There are certain common phrases, like "What's up?" or "How's it going?" that have no direct logical answers. As an autistic person, being asked either one of these two questions is usually quite stressful. See, I know how I'm supposed to respond to a simple "How are you?" or "How was your day?" There are straightforward responses to those questions, there are scripts. I could respond with "I'm good, and you?" or "It was fine, how was yours?" and they'd say "It was good," and we'd smile and walk away, or move on to more interesting conversation topics. But with questions like "What's up?" it's not logical or appropriate to respond "I'm good, and you?" because the response doesn't fit the question. The question is, "What is up?" And that, my friends, is a mystery.
When faced with a "What's up?" my go-to response as of late (and by that I mean for the majority of my life) has been "the ceiling," or "the sky," depending on the location of myself and the other person. Other times, I say something like "I'm standing in this line with you." These are humorous yet logical responses to a question that has no clearly defined answer, if the question is to be interpreted in a manner faithful to its intended meaning. From what I've observed of neurotypical conversation, the question "What's up?" invites a myriad of completely different responses, each valid in their own way. An answer could be the classic "Not much, what's up with you?" but a more sophisticated and honest answer might be "I just finished a math test," or "I'm headed to my sister's basketball game." The problem for me is, I don't know which response to use in any given circumstance, given that the responses to "What's up?" are usually specific to the respondent. Additionally, sometimes the question isn't intended as a question at all. Sometimes, it's intended as a greeting, and the person asking the question doesn't actually want a response. Even if the question is genuine, the person probably isn't super invested in hearing about your day, so you have to limit your reply to a short sentence with a return question.
Not knowing which short sentence and return question to say, if any, is a problem exacerbated by the fact that I can't tell reliably when a person is asking the question genuinely, or as a greeting. So, to avoid incorrect or unwanted answers, I limit my replies to short and simple references to the sky, ceiling, or other aspect of our shared environment. I simply don't have the energy or willpower to figure out what it is that every "What's up?" -er wants from me in my response, so I don't give it to any of them.
I get frustrated and confused whenever I'm asked a ridiculous question like "What's up?" And yes, it really is a ridiculous question. It's illogical and has no clear answers. Why neurotypicals have universally decided that it's a good conversation opener is beyond me. There are no rules, no scripts, no reasonable and clearly defined boundaries for what to do in a "What's up?" situation. Yet, literal answers to such a question are deemed "wrong" and socially unacceptable. People who answer "the sky" or "the ceiling" are frowned upon for not putting in the effort to maintain the facade of amicable social interaction that is so clearly beneficial to both parties and entirely necessary for the day to move forward. And that is precisely the reason why I continue to answer the way I do. I don't care about that facade.
Sure, I'm perfectly happy to play along when there are rules, when I know that I'll be successful if I follow the script, and that perhaps my day will be slightly enriched by a smiling interaction with an acquaintance. But should that aquaintance decide to make my life exponentially more difficult by choosing to play a game with no rules, in which I could be penalized for an arbitrary reason that was never spelled out beforehand... in that case, I will simply refuse to play.
I rely on scripts to get me through the day, and I have nothing to hold onto but concrete reality when an un-scriptable question or comment comes my way. My experience of life and social interaction is detailed and intense, and this constant feed of sensory, social, and emotional input is often chaotic and overwhelming. Without scripts, I have no navigation tools to row through the choppy waters of socialization that come with the five minutes before the bell rings at the end of class, or an informal greeting in a coffee shop. There's so much information to sort through at any given moment, so it would simply take too long for me to formulate a completely original response to every question people ask me, in the time frame allotted.
If I don't remember my scripts, I end up simply failing to respond. I can't count the number of times someone has said something to me as they passed me in the hallway at school and I only registered what they said three seconds after walking past them. By that time, it's too late. So I have to be prepared with my "Good!" s and my "Fine, how are you?" s. But what happens if the person walking by, who I might not even recognize at first, asks me "What's up?" Chances are, I won't respond at all, and they won't even know I heard them- not for lack of trying, but because I simply can't.
Neurotypicals and allistics: be clear and direct when communicating with autistic people; and if you're not going to be clear or direct, at least make sure we have adequate time to respond. I promise you, we're not being robotic or dull or emotionless because we want to come off that way. Our world is a lot more colorful and chaotic than yours, and we need your help to navigate it.
So, please don't ask me "What's up?"
Look above you and find out for yourself.