(Beginning Note: This post was inspired by Rhi’s beautiful synopsis of the recent National Autistic Society (NAS) conference in the UK a little while ago. Although I couldn’t attend myself, as it was in the UK and I was knee-deep in exam-studying here in the US, I was definitely there in spirit, and it was every bit as amazing of an event as I figured it would be. I’ve had a post in “draft/idea form” about this topic for a while, but her incredible write-up inspired me to remember it, and to form a few thoughts about a particular aspect of Asperger’s/autism-spectrum-dominated social events, as well as social situations/interaction in general, from a specific angle. Here are those thoughts…)
The diagnostic criteria for the Asperger’s/autism spectrum mention a difficulty with socialization, be it eye contact, touch, shaking hands, reciprocity in communication, sharing interests, etc.
The truth is, aside from making eye contact, we actually do all of these things that the “experts” claim we don’t do. We just do them in a different way. But doing them differently isn’t the same as not doing them at all.
For example, most of us do indeed share our interests with others. We simply find that most aren’t interested in listening beyond a certain point. (By the way, isn’t it a little “odd” that in one breath, the diagnostic criteria describe “failure of normal back-and-forth conversation”, which is usually interpreted as “we go on and on forever about something”, usually that “something” being a “fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus”, aka a “special interest”, and in the next breath, they mention “reduced sharing of interests”?)
We do indeed listen to others when they are speaking. We do indeed successfully receive and understand their message. It’s just that we may not stare into their eyes while doing so, because staring into their eyes is distracting, and it takes away from our ability to concentrate on what they’re saying. Or perhaps we take a little longer to process what they’re saying. I dare say that sometimes, our time-delay in doing this is due to a more thorough processing than is typically characteristic of neurotypical auditory processing.
Our social awkwardness is indeed a Thing, but it’s typically much more of such a Thing when we’re surrounded by people of a different neurotype. Tony Attwood explains in his book “The Complete Guide To Asperger’s Syndrome” that if you put us in a room to pass time by ourselves, the social awkwardness disappears.
OK, so that’s old news; most people know that. Some might also respond with, “well, duh – social awkwardness is only present in social situations!”
I get that. In order for the social awkwardness to be visible, the person must be involved in a social situation and there might also be a demand for–or expectation of—social interaction.
What most people might not realize, however, is that if you put us in a room full of fellow Asperger’s/autistic people, something happens that is similar to being by ourselves: we’re far less socially awkward.
Why? We’re socializing, after all. There are other people around, and we can assume that interaction between ourselves and those other people will take place. If we truly had an issue with socializing itself, and if that issue truly rested only with ourselves, as the “experts” claim that it does, then the issue should reveal itself no matter who we’re socializing with.
But our ability to relate appears to shine much brighter when surrounded by people who share a similar neurological configuration.
So the “problem” isn’t exactly with us. We should not bear all the responsibility for the social issue described in the DSM criteria. It really does take two, as my mum always said.
When people on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum find ourselves together in the same space, the interaction flows much more smoothly.
This is because we operate at the same frequency. We use a similar, recognizable code. The interaction is no longer a PC-to-Mac/Linux compatibility issue; it’s a Mac/Linux-to-Mac/Linux connection. They already speak your language, and you already speak theirs.
This allows the extraneous surface idiosyncracies to be overlooked and adjusted for, in a way that is seamless and mostly automatic.
For example, when talking with a fellow Aspergian/autistic person, you might briefly notice that they’re wiggling their foot. You probably automatically know that their foot-wiggling is likely to be a “stim” (self-soothing/anchoring/focus activity). Likewise, they already know that my fiddling with the skin and muscles in my neck is a “stim”, too. These are commonly-shared and automatically-understood attributes. And rather than focusing on that surface characteristic, it is unspokenly agreed upon and mutually identified with, and it cancels out.
Another example: someone is having (or talking about a time when they had) a meltdown. Rather than judging someone for getting testy or short (and taking it personally), it’s understood: they’re having a meltdown, they can’t control it, it must run its course, and it was probably brought about by a multitude of factors, very few of which have much (if anything) to do with the situation at hand or the people immediately present.
It would be taboo to ignore and dismiss it, and it’s just as taboo to dwell on it, judgmentally point it out, and scold or chastise the person for it.
