The way I socialize is different, but it’s not wrong.
The most comfortable way for me to fill my social needs (and yes, autistic people have social needs) is to absorb conversation. That means, to sit in a group of people who are socializing and just observe and drift among the conversations. This means I may not verbally enter the conversation myself. This means I may not even look at you. But I hear everything.
Non-autistic people see me do this and think I am not paying attention. They think I don’t want to be there. I hear frequently, “What’s wrong?” or, “Aren’t you having fun?” or “You look sad.”
Nothing is wrong. Yes, I am enjoying myself. No, I’m not sad.
And that’s only what people who know me say. People who I’m trying to make friends with see the way I usually interact and assume I’m stuck up, or uninterested, or maybe that I just don’t like them.
Can you see how it could be very difficult for me to make friends? I can’t wear a huge flashing sign everywhere that says “I am interested in what you have to say, but I probably won’t ask you questions. Please keep talking.”
I don’t stay silent because I don’t like you. I stay silent because it takes me a little bit longer to process what you’re saying and filter the meaning. What’s funny and against stereotype is that meaningless small talk is actually pretty easy for me. It’s just memorized scripts. No one really cares what the answers are.
Just once I would like to answer someone’s “how are you?” with “Well, when I left my house this morning I ran into a 6 foot tall pink bird that tried to take me to its nest and I had to battle my way out of there with the karate skills I learned when I was 10. So I’m kind of tired today, thanks for asking.” See if they notice that!
But I digress.
Once you get past “how are you” people usually move into something similarly shallow, but not nearly as interesting to me, like sports, or fashion, or celebrities. I guess this is the place where I genuinely am not interested. But the majority of people I hang around or try to get to know have conversations about their lives, or their experiences, or their aspirations, or one of our mutual interests, like musical theatre or Broadway or more broad topics like my university.
I like hearing about this. But I will likely be looking away and possibly I won’t even contribute to the conversation if there is more than just the two of us. You might think I want to leave. People usually do. But it’s the opposite. I am appearing to tune out because I need to tune out of all this input in order to really HEAR what you’re saying and understand it.
You think the only thing to hear is your voice. But there’s the crowd of teenagers on the other side of the dining room and the ringing of the cash registers and the buzzing of the florescent lights. You might be able to tune this out without really thinking about it, but I can’t.
You think the only thing to see is your face. But you don’t understand that there is so much input and nuance in your face that in order for me to concentrate on your words I can’t look at you.
So that’s how I have a conversation. People think I’m quiet. I guess that’s true. But uninterested? Unengaged? Not true.
I just don’t quite do it the way you do.