How to Say No and Never Sound Ungrateful or Rude

Diego, my son with autism, is an expert at this

Young man spraying plants

It’s hard to say no. You may appear ungrateful, rude, impolite, insubordinate -all kinds of negative impressions. Some people -my father for example- are especially rude when declining. I’ll ask him if he’d like to come over for dinner, and he might say, “You’re making tacos? Then no.” My father-in-law’s default answer, my husband tells me, was no. At some point, everyone stopped asking.

Sometimes you want to say no and just can’t. My friend Wendy says her father was an ogre (I’d say he was abusive) and she never dared to say no. To this day, she has difficulty saying no to those she perceives to be in a position of authority. We all have our childhood traumas, don’t we?

Then there’s my son Diego who, along with autism and an intellectual disability, has a gift for not saying “no” without saying “yes.”

The trick, which he uses without fail, is simple. It consists in never giving a one-word answer. Instead of saying “yes” or “no,” Diego makes a statement of fact that makes it clear he’s declining or that his answer is not really in the affirmative.

Here are some examples (Diego’s responses are in italics):

  • Do you want to go running? I’m going running tomorrow with dad.
  • Do you like the book I gave you? I like it, and next year how about you give me Aladdin?
  • Do you have the keys? Maybe Andres has them.
  • Do you want some salad? I’ll just have salmon.
  • Come sit next to me. I just wanna stand.
  • Do you like the present? I like it and I also like The Lion King movie.
  • Did you get the mail? I’m gonna get it right now.
  • Do you want to take a nap? I’ll just sit here and keep you company.
  • Are you cold? Do you need a sweater? I’m like a polar bear in the Arctic.

What’s extraordinary is that Diego, despite his disability, has figured out stuff about human behavior that many perfectly “normal” people fail to ever grasp.

Diego knows that yes and no answers are almost always avoidable and that you’re more likely to get what you want without saying no. He “gets” this even though individuals with an intellectual disability have, according to the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), deficits in “reasoning, problem solving, planning, abstract thinking, judgment, academic learning, and learning from experience.”

He also understands that people don’t like hearing no. “Wait,” you may be thinking, “Don’t people with autism show ‘deficits in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships?’” (DSM-5)

I’ve learned that in the context of disability, the word “deficits” is sometimes quite misleading. It just cannot capture the positive traits that are often inseparable from the deficits.

Last, but not least, Diego will never use lame excuses to get out of something. In truth, it’s not that he knows bogus excuses are generally detectable. He’s simply incapable of making such excuses. He’s just too pure.

The not-saying-no-without-saying-yes trick is one that enhances positive feelings from loved ones. Diego’s special mind understands this clearly, no matter what the DSM-5 says.

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Will You Watch Mulan with Me for the Hundredth Time?

Diego is lucky to have a friend who gets some of his unique interests

Two young men smiling
Diego and Owen, Winter 2016

Diego eats sushi for lunch on Fridays. It took just two straight Fridays of sushi lunch for it to become the official Friday lunch. Whenever an event happens with any regularity in his life, Diego will find a pattern to it and insist that it must occur at an equivalent interval henceforth.

That’s why, for the past four and a half years, we’ve been driving up from Connecticut to Cape Cod once a season. The Cape is where Diego went to a post-secondary program for students with disabilities and learning differences. After he graduated in spring 2015, we went back to visit that year’s summer and fall. The pattern and the expectation had been set: visits to the Cape shall take place once every season.

Such visits include a stop at Riverview School and a sleepover at Owen’s place. Diego adores Owen, whom he met in summer camp in Colorado and later reunited with at Riverview. They share a diagnosis of autism and, most importantly, a unique passion for Disney movies.

Some peculiar things make Diego happy, very happy. What I mean by “peculiar” are things that other adults, particularly “normal” ones (that is, those without a developmental disability) would find boring, meaningless, even unpleasant. I’m talking about, for example, watching Mulan for the hundredth time, collecting every single movie edition of Aladdin, and listing the release year of Disney movies from Snow White to the present.

It’s terribly hard for Diego to find people who enjoy these things the same way that he does. As we go through life, we learn to like, appreciate and even love things we used to find uninteresting or even dislike. An “acquired taste” is what we call it. Coffee and wine are acquired tastes for me. (In truth, the former is more of a dependency at this point.)

No adult I know, however, could acquire a taste for seeing Mulan a hundred times. It makes me sad sometimes that no one in Diego’s daily life really gets how he feels about it or about having the latest Aladdin Blu-ray edition. Not even me, his mom.

And this is why I must take Diego to Cape Cod to visit his friend Owen every season.

Two young men smiling
Diego and Owen, Fall 2018
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