INTJ vs. Autism: A Lesson on Grace
Introverted Intuitive Thinking Judging (INTJ): that’s my Meyers-Briggs personality type. We’re the somewhat aloof ones, the quiet observers, pursuers of efficiency. Our best work is accomplished solo and we like it that way. Silence and solitude are mandatory for our health, so it’s no wonder we get a little, ahem, testy when too many people demand our time and attention. To be honest, we’re usually not great with the touchy-feely stuff. So when I found myself woven into a network of extroverted individuals on the autism spectrum both in and outside the workplace, I shot up more than a few panicked prayers. Those prayers were answered with an abrasive and much needed lesson on grace.
When you ask INTJs about relationships, most of us regale stories of adoption against our will by more outgoing personality types. It’s not unusual for an ESFP (Extroverted Sensing Feeling Perceiving) type to snatch the Ayn Rand novels we’re reading in quiet corners out of our hands, herd us into groups, and take us on some crowded amusement park excursion, inflicting their spontaneity on us because they assume we must be bored or sad or lonely. And then there are the friends who sidle up to INTJs thinking we hold secret keys to clarity and balance. In their frenetic worlds, we appear the still-faced masters of having-it-togetherness, “appear” being the pivotal word in that scenario. The irony, of course, is that by breaching our personal bubbles they upset any balance we may have had. Now toss autism with its complex communication and emotional challenges into the mix.
Let me be clear: I am no expert on autism spectrum disorders. My experience and knowledge are limited to the individuals around me, a handful of documentaries, and limited research. Autism manifests differently in different people; it isn’t a cookie-cutter diagnosis. A common thread among those I know, though, is disregard for other people’s time. People with autism interrupt more than anyone I have ever met. They don’t do it to be rude or arrogant. They just have a unique concept of time and a way of prioritizing how time should be spent. Nine cases out of ten, whatever I’m doing is less important than whatever is on their minds. On the receiving end of those interruptions, I struggle responding with Jesus’ character.
For example, my friend (let’s call her Bethany) works in the same building as I do several days a week. She stops by my station multiple times a day, launching into detailed accounts of her problems with not so much as a preliminary hello. These abrupt disturbances make completing daily assignments difficult due to the time-sensitive nature of my job. She demands attention and energy away from fulfilling my responsibilities resulting in compounded stress. I like Bethany; she’s kind, introspective, and a hard worker, but there’s no reciprocity. Our conversations always revolve around how terrible she feels her life is. She has stated multiple times she is aware that her visits complicate my days, but she feels I’m trustworthy and wants to share her feelings with me. On extra busy days it’s hard not to cut her short when she begins unfurling another litany of the same old complaints. I’m honored that someone who struggles severely in connecting with people is comfortable enough with me to open up, yet I sometimes see her coming down the hall and pray she keeps walking. This got me questioning how my own respect for and perception of time might be skewed in a less than Christ-like direction.
When it comes to responding to someone’s erratic emotions, I’m often at a loss. You can’t reason with sensation–especially in someone whose emotions are exacerbated by a neurodevelopmental disorder. Though I’m not a feeling type, I do combat varying degrees of anger on a regular basis. Often, it’s due to someone imposing upon or disrespecting my time. But is it my time at all? Do I even have a legitimate claim on the precious seconds I’m given? I resist the idea that my time is not my own. Part of me believes God grants time for the purpose of serving others–that it’s meant for doling out generously. The other part believes I have every right to spend the time I’m given as I choose. Sacrificing that perceived right to my time is a sort of cross I struggle to pick up most days.
Maybe looking at time as a gift, at least for me, isn’t the best point of view. Considering time as an investment lends itself more to the direction of Ephesians 5:15-16: “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil” (ESV).
So, what is the best use of time? According to Paul, as Christians we represent God’s goodness in a fallen world. Time is a resource for accomplishing that directive, so the wise course is prioritizing things of eternal value. When I’m elbow-deep in banking paperwork with ten minutes until closing time on the clock when Bethany springs into another lengthy monologue about her messy feelings, which should take priority? Yes, God planted me in that job to represent him as a hard-working, responsible employee, but I’m also there to represent his compassion for people–especially the outcasts and misunderstood. Chances are on judgement day God will be more concerned with how well I reflected his character than how accurate my ledgers were.
Still, I can’t help but feel proprietary of what time I have, to wrestle against this false sense of ownership. I also tussle with resentment about being a captive audience to the autistic acquaintances who don’t value my time the same way I do. Not even the most textbook of INTJs can streamline the emotional inner workings of another human being into an efficient system. The world would be far less exciting if any of us could. So, until I’m in Heaven where minutes and hours as we mortals experience them hold no relevance, I’ll just keep trying to invest in compassion over selfishness when interruptions arise. I will try to see impositions as opportunities for sharing God’s love instead of groaning internally. In the meantime, I wouldn’t mind if you wanted to cancel that King’s Island trip and leave me in a quiet corner to enjoy a copy of Atlas Shrugged.