I've got autism. This isn't always clear to people*. Sometimes I need accommodations for a sensory issue to participate in a normal way.

One time, there was a colleague with a strong aftershave, for example, who needed my help.

Sometimes these conversations go like this:

Me: I'm so sorry, your aftershave is causing some sensory issues for me. I've actually got autism and I've got trouble with some strong smells. I would really appreciate if you could tone it down a little in the future.

Them: Oh, I get a headache from strong smells too sometimes. A painkiller usually solves it.


Them: Wanna see New Movie tonight?

Me: Sure! Shall we go to Cinema X? It's a little bit further of a drive, but we can use my car. They have those chairs where the people next to you don't touch you, while the closer Cinema Y does not. I don't like touching, you know. Autistic -smile-.

Them: Stop being such a snowflake! Everyone else can deal with those chairs, I'm sure you can too.

I'm aware I'm asking them to do something for me with nothing in return, but it really is a big deal for me. How can I achieve this better?

*This means, in simple terms, that I have more brain-connections, which means I can easily get overstimulated. My brain uses more resources than for most people, which means I get tired faster. In very rare cases I can have an autistic meltdown, where some parts of my brain, like the language processing part, shut down. Sometimes autism causes underdeveloped social skills and/or language skills. It's different for everyone. I lack most of the autism traits you see in the media. My social skills are a little below average, but far from bad. Because of this, people tend to question whether I really have autism. This seems to stem from a misunderstanding of what autism really is. I often get told "Oh, but you're so social!". I usually answer by explaining that social skills can be learned and that I've got sensory issues.

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    Related: interpersonal.stackexchange.com/q/20696/21067
    – Ael
    Commented Oct 15, 2019 at 12:13
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    Hello network visitors! Please note that IPS is fairly strict about using comments as intended. Comments are only for clarifying and improving the question. Partial answers or general thoughts about the situation may be deleted without notice. If you'd like to write an answer, make sure to check out our posts on How do I write a good answer? and citation expectations first. Thanks!
    – Em C
    Commented Oct 16, 2019 at 15:57
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    Hello Belle, I just want to give you a heads up regarding your recent edit and the footnote in specific. I would advice to generally not give such generalizations. They are part of the root source you are just describing in your post. The point is, while what you describe is likely true for many autists, it is not true for all. So anyone reading your generalized summary of autism, might take it to their heart and the next autist they meet, not meeting your described criteria, will be questioned by them with "But you don't experience ... so you can't be an autist.". I hope you get my point :)
    – dhein
    Commented Oct 18, 2019 at 6:54
  • Not saying that any of what you write is wrong, to be clear.
    – dhein
    Commented Oct 18, 2019 at 6:56

8 Answers 8


From a communication point of view, your main problem is excusing yourself and giving an challenge-able explanation, while at the same time acknowledging that other solutions exist.

As a person with High-functioning autism, I noticed a lot of(if not all) people have some type of behaviour that's similar or identical

Your cinema example is a good way to show HOW NOT TO do that. First, you don't have to explain yourself.

Let's go to cinema Y.

That's a statement. Plain, simple. The reason why you want Y? It doesn't matter. People have myriad reasons to do things A way, while other would think B is better.
Because it smells funny, the cashier looked at me wrong way, you need to turn left instead of right when exiting, they have the wrong kind of butter, my friend once ate there and got food poisoning. This is why I think many people show behaviour similar to autism but it's accepted because it's not explained and excused with autism.

Being overloaded with sounds is the same as "Can you turn radio down?". Too many people being close to me or rubbing against me is the same as "I like to go shopping on Wednesday because there are less people".
It's just worded differently. The outcome is the same.

If you envision any challenge to, or questioning of, your statement, you can back it with some type of solution.

Let's go to cinema Y, we can take my car.

Now, if there is any opposition, it would be on the same level as your discomfort. Because that is what it boils down to - discomfort.
And when both sides are on the same level, the discussion can commence.

If you tell everything at the beginning, you are starting from worst starting point. You're already at the discomfort, that the other side doesn't feel it (yet).

