Tag Archives: socializing

I have “high functioning” autism and you’re saying ‘hi’ to a stranger

I was diagnosed with autism in my early adulthood by specialists in the field. And then I participated in a series of experiments my local university was running that led to my diagnosis to be confirmed. I have autism. No matter how outgoing I sometimes appear on the outside, I have some very well hidden classic autism coping mechanisms.

I’m an adult now, finished school. I learned something while I was in school. I learned that most conventional university experiences are full of noise, full of people, and full of a crowd of young people moving as one because they actually understand instinctively what a party is, or what a get-together is.

I would be perfectly content if it was acceptable to sit at the edge of a party or just outside it, far enough from the noise, and be part of it by solitary enjoying the proximity. That’s where I feel like I’m part of the party. Not in the middle where there is too much input to string two thoughts together and my head feels like an electrical short circuit. I love to listen. So many autistic people I talk to want to be part of it, but just because we enjoy the fringes doesn’t mean we’re not enjoying it at all. I enjoy the fringes the most.

Now that I’m not required to sit in rooms with hundreds of people talking, listening to things that my auditory processing can’t make sense of because the words can’t compete if the air conditioning is too loud, or someone is eating two seats down. I’ve found that I relate to the world in a different way.

I spend almost all of my time alone. An NT person would assume I’m sick. Maybe depressed. And I do have bipolar disorder as a comorbid which adds a new flavor to this, but frankly, I just like to be alone. For me, in these years since graduating school where I’m no longer required to be part of a crowd constantly, I’ve learned that I am much healthier when it’s just me. I can keep my emotions regulated. I can recover from a meltdown – not only that, there are fewer meltdowns because I’m dealing with less at a time.

When I was a kid, the way I’m living now would have seemed like a catastrophe. I wanted to look normal, be normal, live normal. Not this 33-year-old semi-dude (nonbinary but that’s another blog post) who spends at least 85% of his time alone.

I used to dream of the day I would like going out dancing, going to parties, hanging out in large groups. The older I get, the less I want that. The older I get; the more content I am with myself.

And I’m not one of those quiet people who avoid social interaction at all cost. Theatre has always been my deepest interest, right from childhood when I couldn’t talk to people and it caused me so much stress that my dad started writing me scripts. They worked so well that I started writing my own scripts. I have this whole script system laid out in my head like a flowchart. All the easier stuff, pleasantries are there. Conversations with cashiers like speaking on the weather or what holiday is coming up are there.

And then there’s the specific situations like an outing with a friend, or a volunteer job. Those take time to create and are more involved. There are more variables and I write scripts for every variable I can think of.

Once I’ve got scripts, I play the interaction in my head. Visually. This comes from theatre training too. How close will I stand? What will my hands do? What door will we enter? Walking, or standing still? What are the escape exits just in case? I’m lucky enough to have been there before to have a visual picture of the place in my mind, it’s like playing barbies in my imagination.

At the same time, no one is aware that I use so much mammoth preparation for something as small as a coffee chat. So when I get tired easily, or upset, or I need to step outside and collect myself before continuing, I’m always afraid they will smell the different on me. It pays to be an undercover autistic, because we bring so much innovation and views that others might not to projects and our work.

Until.

Until you reach that point where pretending for so long has eaten away every last bit of fuel you’ve been putting into performing your part as non-autistic.

I fly under the radar very easily. I have learned to socialize well, and as part of that I’ve developed an attitude of “I don’t care what they think” which leads to genuine reactions on my part. Usually only people who know autism can see it in me at first glance. But just because I can mask the problems for short times, doesn’t mean they’ve disappeared.

I’m going to write a part 2 about what I’ve learned about working and living as an adult autistic as safely as possible, as openly as possible. Because burnouts can change your life drastically.

Stay safe, everyone.

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I socialize differently, not wrong.

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.