Less Socializing Is More
A big part of my autistic experience is the fact that I have no social circuits. I’m just not programmed for social niceties, small talk, chit chat, etc. Over time, I’ve managed to write some scripts for myself, but it doesn’t come naturally. It requires conscious thought and focus. I’ve explained it to NTs by asking them to imagine having to think about breathing all day long – it’s freaking exhausting! Although some forms of socializing are easier than others, I have limited resources for social interaction in general, and therefore less socializing is more for me.
All Interaction Comes With a Price
All social interaction uses up some of my reserves – if it helps you to visualize something concrete, you can think of tokens or spoons. As I run low on tokens, my ability to run my scripts starts to falter, and my social skills degrade. The more I have to socialize, the worse I am at it. If I have to spend my workday answering phones, speaking with customers, and constantly interacting with my co-workers, I will eventually start to slip up and seem “unfriendly” or “unprofessional”. I will also have spent all my tokens at work and I’ll need to spend my off-hours alone to replenish. However, if I spend my workday largely alone and uninterrupted, I’ll be more successful at the interactions I do have plus I’ll have plenty of tokens left for hanging out with friends outside of work.
But All Encounters Are Not Created Equal
Forced socialization – having to “pass” for an NT at work or school – is incredibly draining. It requires me to constantly run my social calculus and try to keep track of all the myriad variables like eye contact (do I force it or just fake it), tone of voice (try not to sound robotic), facial expression (watch out for that resting b*tch face), etc., on top of the actual content of the conversation, which is usually something inane that I couldn’t care less about. I don’t think I’ll ever understand how NTs do all that without thinking; it’s an absolute wonder! This kind of socializing costs me a lot – let’s say 5 tokens for every 10-minute encounter.
The right kind of socialization, though, is great. When I’m with real friends – those who know me as myself, understand that I’m weird, and are invariably a bit weird themselves even if they’re not autistic – social interaction costs me significantly less. The conversation is usually about something I’m interested in and I don’t have to focus on “acting right”, so I can just relax and have fun. These encounters cost me something like 1 token for every 45 minutes or so. But while I love this kind of interaction, I can only do it every so often, because I still need my restorative alone time.
How To Get Enough Good Socialization?
Here’s the thing: healthy socialization is necessary for good mental and emotional health, even for asocial types like many of us on the spectrum. We autistic people may need less of it than NTs do, but we still need it. So it’s important that we find a way to reserve enough tokens to have some good social interaction regularly. If we’re constantly beaten down by forced socialization at work or school, we can’t do that – we suffer doubly from the stress of trying to “pass” and the lack of real engagement. In an ideal world, every autistic person would have a job that doesn’t stress them out and some really good friends to hang out with every week or two, but this is not an ideal world.
For this reason, I’ve actually become a fan of social media. I used to hate the very idea, for a lot of reasons, and it can definitely be misused. But I’ve found that I can get little bits of good socialization throughout my day via sharing and commenting on social media posts with my friends, nearly all of whom live several hundred miles away. I’ve also joined a few groups where I can talk to other autistic people, other bloggers, others with chronic illness, or just other fans of my favorite stuff.
I don’t spend all day on it or check it obsessively, but I pick up my phone for a few minutes every few hours and scroll through. On top of allowing me to have some friendships that I would otherwise not have, social media allows me to have virtually token-less healthy interactions multiple times a day.
Of course, this only works if you limit your interactions to people you actually like, but it works pretty well for me as far as keeping myself sane.
Less Is More
For me, and for many other autistics and introverts, social interaction is about quality over quantity. Lots of people on the spectrum and off would rather have a couple hours’ wide-ranging conversation with one good friend instead of a night of shallow small talk with 20 people at a party. In my case, though, I consider it a way of knowing my limits and taking care of myself. Finding ways to limit my unnecessary social encounters allows me to keep my social skills working as well as possible for those interactions I can’t avoid. And making sure to keep in touch with friends a little bit every day and occasionally hang out for a while helps to maintain my emotional health. Less socializing is more, and the less I have to do it, the better I can be at it.
What kind of social interactions do you prefer? Do you find that you have more trouble socializing as you get tired? Are you an extrovert who loves all the social interaction you can get, or an introvert who prefers only occasional social contact?