The first time a girl ever made a pass at me, or at the very least the first time I was aware of it, I just sat there in silence smiling awkwardly. I had absolutely no idea how to appropriately respond.
This is just one of many situations in life when I have found myself at a loss for words. In the midst of the COVID-19 lockdown, many of my friends have expressed how desperately they miss the social aspects of pub drinking. Whilst I would normally be inclined to agree with them, my last experience in a pub a few months ago left me somewhat disenchanted. It was a situation in which I found myself having to talk to a number of strangers and my ability to effectively communicate failed me. Worse still, I was made to feel very inadequate by others as a result of this. I was lucky enough to be able to rely on a non-autistic friend for support, but I am nevertheless quite happy to stick to home drinking for the foreseeable future.
In any group setting that consists of more than 5 people I am likely to ‘shut down’ to a greater extent. There are a number of reasons as to why this is. Firstly, there is an element of Anxiety. Often at school I was made to feel as if my opinions were unwelcome, based entirely upon the fact that I did not meet the expected standards of normality that had been established by my peers. As a result, I quickly became withdrawn and learned to ‘blend into the background’. It sometimes amazes people that an individual as quiet as myself could have had any kind of success on the stage; but, to quote a wonderful Ricky Gervais send-up sketch: ‘How did I know what to say? Because it was written down for me in a script.‘. Real-life communication, by contrast, is fraught with uncertainty.
As soon as I open my mouth in a group setting I am hit with the overwhelming feeling that I am being judged by many people and that many staring eyes are suddenly upon me. Condensing my thoughts into a stream of information that others can understand often proves to be a challenge. I have a habit of using both too few and too many words. If I am particularly anxious and want all eyes to be diverted from me as soon as possible, I will likely try to be brief in my explanation or utterance; but brevity can, in turn, cause more questions to be asked as my statement is found to be lacking the expected amount of information, therefore being unsatisfying.
Overloading with too much information causes the opposite problem: I am very guilty of this one, usually because it is important for me to express my exact thoughts and feelings on a matter. Autistic people like certainty and clear facts: but this amount of information may be too much for others to process, with much of what was said seeming superfluous.
Whilst my brain is working in fifth gear trying to convey information to others appropriately, I am also expected to make eye contact, which can be incredibly uncomfortable for me, sometimes even with those I trust. Then there is the matter of working out when to speak and when to be quiet. In a script, it is established when one person (or character) starts and stops speaking, and when it is the turn of another to do so. In real life, interruptions occur frequently. Finding the right gap in a conversation in which to start speaking can be difficult. Imagine being me, having finally built up the courage to speak and a plan for what to say and how to say it, only to be interrupted or otherwise cut off just as I start to convey the information. Equally embarrassing is when I start speaking a split second after somebody else got there first, and I now feel shame for having immediately made a mistake.
At school or in any formal group setting, there was nothing worse for me than being suddenly and unexpectedly asked for my opinion. Within a single solitary moment, I had involuntarily been placed in a situation where the entire focus of a room was upon me. I would have to think fast or else look a fool. Sometimes there was no rhyme or reason for this: a teacher or other authority figure had randomly chosen for me to be singled out, and anybody else could have shared in this fate just as easily. On other occasions, when I have been physically and mentally unable to effectively communicate, being asked to involve myself has been soul-destroying when I had previously gone to such trouble to keep myself out of plain sight.
Then there is the problem of conflict. Even for neurotypical people, misunderstandings are a common part of everyday life; but for autistic people, knowing how to deal with conflict can be incredibly difficult. Many of us have tried time and time again to employ our best social skills and tactful thinking to an uncomfortable situation, only to be met by very little or maybe even no cooperation in return. This inevitably causes a number of frustrations and deep-rooted emotions to come to the fore.
When provoked my anger can be white-hot and long-lasting, as the next-door neighbour I have blanked for over a year would attest to. In other situations, I simply do not know how to respond. In a workplace environment, when employers have adamantly refused to take my needs into account and threats of job loss or disciplinary action have been made, I have been hit by a wave of feelings: fear, depression, anger, sadness and disappointment to name a few. Communicating any of this in such a stressful situation is often so beyond me that I have simply been lost for words. My entire vocabulary (which is quite a considerable one) had been rendered useless at that moment.
Many autistic people, myself included, have a strong sense of social justice and take morals very seriously. We also have an inherent need to follow our passions and being prevented from doing so by others can result in tremendous down spirals for our mental health. Convincing others of our intentions can be difficult for many of the reasons listed in this piece, but other factors such as our body language and tone of voice may provide the wrong impression to those not well-versed in the ways of autistic communication.
Given the many challenges autistic people face in social situations, it is little wonder that many of us choose to be alone as much as possible, even those of us who are lucky enough to have loved ones who understand and accommodate us. If I am still on the earth in twenty years from now, it is very likely that I will be living in some form of self-imposed exile. If nothing else, this pandemic has proved that I have the mental fortitude to do it.