Compare it to people sitting. One decides to stand saying "I prefer to stand". Their preference, their choice.
But if they said "I will stand because I have hemorrhoids," people would joke about it. Some might offer a cushion or a better chair because it was shown as a problem. And problems need solutions. A problems itself can be challenged, "Does it really exist in the first place?".
Challenging a statement is much harder because the challenger need to bring arguments against it.
You give an argument against in your request. Try to think without explaining yourself with autism. Many things are "socially acceptable" if you don't give the opportunity to deny their source. Just show the outcome.

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    What if they say: "Why? cinema X is closer!" - which would be perfectly natural. Looks that after that we are at square 1. Commented Oct 17, 2019 at 4:32
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    "Well yeah, but the seats in Y are much better." Which brings you to a point where both of you are on the same level: one of you thinks distance matters more, one of you thinks comfort matters more. And if they dismiss your opinion, you're free to dismiss their opinion, again because you are on equal footing.
    – Falc
    Commented Oct 17, 2019 at 8:00
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    @AndrewSavinykh To add to Falc great answer. "we can take my car". Then there is only one argument against the Y, that you can defy, and one for the Y. Now, any other argument that would fall for X, AND THIS IS IMPORTANT, have the same weight/value. Then it can be decided that one of the sides don't want to go to the cinema. Very normal reaction. There is no stigma of accomodating or not. Commented Oct 17, 2019 at 8:28
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    I think this answer often works for the cinema example, but for a different reason. In most group situations, most people have no clear preference either way. If somebody makes a reasonable proposal it will usually be accepted without much discussion, without a need for anybody to justify why they have made exactly this proposal. Most people are just happy that a decision can be made without them having to think of something. I don't think this will help at all for the aftershave example.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Oct 17, 2019 at 10:32
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    As in - I doubt most people start changing their aftershave if you just matter-of-factly tell them that they should, without offering some explanation.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Oct 17, 2019 at 10:34

Please note that I am not autistic. My experience is tertiary from my brother who was diagnosed with Asperger's, now High-Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder, and how we handled sensory issues and other people for him.

Your requests seem very valid and well worded, but the issue is the other person's protestations to your requests. The other party seems to dismiss your requests because they misunderstand the issue. I think that the sensory issues that sometimes accompany autism are not understood at all by the general public so people don't get that these aren't just minor inconveniences, but are, at best, extremely bothersome or painful at worst. People understand that autism = "social issues" (whatever that may look like) or melting down because those are more visible.

So when people argue your issues, they see "Strong scents induce headaches for me" and "I'm extremely fond of physical space." not "Strong scents keep me from functioning well" and "Touching others makes my skin crawl and I cannot process anything else until the touching stops." So refute back:

Me: I'm so sorry, your aftershave is causing some sensory issues for me. I've actually got autism and I've got trouble with some strong smells. I would really appreciate if you could tone it down a little in the future.

Them: Oh, I get a headache from strong smells too sometimes. A painkiller usually solves it.

Me: It's not just a headache, when a scent is too strong I feel [insert sensory overload sensations here]

My brother, diagnosed when autism was getting more into the spotlight, had sensory issues that we just didn't quite understand. He couldn't wear certain clothes and we gave it the term "nubby" as in "These jeans feel nubby." He was still pretty young and had to make up our own vocabulary.

That one was pretty simple, but we had to teach people (and I had to learn myself too) that startling my brother caused physical pain. It got to the point where we would just state matter-of-fact that when one does X, my brother feels pain. Sometimes it worked. Other times it worked after several explanations/reminders (I was in this category). And sometimes people wouldn't own up to it nor apologize. The last group eventually lead to us leaving our church once. So your miles may vary.

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    Isn't this experience secondary? Commented Oct 15, 2019 at 22:23
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    @AzorAhai Yes and no I guess? It seems Lux did stand up for their brother to other people, which means they have experience with this too. If Lux has seen their brother do this, and can describe the reactions he got, that's also valid backup. So in the end, it doesn't really matter :)
    – Tinkeringbell
    Commented Oct 16, 2019 at 12:03
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    i@AzorAhai i do not see why direct personal experience of assisting someone else (in a specific topic over years) that you know really well is much different to direct personal experience of self. He is stating his relationship clearly Commented Oct 16, 2019 at 12:12
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    I think Azor Ahai wasn't complaining that the experience was not direct but was pointing the fact that the experience was secondary and not tertiary as written in the answer
    – Gilles V.
    Commented Oct 16, 2019 at 12:18
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    @AzorAhai and others, since we both were pretty young when he got diagnosed (I was barely a teenager) it was my mom who stepped up to bat for my brother and I witnessed the interactions. I might have been more involved later in life, making my experience secondary, but I don't recall any specific examples. Commented Oct 16, 2019 at 12:31

Reiterate that the core issue is related to the autism, and that as a result "standard" fixes are not effective. Also consider pointing out that you, too, are trying to minimize your own stress and inconvenience.

