It’s become more and more obvious to me that many NTs really DON’T understand those on the spectrum. Even when they think they do. They misinterpret us, usually to our detriment and their puzzlement. This isn’t always entirely their fault, as often no-one has really explained to them how our minds work.
But other times, and all too often, it’s because they try to interpret us according to NT standards of behaviour, ie they see us doing something, and assume that we are doing it for the same reasons, and in the same way, that they and/or other NTs would do it. It’s an unconscious assumption, but a crucial one nonetheless.
A typical example is the many possible reasons why we don’t make eye contact. It’s very rarely for the reason that NTs assume, ie that we “aren’t interested in other people”.
But a bigger and far more important fallacy is the one surrounding social skills. There seems to be this underlying assumption that once we learn social skills, we’re set. That it’s like learning to ride a bike, or read, or bring a spoon to your mouth – ie, a skill almost automatic once learnt.
When actually social interaction, for us, is more like tightrope walking. By this I mean that even when the skills are thoroughly learnt, we still have to pay 150% of our attention to the task throughout, or risk one heck of a fall. Literally every step has to be made v-e-r-y carefully, total concentration, often difficult when there is lots of ‘audience noise’ (eg background chatter). It is, in essence, a performance.
This means when I’m interacting with NTs, I have a kind of running commentary inside my head, something like this – “Oh, they’ve said hello, okay, say hello back, they’re looking at me expectantly, oh yeah I say xyz next, phew, that went over okay, oh now they’ve replied, what do I say next, try abc, oh and remember to get the body language and voice tone right, yes, that was right, cool, and they’ve replied to that, here we go, try this…” And on and on, a pretty much constant and conscious process.
NOW do you understand why autistics describe social interaction as ‘hard work’?!
I don’t in fact think of these tactics as ‘social skills’. Rather, I think of them as ‘scripts’, rather like those an actor uses. Inside my head, I have a sort of mental library or vast filing cabinet, called “Appropriate Things to Say and Do, and How To Say and Do Them”. It’s full of ‘folders’ for each situation or context, and I am constantly accessing the scripts they contain.
There are few situations now that I have absolutely no script for, and if faced with one I can usually cobble something together from other scripts. And yet I still get it wrong, many a time. When I do, it’s usually because I’ve accessed the wrong ‘folder’, usually through tiredness or stress, though sometimes it’s because I’ve misread a situation, or simply don’t get the body language etc right. And sometimes I just forget, and blurt out stuff without putting it through the mental filter first.
And remember that I’ve spent decades polishing my social skills. When I was younger, and probably for many autistics now, the internal dialogue went more like this – “Oh they’ve said hello, okay say hello back… uh, now what… *BLANK*…. Oh yeah say how are you…. *BLANK* …Um, um, um… *BLANK BLANK BLANK*…. *blurt out something stupid*…” And so on. My mental filing cabinet was small, and with very few folders in it.
Another comparison I sometimes use is to the task of someone negotiating their way through a minefield. Once again, even if well-trained and with the right equipment, 100% of concentration is required, or something will blow up in your face.
And I can’t emphasise enough that this has NOTHING to do with whether or not we like someone, or like people in general, or want to get to know them or be friends with them or not. It’s simply a matter of how polished our scripts are (or how good our mine detection skills are), what scripts we can access easily or correctly, and what might get in the way of using those scripts the best we know how.
So I say to NTs – if we make a social mistake, please don’t get hostile. We’ve accessed the wrong script, or don’t have one for that situation, or something is interfering with our ability to use what we do know. Please, don’t jump to assumptions that we’re doing it for the same reason/s that you or another NT would.
And to other autistics I say, don’t beat yourself up if you make a social blunder or don’t know what to say or do in any situation. We can’t use what we don’t know, or use what we do know well under stress. And honestly, apart from the basic stuff of politeness such as hello, goodbye, please, thank you, waiting your turn etc, I really don’t think we should be putting TOO much effort into learning these skills, unless you really want to of course. I did so for too many years, and it really didn’t help me that much in the long run.
Social skills can be useful, but they’re not the be-all and end-all of making our way in the world. We have far, far more important things to focus on, than whether or not we say ‘hi how are you’ in the right place and the right way.