On Being Autistic And Navigating The Minefield of Social Interaction

One of the simplest to define attributes of autism/Aspergers’ syndrome is a poor sense of social interaction. When I try and fail to describe what Aspergers’ is to people, it’s one of the things that immediately come to mind — mainly because it’s really easy to remember. (I just wish more people would ask me what it was when I have a laptop in front of me though, then I could properly explain it and then we would all benefit.) But it isn’t simply about sticking a Socially Awkward Penguin macro where my face is. Even though I do love penguins, it’s actually a lot more problematic than that. In fact, I’m going to confess right now that I am most self-conscious about my articulation and the way I talk more than I am about, say, my weight or my skin or my hair. There. I’ve said it, it’ll be committed to this blog for evermore, and you’ll just have to indulge me on this one.

Don’t get me wrong: I love people. I love hanging out with people, and I like to socialise and make new friends. Some people also happen to be some of My Favourite Things Ever, and the majority of my friends (who are mainly allistic, too) are great and really, really supportive and the best folk you’ll ever meet. The main fear that I have in writing this post is that somehow I end up trying to use my autism to legitimise being an asshole to people, which should never happen because that would let my autism define me and my behaviour. At the same time, I would argue that I have been an accidental asshole on occasion, being totally unaware that I have done something wrong or inappropriate. I can only hope that if I have done so, someone should call me out on it: I may not know otherwise, as I have a tendency to miss or completely misread some social signals, and I’ll recognise my mistake when it’s too late. In general, it’s something I try to avoid anyway, and I’m lucky to have had friends and family to have helped me along the way throughout the years. However, meeting and talking to new people, or people I admire or don’t really know that well, or talking about things I don’t particularly feel secure about in a particular situation, can bring out an awful kind of anxiety in me. I start to lose faith in everything I say, I lose the run of myself, I begin to feel under immense pressure, I begin to worry about keeping the conversation going, and, worst of all, my thoughts start going at a million miles per hour, undermining every single thing that I say.

Exhibit A

Person X: oh hi Emer how are you?

Public Emer: Oh HELLO! I’m grand, I’m grand!

Private Emer: dear god why do you always use the same script EVERY FUCKING TIME don’t you have anything else to say than ‘grand, grand’ didn’t that ‘hello’ sound a bit weird

Exhibit B

Person Y: so what are you doing for your dissertation?

Public Emer: so I’m looking at — what I’m looking at is, uh, how participants and spectators remember, and write, and talk about performance, and I’m looking at the 1999 production of Macbeth because there’s loads written on it…

Private Emer: ok now you’re sounding really stupid right now it’s a stupid idea for a dissertation anyway look they obviously think it’s stupid too

About the whole ‘script’ thing: scripts are secure. Scripts don’t change, for the most part. Scripts have words on them that I can say, and I know that they are there, and I can learn them, and they’re not going away any time soon. Life, unfortunately, does not have such scripts for me to rely on. But I almost feel as if I have to learn some form of a prepared script in order to interact with people, because if I don’t, I will sound incoherent, I will not know what I am saying, and they will think I am weird and silly and stupid. I don’t talk off the cuff in presentations and papers mainly because it’d be impossible for me to talk without some form of script or written paper: again, I would forget things, lose the run of myself, and then feel under immense pressure to sound intelligent, to sound eloquent, to sound PERFECT. One of the worst things is being stuck in a room packed to the gills with other people: you know you should socialise, you know you should talk to people, but how do you do that? How do you do small talk? Who the hell came up with small talk, anyway? To sum up: it’s exhausting, it’s incredibly overwhelming, and I end up leaving very early because I simply cannot deal with it any longer. Social interaction can be a minefield for autistic people. It’s something completely out of control and has a life of its own. Being unable to read people correctly, being unable to read the social situation correctly either, and thus not knowing what to do. It’s generally quite confusing. And when you screw up, you want to tell the person I’M SORRY THAT I’M WEIRD I HAVE ASPERGERS’, but they’ve already cast their judgement: you’re weird, or boring, or just plain strange. And then you start to worry that you’re using your autism as an crutch (again). And the cycle goes forth once more. Part of the problem is that my autism lies in the smallest of details, the smallest of interactions, the ones that are barely noticeable as anything other than ‘normal’.

I should say that it’s fine in comfortable situations. I love house parties, for example, as they’re so laid-back and people want to feed you lots of tacos and/or give you wine, and to those of you who may say: ‘but you’re never like that with ME’, please note that that is because I am comfortable with you, and that you make me feel at ease. That means that you are a good friend too, so well done you.

But in all honesty, I can’t stop that little voice in my brain rebuking me after a conversation with someone. I can’t stop the feelings of being completely overcome by noise and people and everything in between. I don’t want to sound utterly helpless though: even though some things will always be difficult, things can and have gotten better. I would love nothing more than to put paid to the feeling of losing complete confidence in my words: I know it’s something I need to work on. I’m very lucky to have people in my life who are open, loving, and who don’t mind me missing the point of their jokes or being too loud in public places, but who know to pull me in at the right time. I’ve come a long way due to a lot of help from the right people. As long as people are generally good and giving, and as long as I don’t become completely misanthropic and anti-social, I think things are going to be OK. Eventually.

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3 thoughts on “On Being Autistic And Navigating The Minefield of Social Interaction

  1. I found myself in this post A LOT! Some people i am able to bullshit with while other situations end up with me rambling about the weather and other useless pre-programmed scripts. I too have issues on how to explain the Aspergers without using it as a crutch or excuse. I think all we can do is improve, and embrace that fact that we are indeed strange little creatures. Personally, i find the strange and the weird comforting. :]

    1. Thank you! Yes, you do know when things are bad when you start rattling on about the weather. It just gets sticky for EVERYONE.

      I think you’re right about the need to improve [and staying true to oneself too]; I’m not ashamed of my autism and how it makes me into the person I am, but over the years I’ve been learning to compromise in some ways, without feeling as if I need to completely surrender my own sense of self! I’m still working on it, but I hope to find a nice balance eventually.

  2. Pingback: Have I No Mouth: on talking, speaking, spluttering, anxieties, and those uncomfortable silence | letters from a patchwork wizard

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