My experience with autism is also second-hand (relatives and acquaintances with autism, not myself). But I do have OCD and there are a lot of similar situations, as my brain processes information about the environment around me in ways that I know others around me do not.

What I have found most useful in those situations is to:

  • Remind the other person (or people) that I have OCD
  • Express that the OCD causes me to perceive and experience things that others do not
  • Acknowledge any inconveniences that arise from tending to my OCD-derived needs
  • Mention (gently) that I also experience a great deal of inconvenience and trouble as a result of dealing with the OCD (it's not just, or even primarily, an issue for the people around me), and to that end I am already trying to achieve the smoothest, easiest result that keeps the OCD manageable

Most people do not invest a whole lot of time or effort into examining their preferences or needs in the way that would be necessary to appreciate what something like autism or OCD is like. They legitimately don't understand how something which they can deal with so casually might be more of an issue for a different person. Often the closest they get is imagining a spoiled, neurotypical child who demands that things be their way because that happens to be how they already want it and they stubbornly will refuse anything else.

That that analogy isn't a good one is not something a random person is likely to internalize and understand on their own. In a case like that, casual, low-detail reminders that you have autism may backfire. When people don't understand what the experience of having and managing autism is like, or your personal experience of autism, it can seem like the person making that claim is treating it as a magic word to get their way on small, arbitrary issues. A comment like

I don't like touching, you know. Autistic -smile-.

presumes that the person you're speaking with understands the increased sensitivity to touch common to autism (and/or any other features of the condition that are relevant for you, specifically). If they do not understand this, then this is the opposite of both an explanation and an argument for why your preference should be chosen.

You can't make someone else behave respectfully or well, but you can try to correct the mistakes which prevent them from understanding what's going on.

When someone says something like:

Me: I'm so sorry, your aftershave is causing some sensory issues for me. I've actually got autism and I've got trouble with some strong smells. I would really appreciate if you could tone it down a little in the future.

Them: Oh, I get a headache from strong smells too sometimes. A painkiller usually solves it.

they are clearly revealing where the breakdown in information and understanding is, and that is knowledge you can use. The other person in this scenario obviously doesn't appreciate how having autism differs from their own experience, evidenced by their commiseration (my reaction to strong smells is a lot like yours) and their "solution" which applies to their own situation but not at all to yours.

Your response can correct those errors, even though they can't force real understanding in the other person:

You: I appreciate the suggestion, but it's not a matter of getting a headache. One of the things that's common with autism is a massively heightened sensitivity to some sensory inputs, like smell. Your aftershave is probably a normal amount with a normal smell (I haven't heard anyone else complain about it), but because of my autism I perceive it a lot more intensely.

I experience it more like having Old Spice blasted into each nostril with a firehose, and it can be really difficult for me to focus on anything else while that's going on. I'm sorry, and I'm not blaming you for anything, you didn't do anything wrong or bad, I personally just can't work effectively when I'm around smells that I experience that way. Please believe me, if I could take an Advil and then not have to deal with anything like that, I would. In a heartbeat. But there is no pill for autism-related heightened sensitivity to smells.

I made up quite a few details just to fill out an example explanation (like the firehose nostril bit), but the core elements should work regardless of the specific details: no one has done anything wrong, there is simply a situation which no one can change that imposes some extra considerations. If you can describe the consequences of the accommodation not being made for you, that can also help.

This won't always produce the results you want-- some people just aren't accommodating, or can't make the accommodations you want, or other possible issues. But if you can, in a calm and straightforward way, clearly express the precise issue you have (not being able to be around strong smells, etc.) and emphasize that the issue is due to an inflexible obstacle (autism), you will give the necessary information to the person that needs it to understand the situation correctly.

