them that their future with the company was on the line and that the attitude was not working for them.

    The alphas are the leaders, the beta follow and and the omega's are picked on by everyone.

    Do petty shallow people see autistics as omegas that deserve to be picked on? Is doing this a way to establish superiority?

    I think some humans are inclined to follow this animal kingdom paradigm which probably originates from them not really being in any sort of control of life.

    Just my two cents.....I think about this a lot tho. I deal with a lot of NT people that I have to convince to do things my way (because that is part of my job. I just got promoted to lead auctioneer and I got a sales award) and I read a lot of psych and negotiation books.


  7. Maybe it has to do with body language/eye contact. Sometimes my daughter stands at the counter in a way that it makes it seems like she is just "there", she doesn't look like she's in line.
    Combine that with the rush-rush atmosphere of a Northeastern city, and her natural shyness, and she gets looked over too.
    The job stuff you mentioned is not unique to autism. That happens to everyone, and it is most likely something wrong with the "excluder". You are doing what all the experts say to do...kill 'em with kindness.

  8. I've encountered this sort of experience as well.

    What's particularly frustrating is when I say something and it goes completely ignored, then someone else repeats the same thing almost verbatim and is given credit for it.

  9. Thanks to all who commented here. Yes, I do think the eye contact/body language is an issue. I make an extra effort to be "present" in these situations, and I also think that this is something that needs to be brought to the attention of the general public. Like most autistics, I work pretty hard at doing things in the socially accepted ways. It would be nice to see typical people making more of an effort to recognize that some of us have differences in non-verbal communication, too. Where is the "theory of mind" in people who assume they know what someone is thinking (or not thinking) just because that's what it would mean if they looked like that?

    Congratulations on your promotion!

  10. I experience this kind of thing all the time. I get the invisibility thing, and I also get a variant of what Joel was talking about in his post: if I go somewhere alone, people around me ask "Are you all right?" or "Are you sick?" (Once when I was out walking, someone at a restaurant made me sit down and gave me a glass of water).

    I know I have a very hard time looking at people--at all--and I have trouble knowing how close I am to things (e.g. counters), so probably stand farther away than most people do. And I sometimes talk very quietly, especially around strangers.

    My 6th grade science teacher once told my mom that "I often forget she's there!"

  11. I was with Wendy Lawson after she'd given a talk to a packed hall. She and I walked down the corridor with another woman to take a small lift (elevator) down afterwards. It went through three floors with just Wendy, the woman and me. The whole way down, the woman talked to me about Wendy and how great her talk had been. I was puzzled - why wasn't she telling Wendy herself?! When we had got out at the bottom and taken two or three steps, the woman suddenly exclaimed "Wendy! you're there!!!" - it seems she had not seen Wendy at all until that moment. Wendy tells me something like this has happened to her often. I'm lousy at eye contact myself, so do not think that explains this occurrence at least.

  12. Just blogged about this myself, inspired by your post :)

    Really good to know that someone else has experienced this!

  13. Thanks for this good post and comments.

    I've long experienced this social invisibility, but have only become fully conscious of it in recent years. In my case, I think it's been a form of unconscious camouflage which began very young. In crowds, it's not unusual for people to back into me and be very startled by my presence.

  14. Sorry if this is a bit incomprehensible, if I start making corrections I’ll never post it. Something similar happens to me quite often. People don’t notice me and forget I was part of something a lot. This doesn't surprise me since I don't pay much attention to other people and have a horrible memory for names but anyone who was around me longer pointed it out or caught themselves doing it. Most recent example would be that of a close friend telling me in detail about a discussion he had a few weeks back with two other people until his girl reminded him I was also there. From what we talked about it this and all other occurrences like people standing next to me asking someone I’m talking with if they’ve seen me most likely has something to do with body language or some other subconscious process. As for the silent treatment, never came across it but I’m guessing she has a problem, possibly with You, but it’s her problem so let her have it all and just continue doing whatever You think is right.

  15. I have had people for no reason hated me. Alot of them told all kinds of lies. Which management believed. I would end up getting harassed from all sides. People also thought I was angry, mad or looking for a fight. but I would get harassed to the point that I would quit. I have been thru a lot of jobs because of this. I recently found out that I am an aspie. I told my new boss and so far it seems better. Only time will tell.

