I haven’t really felt the urge to blog for the last week or two. Am struggling with depression at the moment and while this is nothing really unusual or remarkable, it makes life into a series of minor fallings apart and getting back together again, which are tiring and make writing personally into too much of a mental mountain to climb.
Also though, I don’t really think the internet needs my introspection and emoting simply for the sake of personal “writing therapy” – it’s quite boring really. So, it feels important to think that what I’m writing serves some kind of advocacy purpose, rather than only being about myself, in the sense of “telling my story” for the personal sake of it.
However, I think that what I want to write in this post does serve that advocacy purpose. It’s about social “misunderstandings” that can happen (especially to autistic people, but to others as well) – and tries to cover some of the problems with “social” that can be hard to talk about in real life, because “social” is such an emotive, moralised and normalised concept that to problematise it can be to confess to “personality flaws” and “weaknesses” that are tough to admit to. I guess I’m trying to challenge some of the more pernicious aspects of stigma that I’ve experienced in relation to “social”.
So these are two types of “misunderstanding” that happen when people don’t understand how I (can’t) “do social” – how confusing it all is, and how I can often feel like a fish out of water while (apparently) doing a good impression of gliding swan (ugly duckling?)
Stupid and Pedantic
One thing that I find particularly confusing is the fact that people have told me for as long as I can remember that I’m supposed to be “bright” and “intelligent” – but I’m really not sure what this actually means. There’s obviously some kind of evidence for it in academic marks and grades – but it has always, for as long as I can remember, gone alongside being laughed at (with? Never feels like it) for lacking “common sense” and saying “stupid” things. This generally seems to happen when I fail to understand the context of a situation, so I say something, or ask a question that other people have avoided because they know from the context that the statement or question is implausible. It means that I often miss the point, and it makes asking questions feel like a really risky business.
In my teaching, I’m quite clear and explicit that there is “no such thing as a daft question” – because I don’t think there is. All questions are hard if you don’t know the answer to them yet. But I still have students who don’t dare to ask questions, or who preface them with “this is probably a daft question…” because they expect to be laughed at. Mostly I feel like that too – and it doesn’t have to be because the individuals present at the time are particularly cruel or likely to laugh at me, it’s just memories of being totally lost in interaction and not knowing how to rescue myself – and times when people HAVE, most definitely laughed at (with? Never feels like it) me.
The consequence of this is not only personal pain at being laughed at, but a lessened inclination to trust one’s own abilities, and an aversion to trying new things, asking questions and sharing thoughts. Not exactly conducive to learning. Not helpful. And (certainly in more extreme moments of self-doubt) the conclusion that I’m not “intelligent” at all – just stupid but very obsessive.
There’s another side to being a person who doesn’t always infer context though – or who doesn’t make assumptions or guess easily, and that’s the constant need for more information than is generally provided. This happens in terms of instructions – and is why when learning to do something – like acquiring new practical skills (rather than learning ABOUT something), I’m much less anxious if I can figure the thing out myself without the pressure of social attention. When I was at school, my mum spent summer holidays teaching me practical things that I’d have to learn in the following year (like sewing for technology classes), because the anxiety of not being able to do them and not learning in the ways that the majority of the class learned were too much for me to manage. I was just really scared of being laughed at (which was already happening enough anyway).
And this phenomenon has the effect of making people think that I’m pedantic too. A quite simple example will be if someone sends an email with a date and time for something, and they make a mistake which I’m supposed to recognise (from some other contextual information) as quite obviously a mistake – but I don’t know, because I can’t guess and make assumptions, and trying to do so makes me extremely anxious. So, my inclination would be to ask for clarification, but if I do this, I get comments about how it was “obvious” and that I’m being “pedantic”. I’ve tended to stop asking for clarifications because I thought that was the socially appropriate thing to do (other people don’t ask, so the rule must be not to ask), but this just leaves me anxious and nervous. BUT sometimes, when I do question things that don’t make sense to me, I get told that I spotted a mistake and was useful and this is seen as a socially advantageous thing. There’s no way of predicting whether the response to my questioning will be along the lines of “you’re such a pedant” or “oh we hadn’t spotted that – your autistic attention to detail is such an asset” – people are illogical and inconsistent, and it’s all very confusing.
What’s really good is when I can use my need for certainty and clarity and detail for the benefit of everyone I’m with. Last week, I had a meeting about a project I’m organising, and it was lovely because I was able to make sure that every action that needed to happen was clearly defined, with a deadline and person responsible for it clearly set out. We all checked that we had the same expectations and everyone commented that they knew what they were doing and were excited about the project. It wasn’t about me “being autistic” – I just did what comes naturally, in a context where I was able to, and it was appropriate, and it worked. There was no vagueness and no guessing – heaven!