Other things can help persuade people to try to accommodate you, particularly if you offer suggestions to help meet your needs in a low-impact way or offset the inconvenience to others (a great example of this in the question was offering to drive to the further theater), but I believe that the major problem you're encountering is simply that most people don't know very much about autism and don't understand that accommodations might be needed, or what those accommodations might involve.


Frame challenge:

Why do you link those two? (the diagnosis and the problem)

That you have problems with strong smells is a problem that can be dealt with separately.

I have a position where I regularly train people in conflict resolution, coaching, problem solving and communication. Part of that curriculum are some small "rules-of-thumb" that is generally applicable.

1: Problems should be defined as singular and close ended as possible. So if you can construct 1 problem as 2 problems, you will find them easier to solve as separate.

2: Be careful of how you communicate - there are multiple semi-councious styles or ways of communicating that direct how people should respond. If you make a causual claim because this then that, and therefore you should do X - you will find it more likely to be challenged - because you argue something.

Most people wish to convey the rationale behind their thinking, to seem more reasonable to others, and it is a gentle and sympathic thing to want - but: when adding reasons and causual relationships you open up for argument. Even when the intention is not to invite argument. What you want to do, is avoid the Argumentative Mode When you are presenting something in that mode, you are opening the argumentative door. (Use the expositive mode instead)

Example: "I like my car, because it is red" - can be challenged ("That's not a proper reason to like a car") - but "I like my car" is likely to go unchallenged. When you attach your problem or issue to a diagnosis, you open up for the challenge (unfair or no, ignorant or not) that the issue can or cannot be caused by such a diagnosis. The easiest is to remove that rationale and stay with the problem -> inform your coworkers about your problem - not your rationale of the problem.


"Hey, Joe, your aftershave is causing me discomfort, I have trouble with strong smells - do you think you could for my sake go easy on it in the future? I'd really appreciate it"

"I didn't think that joke was funny - autism is a serious diagnosis to those who have it"

"Sure, I'd love to see it, but do you mind if we go to Cinema X?"

You may of course at a different point of time apologize for asking for these concessions, maybe even buy your coworkers some sweets or cake or something and say that you assume it can be challenging to have a coworker that has these issues and that you appreciate them for being understanding. This would probably increase the chance that your requests get fulfilled successfully.

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    I love a good frame challenge as much as anyone - and there's some good nuggets of advice in here but the overall tone comes off as extremely dismissive of the OP's autism, bordering on straight-up offensive. Which I presume wasn't your intent but "autism is a serious diagnosis to those that have it" is like saying it's okay for those that don't to find it funny. Geez Commented Oct 16, 2019 at 10:30
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    I like the basics of the answer (to just state the facts, and leave out the reasons), that often works well for me in real life too when stating/asking for 'normal' things. I do worry it may not always work when asking people to accommodate for issues caused by neurodiversity, as some of the accommodations asked for may seem silly or ridiculous to others, more so if these others are unaware they're caused by underlying issues. Is there any research/personal experience available that shows this approach works just as well for requests for 'special needs', where the explanation is left out?
    – Tinkeringbell
    Commented Oct 16, 2019 at 11:57
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    @StianYttervik I've read the previous revision of the question so I get that you're referring to the now removed scenario, I'm saying that your suggested response to that scenario is poor. I appreciate that I singled that line out but it felt indicative of the whole "you're a burden, be a good little burden and minimize your impact on neurotypical folks" impression I got from the answer Commented Oct 16, 2019 at 11:59
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    @Tinkeringbell Well, the rationalization (I need this because that) only works if the recipient accepts that causal relationship. If they don't, then it will be met by counter argument, most of the time. So, in my view that rationalization is a hindrance. Suggesting something without rationale would be more successful. Then - the understanding of the causal relationship (autism-differentness-whatever) may come over time, as a function of several interpersonal "events" so to say. Those are hard to force. I have no research or personal experience except that I coach people in conflict resolution
    – Stian
    Commented Oct 16, 2019 at 14:31
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    @Tinkeringbell ...People, in general, people with all their strange idiosyncrasies and differentness. Everyone is, in their own way, completely weird to someone else. And my answer was based on that experience. If that answers your question yes or no, I am not sure.
    – Stian
    Commented Oct 16, 2019 at 14:32

Giving feedback to someone about the fact they smell can be a bit tricky. That's why I won't talk about that in my answer, especially since Lux Claridge's one do that very well.