  16. I too have been overlooked, but it never bothers me as much as when the staff decides to "Help" me. I was in line at the grocery store and having a hard time filtering out the usual noise. In addition to my nervousness, it caused my motor skills to drop, so that I had to unload my basket with one hand;as I couldn't let go of my music player in the other. Sometimes, it just won't happen for me. Anyway, the clerk dashes out from the end of the counter and starts putting my things on the counter for me. I was too shocked and ashamed to say anything. I just paid for my things and left as fast as possible. I know they were trying to help, but it really upset me and made me feel defective. It wouldn't have been so bad if they had ASKED if I wanted help. Oh well. So it goes.

  17. While out in public, I always need to have a book with me. The world can quickly become overwhelming, and reading helps me to focus. While waiting in lines and reading, people sometimes walk around me as if I'm not there. This happened throughout my childhood and continues to happen now that I am an adult, but I still find it nearly impossible to speak up when people do this to me.

  18. I had no idea that other people besides myself were 'invisible!' Thank for for making invisibility visible!

    Such a topic as this one is very interesting . . . at least to those of us who others ignore.

  19. Blimey, got a link to you from Sheila Schoonmaker - I am Sheilas friend. I know exactly what you talk abt, my response at first thought would be to develop a louder more assertive persona, yet my aspi trait would possibly over-ride that and I would blush and feel very uncomfortable. Luckily my wife shops for me. I hate shops - a lot.

  20. As a "milder case" NLD, I experience this sometimes, but have a bit more control over it -- if I'm not already frazzled, I can "push" back into the NT's social context and be noticed.

    I do think it says a lot about NT perceptions; just today I had an odd experience which may be related. I was out with various family members including my sister and her kids, down at a local nature reserve (Ivy Creek, in Charlottesville, VA). At one point, I'd spotted a couple of snakes hanging out, and called them over to see. Both my sister and her kids came over; on a river bank two feet ahead of us, were two snakes, about two feet long -- dull colors, but they were right out in the open... and nobody else could see those snakes, until I pointed straight at them! I found that very odd, especially since I'd spotted them from some distance.

    (On the other hand, my camera's display rendered them darn near invisible -- to get pictures, I had to look for nearby branches to frame the shot.)

  21. And then you have the opposite of that, when they do notice you and you're like, WTF??? towards what they say.


  22. Dear Bev,

    Hey, my name is Sahar, I am with I'm sorry about your experience standing in line. Your blogs are interesting especially for individuals that are either afflicted by autism themselves or have family members afflicted by it. There are a prolific group of members on the website that I know would be keen to read your blogs. I think that will be of great interest and use to you as you will have the opportunity to interact with people that are in similar situations as yourself. Amongst us, there are dedicated users that will avidly read your blogs and it would be great if you could come and leave your comments/thoughts. Below I have given the guest access information. Look forward to hearing from you.

    username: guest1

    password: weare1

    Many thanks,


  23. I seem to be able to actively use this... I can walk into a room and direct attention to my presence and then get forgotten instantly. I have used it to eavesdrop before. More than once.

  24. But what about those who have put their groceries on the counter and are the only ones in line?

    Something that sticks out for me - Even if I make it clear that I'm watching them, with or without eye contact, I have been ignored. They find that they needed change or some such stuff.

    I didn't use to think that autism was even a possibility for me because no one ever told me that there was a problem or that was a possibility. They've just settled for saying I'm 'different' or 'so quiet' or 'off in my own world' amongst other things. But it explains so much more than anything I have ever *EVER* found. I've done more than just a couple of searches... a WHOLE lot more. And I have someone who has backed me up on that with more than just a tidbit or two of having witnessed me in 'action' so to speak, so I know I'm not imagining things.

    It's nice to know that should this be the my case, there are sites I can go to for where I know I won't be the only one.

  25. I find it hard to believe that someone would overlook the person at the head of the line. The only possible exception is if you were not just "spacey" but like standing off to one side, staring at the wall, or otherwise apparently signaling that you were not in line but simply standing there for some other purpose (like waiting for someone).

    After all, as far as I know, the hated breed of "neurotypicals" (curse their name!) does not have built-in autism-detection superpowers.

    What I would ask is ... why, when the person ahead of you finished and left, did you not step up and place your order?

    Not trying to be harsh, except inasmuch as I'm saying you shouldn't criticize the counterperson for missing you. I strongly doubt she had some secret vendetta against you; she was probably trying her best to avoid either 1) ignoring someone who actually wanted to place an order or 2) bothering someone who didn't want to. She made a mistake.