But proper social situations (by which I mean those of a “hanging out with friends” nature, rather than “social” in the wider sense of “interaction with other human beings”) are the worst! Arrangements are often deliberately vague, because who likes being tied down to specific times and plans? (Err … “me” says the small autie voice hiding in the corner). You’re not allowed an agenda for social conversations, so there’s no opportunity to plan or script what you might want to talk about – and anyway, the chances are that you’re not going to be able to talk about anything really anyway, because people very often don’t want to talk about things that interest you (politics, ethnomusicology, textile crafts, swimming and being underwater, German grammar, really, really cool academic literature that I’ve just read…whatever else is occupying my mind at the time). And if you do find someone to talk to, who SEEMS interested in the same subject (because, to be fair, the majority of the friends in my life share at least some of my interests and politics), there’s always the worry that you’re talking too much about it (because it’s in your diagnosis that you can’t tell when you’re boring people) – and anyway (non autistic) people do social lies, so they’d never tell you to be quiet or that you’d talked enough – they’d just talk about you behind your back. That thought hurts.
And this is all before we’ve got onto the subject of “sensory” in “social”.
Quite apart from such offensive and frankly disgusting things as strong perfume, pervasive food smells (except garlic, garlic is fine) and the bizarre social convention of shaking hands (ugh), “social” in this sense means conversation, and conversation means listening, and listening means being able to hear. I can hear – I can hear well – I can hear better than many, many people BUT (like probably the majority of autistics I know), I CAN’T do auditory discrimination. This means that when I’m processing what I hear, my brain doesn’t do the trick that social brains do of filtering out background noise that isn’t useful in the social practice of taking part in conversation. The voice of the person (people) I’m trying to listen to and interact with has to compete with all of the other noises around – including the hum of lights, the buzz of electric wires, chairs scraping, projectors, other voices – and, and, and … attempting to filter all that out (unsuccessfully most of the time) is tense-making and exhausting (and, for me, the single biggest causes of overload/panic/terror/lashing out/ curling up/running away/“looking autistic”), but also, I generally can’t hear what the person I’m supposed to be talking to is saying, so I either have to keep asking them to repeat themselves (there’s only so many times you can realistically do that in conversation), or make a guess (more opportunities for looking stupid if I guess something totally inaccurate). One partial solution is to lip-read – if you ever think that autistics are not being “proper autistics” by seeming to do eye contact – chances are, they might be lip reading!
Blunt and Outspoken
The second misunderstanding arises because of my inability to be a proper introvert. As someone who hates “social” as much as I’ve described, it might seem like it’d be easy for me to just keep quiet and be a “shy girl” – society can be quite accommodating of “shy girls”. If I just shut up and kept out of people’s way, a whole load of this social rubbish could be avoided.
But I can’t do that!
Sometimes I think I’m going to try. If I have to “do social” and I really don’t want to, and am feeling quite belligerent about it, or if I really feel out of my depth, I decide I’ll just keep quiet, let other people get on with it, and wait until it’s over. But then somebody says something – and I either know it’s wrong (as in, factually wrong), or I have an opinion – and I just can’t keep it to myself. So I end up sharing it (sometimes in a socially inappropriate way, where I wasn’t even meant to be “in” on the conversation anyway, because I’m not good at observing the walls that exist around different groups in social spaces).
And because I’m only bothering to join in talking/interacting when it’s something I feel strongly enough about, it probably comes across that I’m that outspoken generally. I don’t know that I am though, I just think that if I don’t care about something that much I’m going to let other people get on with it – I’m not going to join in for the sake of “doing social” like other people do. I don’t think “doing social” is necessarily ever going to be my primary aim, because I don’t really know that it’s in my repertoire – if I’m talking to people it’s because I’m interested in the things they’re saying (that’s one of those things that one gets morally criticised for though – because you’re meant to be interested in the person as well, and in “being sociable”.)
There is, however, another way of looking at this “blunt and outspoken” misunderstanding – and that’s to question why it’s a problem. It clearly is a problem, at least to some people – those exact words are in my diagnosis, so were seen by my diagnosing psychologist as being indicative of my “social communication deficits”. But, when others describe me as “blunt and outspoken”, I genuinely think I’m doing “honest and interested” (which I think is a good thing). Honesty and “being real” are really, really important to me. Not feeling like I’ve been honest eats me up inside – which is a big problem when being honest is not socially appropriate (social lies – telling friends they look good when they don’t – telling someone you liked their cooking when you didn’t, as well as all the kinds of bureaucratic “not telling the whole truth” that goes on when filling in official forms). For me, I’d far rather people just said what they mean (which is different from being deliberately cruel – the kind of honesty I’m talking about is meant to help people to move on, give them other things to think about etc and it values them enough to engage with them. Being cruel does neither of those things). And on the “interested” part of “outspoken” – if I’m talking about something I care about, why wouldn’t I be interested enough to appear “outspoken”, and why can’t the people I’m speaking to be “outspoken” back so that we can actually have interesting (and interested) conversation? I don’t mean shouting at each other, I don’t mean being rude and I don’t mean being partisan and ignoring other perspectives – I mean being passionate and engaged. What’s wrong with that? How come that part of me is pathological and diagnosable?
Those are just the beginnings of some thoughts about the “tyranny of social” – and particularly social assumptions. There’s certainly more to say – not least about how “social” has invaded pretty much every job-related person specification, about the perceived morality of social, and about what this means in relation to the marginalisation of autistic people. But those are for another time.