When I think about the problems that Aspie / Autistic people have with social interaction, and in particular the problems I have with social interaction, I have to say I don’t always agree with what other people say is the cause of the tension and the frustration.
I’ve read pieces written by autistic folks about how internalized ableism is at fault. It’s the feeling that you should be able to do something, but can’t, and then you spend a ton of time being really hard on yourself as a result. It’s the “shoulds” that get us every time.
Now, I’ve had that same talk with myself, many times. I want to blend seamlessly with the world around me. I want to connect. I want to be a part of things. And when my conversations don’t “work” or I end up feeling more disconnected, after my social attempts, I can find myself being pretty rough on myself, feeling deficient. Defective.
At the same time, I think there’s another aspect to my social discomfort. While I do believe that there is an element of internalized ableism that is in play in the back of my mind, I think that for me another big piece of it is that my natural way of approaching the world, making decisions, and taking action is coming up short.
I have an algorithmic way of approaching my life. As in, I have a specific “flow” I follow, in interacting with my life — especially with people around me. I’ve spent 50+ years studying the world and figuring out if-this-then-that, seeking to understand the rules, the structure, the patterns of my environment. That’s especially true for my social environment.
Through constant trial-and-error, I have identified certain patterns, certain “flows” that I can replicate to get through just about every situation — including social interactions. I have my formula(s) that I rely on for social interaction, with each step supposedly leading to another. I expect — or rather, I have come to expect, through intense observation and practice — that when I do such-and-such a thing, such-and-such another thing will happen as a result.
If I approach someone I don’t know, and I raise my hand to wave at them, smile and nod in their direction, I expect them to respond in kind and interpret my gesture as one of friendship. And then we can just chat pleasantly without agitation or fear.
When someone arrives in my cubicle at work and I’m really focused on typing something on my laptop, I can raise my hand before turning and say, “Just a sec, I need to finish this thought…” and they won’t become angry and impatient with me.
When my boss says something in a certain neutral tone, I know he is probably joking and trying to prank me into thinking something is true, when it’s not. That’s how his sense of humor goes, and while it really threw me off at the start and I fell for all kinds of jokes he played on me, now I know what to expect, so it’s actually kind of fun to play along.
Now, should any of these interactions not turn out the way I expect, I get frustrated. I feel terrible. Vulnerable. Foolish. I am dutifully adhering to my formula, whether consciously or unconsciously, and I expect to be “rewarded” with a predictable outcome. But the results are not what I expect them to be. And that’s very distressing… not just because I feel like I have failed again and I am somehow inferior or deficient, with my internalized ableism taking pot-shots at my self-esteem.
It’s a more visceral distress — an existential threat. The pattern that I have identified for navigating social interactions is simply not working. System failure. My approach is not functional. And when my algorithms for how to live my life effectively are not functional, that makes me vulnerable. It puts me at the mercy of unknown circumstances, unsavory or unprincipled characters, unpredictable outcomes, and a lot of variables that could come into play, for which I may not be prepared, and which may end up harming me.
So when I am stepping through the process of interacting with someone and I fail to achieve the result I desired, I get upset. It’s not just because I am being down on myself because I am not as able as other people are. It’s not just because I feel socially inept, that I’m a bad person, that I’m broken, or anything like that. (Obviously, that’s going to come in to play at sometimes, but that’s not the only thing that’s there.)
It’s because I’m in danger. I’m in unknown territory. Uncharted waters. And I could actually get hurt.
For me, the act of validating the algorithmic patterns — the if-then-else mental processing loop — which sustain my pattern-seeking mind is just as important as the actual interaction itself. Yes, I do want to share my ideas, and my experiences, and I want to connect with other people. But I also want my patterns to be validated, and I want my perceived and determined structure of the world to be proven and supported. That’s the one thing that provides at least a small measure of certainty that I’m able to live fully and safely in a confusing and disorienting world.
When my patterns give way or they don’t hold up, I am at a loss for what to do. I am vulnerable, exposed, and my one tool that I have to get me through life has been proven unreliable. So while I do think that autistic spectrum social ineptitude does give rise to feelings of inadequacy and recrimination, I also think the disruption of our patterns is a sign of actual, verifiable inadequacy, which can put us at very real risk.
It’s not just a feeling. It’s a fact.
It’s bad enough not being socially fluid. But when your coping mechanisms break down — even if only for a moment — that can be a pretty bitter pill to take. And it can also be dangerous.