  26. I like to make experiences with people. Sometimes I enter a magazine with a certain attitude just to see what will be the outcome.So, If you are ignored in a line maybe you are avoiding eye contact. When you don't look at people's eyes you tell them you don't what to interact. Probably the person behind you is all anxious and in a hurry and all her body language is calling for the store clerk's attention. I do it all the time, I make miself so visible that others are overlooked, of course I don't take their turn. Other times I feel sad or bothered in some way and I keep more to myself, I look to the floor and that makes me invisible!!!
    Also, a smile helps make ourselves noticed! And believe me, most of the time people are minding their own business, worrying about their own problems, not everyone is out to get you although sometimes it may seem that way. In my experience the way we feel about ourselves may make us perceive judgments in other peoples attitudes that are not really there.
    I the mother of an autistic boy and this is what I would say to him.

  27. thx for ur post, Bev... i hv AS, and to be visible in superficial everyday life (like work, checkout counters etc) i hv to 'act' - hv become good at it but it makes me feel tired and unwell alot... but in intimate friendships or relationships, when i dont wish to 'act' anymore, sometimes, i get treated as invisible and one of these has gone on for a bit too long now, so i hv to take courage and get out of it asap... make my own visibility no matter what happens...

  28. A very similer experience happened to me and continues to happen on my less functioning days.One of the many reasons I quit going out in public was for these reasons you named on your post.I was 'In my own little world' as they put it while at the counter once at a local fast food resturant(Burger King)and it was my turn.The guy in the back of me says "Are you going?",and I couldn't respond right away as I collected my thoughts,so he assumed that he could cut.I was trying to read the menu,and needed time to do so.The woman at the counter looked at me really funny,like she wanted to kill me.Then,they just started yelling at me like I was some kind of robber or something.I told him to back up because I wasn't afraid of him for yelling at me(Even though I was)because he was getting on my nerves,and their voices were both like screetching nails on a chalk board.After I yelled at him,they quited,and I waited for my burger.She threw it at me,and I left,never went back there after that.More so,at the local Walmart,I get it alot too."Stupid", "crazy" all sorts of names by people who claim to be descriminated against by "The white man".I'm of mixed culture myself,and the discrimination that I face on a daily basis is overwelming.Just know that you are not alone,but you probably already know that.:)Celeste *Charlie* Lee

  29. Hi Bev!

    This post was very interesting. I think several of the people above me addressed the possible why's of being overlooked by strangers, but I have a possible answer for what happened to you at work with your colleague:


    Sometimes, if I see someone from work or school, outside of those environments, unexpectedly, like on the train or on the street, I will not recognize them, to the point of ignoring them if they say hello or approach me. Later they are mad and I don't know why until I ask them, and then I don't even remember the incident in question, because I habitually ignore all strangers on the street who approach me (I live in a dangerous urban area).

    It could be that you saw this woman outside of work and did not recognize or acknowledge her, and she was hurt or offended by it.

    And then of course, there is also the saying-offensive-things-without-knowing-they-are-offensive part of AS. I apparently do that a lot too, and it's not much of an endearment hehe.

  30. Just wanted o thank you for this blog and chime in on this particular comment even if a few years after yoU wrote it.

    Want to add my name to the list of peole diagnosed on the spectrum, "late" in life (46 years old), with this invisibility phenomenon.

    Thoughout my life, especially int9 my 30s, this would happen to me over and over and it would unnerve me. I had no idea why it was happening, what might be different about me. I eventuallysort of taught myself to be more visible, but as spunkykitty suggests, it can be quite draining. And then there was also the nagging feeling that i might have gone too far in the other direction.

  31. Macy's a higher priced establishment?! Anyway, I think that classism does have a lot to do with it. Everytime I'm dressed nicely I'm never overlooked and many neurotypical people in places such as Barney's or Sak's are looked at as if they don't belong there, and one lady I know was overlooked so many times as people behind her kept passing by that she just dropped her stuff and left. The only time the sales people noticed her was to ask her to pick up the merchandise. She didn't of course, but the sales person couldn't explain why the lady was just standing in line.

    Anyway, here is something I've written that most here can relate to, many of the people referenced in what I've written professionally work with autistic people too:

    -As a kid people felt free to pass gas around me because they knew their word was greater than a “weirdo’s” and could take advantage of their unearned credibility by scapegoating me.

    -A person would pretend to be my friend and “borrow” my stuff, but tell me to, “stay away from his fucking house” when exercising my right to my stuff back. So much for being my "friend".

