Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Autistics Speaking Day

What is it like to me to be autistic?  Well, have you ever had writers block?  I mean those times when you sit staring at a piece of paper for ten minutes, an hour, or maybe even days knowing that you should have something to say.  Or maybe you even need to say something because it is a school assignment or a work evaluation and just nothing will come?  Maybe your earliest experiences with writing were attacked by a grammar Nazis who couldn’t tell the difference between cultivating the creative process and the sense of power it gave them to point out all your misplaced commas?  And after their loving attention, every stinking time you try to write it is as if your middle school English teacher is staring over your shoulder, telling you your formatting is wrong before you’ve even written a single word?

That is how I feel when I try to do “small talk.”  Like staring at a blank piece of paper that just won’t let itself be written.  When I do try to talk it often doesn’t go well.  I’ve probably been asked more than a thousand times if I could “say that again in English.”  It’s probably been more than a thousand times that people tell me “stop making me think.”  It has probably been more than a million times that people have told me to “stop using such big words.”  While there generally have always been some people who could accept the way I spoke without criticism, these were very common reactions and they even happened routinely within my own family.  While there are people who try to impress others by "talking smart" I am not one of them.  I can't turn it off.  Compared to a typical mind I tend to understand and describe the world in its “details” rather than in its “big picture.”  The literal meaning of words is just as obvious if not more obvious than the social meaning.  Connections between ideas that seem obvious to me are at times obscure to other people.  All of this spills over into how I speak.  To successfully talk with other people I often have to consciously “translate” my natural language into “normal people” language.  If I get excited by an interesting discussion I sometimes forget to “translate” and sometimes people stop being able to understand me at all.  It is easier for me to talk about specific ideas and concepts than it is to perform the “talk about nothing” social ritual that normally lubricates social interactions.  The larger the group of people, the harder it is for me to do small talk.  I also have very little feel for guessing in real time how people will react to the things that I say, often only realizing afterwards if something would be likely to come across wrong.

So what does it do to you to be different like that?  It makes you into the mostly silent kid who “talks like a professor.”  Most people are not ready to be friends with someone who has trouble doing small talk because small talk is the language they use to navigate the early stages of relationship.  If you don't do it, they might assume you don't want to have anything to do with them.  Even if they know that you are technically part of their social group, they have trouble viewing you as anything other than the "smart person" whom they only talk to if they want to know something.  I was lucky growing up to have a good friend who excelled at connecting me with larger social groups, so as a I child I was nowhere near as bad off as I might have been.  There is unfortunately a limit of what one person can do.  In many social contexts I became the lonely kid who is told over and over that if they don’t have friends it is their fault for not smiling enough.  That is about as useful as telling someone in a wheel chair that if they really wanted to be included in the party upstairs they’d just quit whining and walk up the stairs like everybody else.  It isn’t that I don’t want friends or that I don’t smile at people.  It isn’t that I don’t want to talk to people.  But even holding what to someone else seems a “normal” small talk conversation can be a good deal of work.  It can be a relief to hang out with people who are well educated enough that they’d never think to complain that talking to me makes them think too much.  Well educated people are also much more likely to enjoy talking about ideas (easy for me to do) rather than endlessly talking about nothing (very hard for me to do).  For all the honor students, graduate students, and college professors who might wonder why I hung around you so much, now you know why.  People who actively accept people who are different than them are also a joy.

I do have autistic traits other than difficulty socializing.  I have poor executive functioning skills, stims, sensory sensitivities, and obsessions.  For the most part, however, these don’t interfere with my life as much as the social anxiety and awkwardness.  My poor executive function, or inherent ability to organize myself to get things done, is no where near as bad as some people have.  My sensory abnormalities, which used to make warm water, beans, and sales tags attached to clothing unbearable, diminished in severity during adolescence.  My stims, including sequentially touching each finger to thumb or tapping my feet are noticeable to those who know me.  I can’t pretend these don’t impact me at all since I was once  told by a man that if I were to apply for a job from him he probably would not hire me because he thought my stims would be unsettling to customers.  However, in my daily life they don’t get in my way.  No one has ever made concerted effort to “cure” me of stimming, so unless I am in a job interview, interacting with police (who might think I look nervously guilty or on drugs), or doing public speaking I rarely feel insecure about stimming.  Other autistics aren’t so lucky, having had doctors and family go to great lengths to try to cure them of their stims to the point where they have debilitating anxiety just being in public for fear that someone might see them fidget.  My obsessions, which at times have made it difficult for me to talk about anything other than birds, telescopes, armadillos, or whatever idea had come to me recently, come with less frequency and intensity now.  Instead of hardly being able to talk about anything else, I now often find myself able to talk about other things if someone else starts the conversation.  If I am starting a conversation I might have trouble thinking of anything to say outside of my obsession.  If my particular interest at any given time is socially inappropriate for the situation, like say talking about exercise routine design with obese people for example, I generally stay silent.  Silence is easy, except for bit where you are automatically isolated from people who don’t accept companionship in silence.