I'm on the autism spectrum too and I also have anxiety issues. Before I do something, I need it to be planned in advance.

For example, if you want me to drive a car, I need to know at least one week before. If my parents want me to visit them, they have to ask (at least) two weeks before. If it's my cousin, it's one week (because she lives closer and it's easier to go to her place).

Those restrictions are here because, otherwise, my anxiety would be unbearable. Just the idea of having to take a decision in such "short notice" is making my anxiety skyrocket.

Like you, at first, people didn't really care (or didn't trusted) that this was causing me so much anxiety. So they keep doing what they were doing with anybody else and asked me stuff within short notice. Since I didn't want to displeasure them, I almost always said "yes".

But saying those "yes" costs me much. I was then very stressed, feeling like I wasn't ready to do whatever activity I agreed to do and mostly didn't enjoy myself while doing those supposedly "fun" things.

So, at one point, I decided that this had gone on for long enough. If people weren't capable of respecting me, by asking in advance, I wasn't going to say "yes" anymore.

Thereby, the next time my mother called and proposed I go visit them in three(!) days, I told her:

Mom, if you want me to come, you need to ask me at least two weeks in advance. This is too much stress for me otherwise. I won't come.

I had to do that with every person who was asking me stuff not enough in advance. And it worked out great. I did have to re-iterate my will to my cousin (she asked me four days in advance, I told her it wasn't enough) but it wasn't a big deal and my cousin apologized for the stress she caused me.

So, to answer your actual question:

I think, at some point, you have to draw a line. If being able to sit comfortably is important enough for you (and I have the feeling it probably is), then you might want to decide to stop going to the other theater altogether (or decide on what circumstances you are ok with it, and on what you aren't).

This will help demonstrate to people how important this is for you which, in return, will help you see your desires/needs respected.

I used this same technic for other things where people weren't taking me seriously and it always helped.


Like you, I am on the autism spectrum, and I'm somewhere in the range of what has historically been called Asperger's. There are multiple ways to address this problem that can be used depending on whether you do it in the moment or before the moment ever arises. I don't have as much experience with asking people to accommodate my needs in the moment, but I do have a few techniques that I've developed to help me mitigate such issues before they arise.

Before the moment arises

Explain how autism affects you

As I've written about in this answer and that one, just knowing that you have autism does not always help people understand you. Because autism encompasses such a large range of conditions, it's quite difficult for someone to understand your specific experience of autism without more in depth explanation. To combat this, when I tell people that I have autism, I explain very specifically ways that it affects me. For example, I am highly sensitive to foods, and therefore am a very picky eater. When I tell people about this, I like to explain what eating different foods does to me (I like to use the metaphor of a blown fuse in a circuit).

For someone you interact with a lot like a family member or close friend, you can explain at any point what autism is like for you. Be specific and give examples of times when something has overloaded you. Talk about what you had to do to get work through the overstimulation. I have found that when I explain this in the natural course of conversation, others are usually more cognizant of things that could affect me in the future, and on the occasions that they are not, I can very quickly mention it and they are happy to accommodate.

Have an advocate

My personal favorite way to get others to accommodate my autism is to have a 3rd party get involved. There are a few reasons why this is useful. The primary one is that sometimes when you need an accommodation, you are unable to ask for it. When that is the case, having someone else ask for you can be extremely helpful. The second reason (which has been the case far more often for me) is that it's easier for someone to accept that you need accommodation and provide it if they see someone else doing it first (this concept is known as social proof).

I have a lot of sensory issues related to the sense of taste, so when I need accommodation, it's usually in the form of finding food that won't overload me. I've had a lot of conflict with coworkers over where to eat for team lunches because they want to try some place that is interesting to them, but I wouldn't be able to eat anything on the menu. I explained my frustrations one day to one of my teammates, and then she began to push the team towards being better about accommodating my autism. After she started advocating for me, my needs were considered more often, and without as much conflict as they had been before.


Being autistic myself, I have embraced it as a slightly humorous, nerdish persona; people (correctly) don't feel they understand what autism is like, but they are comfortable with the idea of nerds - being a nerd is mildly cool, somehow. Nerds come in all walks of life, usually being people who are very good at concentrating on subjects, if they aren't disturbed, and often nearly obsessive with specialised subjects; for me it is mathematics (category theory, if you must know - I can bore most people to tears), but it may be anything.