A third example might include our discussion of “special interests” (preferentially known by a variety of other terms, such as “areas of focus”, “topics of interest”, a “niche specialty”, and others). Most of us have our own subject matter of primary interest, and contrary to the diagnostic criteria, which claim the “reduced sharing of interests”, we’re often accused of “going on and on about the same thing forever”. (So, which is it? Are we mute, or are we monologous robots?? Or, (semi-snark) could we possibly be somewhere in between, just like anybody else, but perhaps we express it differently? (End semi-snark).)
So, how are “special interests” a third example of how we understand and respect each other?
That’s easy: we simply respect them. Even if we don’t share the same area of interest ourselves, we still completely understand that that’s a topic of interest for someone else, and it would be unconscionable to judge the subject area itself or the intensity of the person’s interest in it. That’s Just Not Done.
We also may feel very spirited in our interest in a particular topic, but we tend not to deluge others with it, in case our level of interest isn’t mutually shared. Sometimes we’ll actually ask, “are you into [x topic], too?” Or I might preface my “special interest monologue” with something like “the next paragraph/message is about [x topic], so if you’re not interested, I understand; please feel free to skip over it.”
Or maybe our acknowledgment might come after-the-fact; I know that on many occasions, I’ve smiled sheepishly (usually with emoji or smiley symbols, as this communication typically takes place online), “sorry for the info-dump.”
Considering these examples, a pattern begins to emerge. An astute non-autistic person begins to realize just how much we do care about fellow human beings, just how considerate we actually are, just how socially compatible we (definitely) can be with other people, just how different our methods of socialization are from that of the “rest of the world”, and just how similar those methods actually are.
The neurotypical population makes concessions for–and adaptations to–various attributes displayed by fellow neurotypical people in social situations. Certain attributes and customs are commonly shared and thus, understood and accepted. Nobody makes a huge deal out of it.
For example, nobody in the neurotypical world accuses each other of staring when they’re engaged in conversation, because eye contact is expected.
Nobody accuses anyone of invading someone’s personal space when they’re meeting for the first time and shaking hands, because that, too, is customary.
Most neurotypical people engage in a form of subtle, subconscious posturing; for example, one of the main “ice-breakers” in a conversation involves the disclosure of one’s occupation. This is especially prevalent among people who: 1) are indeed employed, and 2) are likely to be satisfied or even proud of their job title; and 3) it often helps if they’re also successful in that job role. This is likely because many neurotypical people tend to think more highly of someone if they’re successful in a respected career or job position.
We, the people on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum, may not share all of those same neurotypical customs.
We may indeed find eye contact to be intrusive and hand-shaking to be invasive.
We may not care what someone does for a living; we may not even want to disclose what we do.
We may or may not even be steadily employed or so-called successful; “success”, as conventionally defined, may not even be all that important to us. We tend not to think more highly of someone if they’re successful in their career.
What tends to matter much more (at least, in my own experience) is the genuineness of character, of the trustworthiness and authenticity, and whether or not we “click” with someone. Feeling safe with another person, getting the impression that the other person is being “real”, and being secure in the unlikelihood that we’ll be judged by that person are three (but definitely not the only three) crucial factors for many Aspergian/autistic people.
Our way of relating to others might be different, but that doesn’t mean that it’s nonexistent. I’ve noticed certain ethical and friendship codes, codes that tend to be maintained and remain in place even when no one else is looking. We’re not typically candidates for manipulation, nor do we tend to play games. What you see is pretty much what you get…well, kind of. We’re not engaging in deception, but we may not be able to express everything going on in our heads. That doesn’t mean we’re lying, it just is what it is.
Often, we won’t realize that we’re actually socially competent until we interact with another “one of our own” (i.e., someone else on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum). Once we get together, spend the first few minutes feeling each other’s vibes out, realize we’re talking with someone almost always completely safe and nonjudgmental, someone understanding, and we start diving into conversation, chances are that any previously-existing social awkwardness will evaporate fairly quickly. 🙂
This is one of my more popular posts!
How It Feels To Find Your ‘Tribe’ ~ September 23, 2016
15 Reasons I Love My Asperger’s / Autistic Friends ~ December 16, 2016
The Asperger’s / Autism Spectrum Neurosibling ‘Hive-Mind’ (meant as a positive, affectionate term) ~ November 23, 2016
(Image Credit: West By Southwest Decor)