It is often difficult to talk about how I am affected by being on the autism spectrum even when I am prepared to describe it eloquently.  Many people can accept it without difficulty, but it is common that some people just don’t want to believe that my life is in any ways substantially different from theirs.  When they see that  I obviously can socialize to some extent, they can’t accept that it might still be difficult in a meaningful way.  Jane Meyerding, writing in the anthology “Coming Out Asperger” (p. 254) describes the problem well:
The only way to escape the generous NT assumption that “we’re all alike” - and that the only acceptable way for a decent person to react to difference is to refuse to acknowledge it - is to “hit them over the head” with an example too outrageous to be reinterpreted as “normal.”  And that’s a shame.  As Larry Arnold has written, “nobody turns around and says to someone that they can’t have arthritis because they are not in a wheelchair”
Some people who don’t understand autism or who don’t want to believe that I am autistic will think I am whining or being a wuss about having had a bad childhood.  They might think that everybody struggles in middle or high school, right?  So I should just move on with my life like everybody else.  Or they accuse me of having a bad attitude, telling me the lie from childhood that if I just smiled at people more I’d find more friends.  Or they tell me that I am gifted in life to be able to make it my life mission to socialize with other misfits to make them less lonely.  I don’t think people who say this realize they are asking me to take on the social work they would rather not or cannot do themselves and that unless the misfit in question is a misfit in the same way I am, there isn’t any automatic reason I am particularly suited to the task.  While I am happy to try, as part of being an ethical person, if we are misfits in different ways I might even be worse at trying to reach out to them than other people would be.

What I wish for is that there was some reliable way I could communicate to the world that I want to socialize and be friendly with them but it will help if they take the lead in starting and helping to maintain the conversation.  Or if I was not feeling up to being able to verbally socialize, that people would meaningfully include me even when I am not able to use language in a social way.  For example, when people bring treats in to work to share with the people in cubicles near them they often don’t even offer them to me, acting as if I weren’t even there even though sharing treats is not based in language.  This kind of inclusion would be exactly the same kind of politeness that nobody blinks an eye over when they hold a door open for a person using crutches.  I’ve never learned how to advertise that need for a little help to be included, though I do try.  My desk even has a sign by it saying “Say Hi to Me” on it.  People see my silence or perhaps the adaptations I use to help with my auditory sensory issues (I typically can’t filter out the distraction of background sounds and loud background noise levels can be distressing) and assume that I just don’t want to talk to them.  It is not uncommon that when I try to start conversations with people they seem unaware that I even spoke to them.  I am fairly sure it is not because they can’t hear me.  My voice is naturally on the loud side and I have trouble always even realizing it when I need to be quieter.  I can never tell for certain if I just missed a social cue that would let them know to pay attention or whether they are actively ignoring me.  I worry that if they are ignoring me and I keep trying harder to get their attention on the assumption that I missed giving the right social cue, I might make myself positively obnoxious.  I am fairly certain that at least part of the problem is that in a new social situation it can take me a long time to warm up to people, and by the time I am ready to talk to them (say after several months of sitting near them at work) they no longer view me as part of their social group and are caught by surprise when I speak.  All I know for certain is that I made a substantial effort to overcome my own social anxiety to talk to them and they acted as if I weren't there.  Trying to be socially invisible was something I did as a child to avoid being tormented by bullies.  I stopped trying to be socially invisible years ago, but I often still feel invisible.

Even though in many environments it is common for me to face some degree of social rejection, I rarely see it as the result of people being mean.  People simply find it easier to only socialize with people who are like them.  That is a natural instinct that serves "normal" people pretty well because there are gobs of "normal" people they can meet at almost any time.  For people who have never struggled to find friends, it seems almost mind boggling that only socializing with people who are like you doesn't work for everyone.  I can go years at a time without meeting a new person who I naturally get along with instead of having to work hard and long to build even a basic relationship.  For people who find friends easily, it is easiest to imagine that somehow this is my fault and they have no idea the mental toll their exclusion takes on me. 

Despite all of this, I still try to socialize with my peers at work and elsewhere.  I often feel discouraged but I still try.  Since I often have only a distant awareness of my emotions I often can't tell the negative emotions from this discouragement are building up until they are intense.  Sometimes the only way I know I am in under severe stress is because my body starts showing medical symptoms of high stress such as my jaw muscles locking up, my eye lids start twitching, and my acid reflux getting worse.  Occasionally the feelings become strong enough to directly break into my awareness and I have exhausting days where I think I am feeling fine and then suddenly find myself so deep in anxiety an depression that I have difficulty focusing.  Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg, writing in the anthology Loud Hands (p. 274) describes the emotional landscape I find myself within with painful beauty:
Put yourself in our shoes.  It is vital that able-bodied people consider how soul-wearying it is to keep trying until one finds those people who simply accept the awkwardness - my awkwardness, their awkwardness, our awkwardness - and make a connection.  It hurts the heart to keep going out and trying.  Ask yourself: What is keeping you from extending a word, a listen, a desire for connection to us?  And how does your failure to use your social skills to bring other human beings into community translate into a social disability located in autistic people, rather than in the able-bodied world?
To all the people I have known who have accepted me as I am and been willing to make space for me in their lives, you know who you are and you have my infinite thanks.  I just wish the rest of the world was just as inclusive.  And not just of people like me but for everyone.

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