So, tell people you're a nerd, and they are more likely to accept that there are things about you they don't understand - and don't need to understand; they just need to accept it, really.


So, examples - I'm not too sure about this, actually; you see, being what I am is just natural from my point of view. I have lived more than 60 years now, and I have developed from embracing loneliness to learning to accept and sometimes even enjoy social contact, but slowly; I still find it very hard work going to a party - there are just too many things going on, and nobody who who would be interested in talking about things I find immensely fascinating.

My exact ways of coping with life are not universally relevant - autists are probably more diverse than most, the reason being that what I for lack of a better word call "normal people" have a natural tendency to be like others, follow fashion etc, whereas autists most often don't become part of the flock - so we diverge. However, I think there is a core of shared experience, and the divergence happens as a result of whichever interests we pick up along the way.

I grew up hearing a lot of Danish, working class humour with quite rough edges, and one thing I have learned to use with some success is humour - and "nerdishness" is a form of humour, I think - and I think autists more often than the average have a wild imagination; I personally have had to rein that in a lot, because otherwise people simply don't know what I'm talking about. As an example, a colleague once came to my desk, looking a bit thoughtful; my attempt at being funny was "Ah, you've come to gloat, have you?" - I think I had just read some funny story about conspiracies, but he looked absolutely stricken. Of course he had no way of understanding my context, and I still feel bad about it. Now, I would probably have said something more like "You look worried - how can I depress you further?" - I think that might work; I have found that injecting a bit of consideration for others in what I say often helps.

I think what I have found most useful is my own brand of absurd humour (as long as I don't go over the edge); often plays on words, often stating obvious nonsense as Absolute Truth, and with great authority. An example of the first would be something like "Are you finished? No, I'm Danish", of the latter things like "Have you got any morals? Good heavens, man, what are you talking about - of course not!" or "Do you like children? Mmm, yes". As I said, I was marked by my childhood.

Finally, why do I think "embracing your inner nerd" is a good idea, at least if you have autism? Well, firstly it is about accepting what you are - being autistic, you are not likely to be the life of the party, but you probably have an immense capacity for learning - not just within one's own, narrow obsession, but just about any subject - and enjoying it. Most things can be learned, and interpersonal skills are, well, just skills, which can be learned, even if it comes hard.

Secondly, there seems to be a trend at the moment for "nerd cool" - I don't understand what that is about, but lack of knowledge has never stopped people in the past; so you might as well reap the benefit. Nerd chique is of course just a shallow fashion, but you are the real thing.

  • 1
    Hi I hope you're doing well in your life! And this answer might be relatable to OP too. Can you add a bit about how to use the nerd behaviour in conversation? Looking forward to a cool example :)
    – anki
    Commented Oct 19, 2019 at 16:46
  • @ankii I'll try. Yes, I have had a very good life, thank you for asking. On another note - I'm puzzled why my answer was voted down, and I'd like to know. I do still find it hard to gauge other people's reasons, but all I can do is try to learn from my mistakes.
    – j4nd3r53n
    Commented Oct 21, 2019 at 10:32
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    The best I can guess is lack of backup which can be similar personal incidents. Why do you think this would work, how did you use it. That's it. And your edit will allow people to reverse the downvote too.
    – anki
    Commented Oct 21, 2019 at 10:55

The issue is, you're approaching what is effectively non-negotiable criterion in a negotiating mindset. You're saying to the person 'I have issue XYZ, can we do this?', and naturally the person will negotiate and offer solutions, even if those solutions are undesirable.

If there is only one solution you prefer, you need to offer the social version of a Hobson's choice. So, assuming someone asks if you want to go to the cinema, your response would be:

I'd love to go to the cinema, however, due to my condition, there is only one cinema I can go to. Don't worry if you're not able to go there, I just won't be able to attend.

Effectively, you're framing the choice as a binary option: we can either go here, or I won't be able to attend. For dietary issues at restaurants, for example, I'd express that I can attend, 'just I won't be able to eat'. By reframing it as 'either we go here or I can't do X', it's no longer about social negotiation but social restrictions, the other cinema excludes you from enjoying the film, and thus your only valid options are XYZ.

If the person disputes that, then it boils down to whether it's a valid place for you to attend or if you have to politely decline attendance.

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