    -Academic accomplishments are flippantly dismissed by near strangers as attributed to a lack of a social life instead of competence, “e.g., If I had no life and all the time in the world to study I’d have an A too!” and feel free pretending to know my life.

    -Social workers also use the pretending to be your friend strategy and deceptively state they will only take a “short time” for their errands, making a trip to the supermarket or the mall all about themselves, even wandering away to do their own thing. You then realize that they took the job to take advantage of and use people such as yourself, and God help you if you call them out on it or remind them that you are the client. You are an excuse for them to be paid to do their own errands and shopping.

    -Hours of reading are dismissed as “you know nothing” and you are always challenged by social workers, who blow up every little statement you make into an argument by invalidating your worldview, and then catching them communicate it to their friends later on as their own. When you ask them, “where did you learn that?” They’ll give the same source as your book(s). Then they will deny that you taught them such and how they dismissed it as if it were your own little “fantasy” and lack of knowledge of the real world. Again, a “normal’s” word against yours.

    -When walking down the street subhuman trash always feel like it’s ok to yell, “loser” “faggot” or “retard” from their windows, always being too cowardly to say anything to your face, and always in the relative safety of their cars, especially when no other cars are around to hear their loud, ignorant mouths.

    -You are always accused of being “judgmental”, yet these same people feel like they have a license to judge you. The implicit message of these interactions are, “Of course there’s a double standard! We aren’t social equals and don’t you dare get uppity with me again!”
    And you wonder why my view of the world and people in general is negative, and complain as if I don’t have a valid reason to believe so.

  32. Once during coffee hour after church services my godmother introduced me to a fellow parishioner, and then went her way. He and I talked about not much for a few moments --- and then, without warning, in mid-dialogue, he turned around and sat at the table with the people he was with, without another word! It was as if I had not only vanished into thin air! but that he wasn't *surprised* that I had vanished into thin air! that he had instantly *forgotten* the introduction and conversation had ever happened!!! He didn't *strike* me as having become instantly blind and/or with Alzheimer's or lost short-term memory... but I'm not a doctor.... I don't think he made a face as if I'd said something inappropriate or anything.... I was so caught off-guard by it I didn't know what to do, so I moved on!

  33. OK, I know what this is!
    This is lack of status.
    Absence of status is one of the biggest disabling consequences for me, of having an Autistic condition (way of being) living in a Neurotypical world.
    The NTs desperately need to have status in order to know they exist..and they look for that from each other, and from us...
    When we dont play the game with them (or even know what they damn game is) they blank us completely. Ive had colleagues at work walk up to me and then turn their back within inches of my face.. really rude! Its because I dont exist as a source of status and social grooming for them.
    There are the exceptions of course: the curious ones who are usually abusive in my experience, simply out to figure out how to control me.
    And there are some genuinely fine people who are comfortable being themselves and not 'playing the game'. They are the kind of people I make friends with.

  34. Now, imagine being a minority on the spectrum...

    I fixed this in an odd way.

    The work place at the time was s federal contractor. I joined the Air Force Auxiliary and saw to it that they saw me at least a couple of times in uniform (just like the guys in Boston Legal lol). Then, from that moment on, I was acknowledged at work. Funny how that works. Self-Serving Hypocrites!

  35. This kind of reminds me of the book: The Invisible Man.

    It also seems, as others have mentioned here, to do with rank:

    I could be talking with someone down the hall when suddenly a higher-ranking person buts in and starts talking to the person I was talking to as tho I weren't there and I was like some piece of furniture. When I try to but in, the person who stole my talking partner makes sure to position themselves so that they slowly give their back to me and even juxtaposing themselves between me and the person I was talking to, thereby ejecting me from the conversation.

    I have seen this more than once by supervisors and superiors who think they can get away with being so rude. And it's not even job-related endeavours, it's simply because they believe that rank has its privileges.

    That's when I pull out my tranquilizer dart blower and equalize them on the spot. //just kidding. xD

    But it can be very frustrating. It's as though I were just painted on the wall, but worse, because they are actively trying to exclude me from the conversation while monopolizing the attention of the person I was talking to.

    If it is with me that they want to talk to, they will just barge in in total disregard of whatever activity or conversation I may be carrying on with someone as well. Their assumption is that we should drop everything and all eyes should be on them. It's harder for me to reach for my tranquilizer darts this way because they are actually looking at me. //again, just kidding. xD


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