This will not be news to any Aspies or anyone on the spectrum, but it might help you explain it to the NTs around you. If you are an NT looking to understand those of us on the spectrum, here’s what I can offer.
NTs (neurotypicals, if anyone isn’t familiar with the term) are hardwired for socialization. Admittedly, we’re all social primates, so in some ways we’re all hardwired for that. But NTs have the wiring that makes it all come very naturally and instinctively. When an NT approaches another NT that they know, they make eye contact, smile, wave or shake hands, and offer the appropriate greetings and responses in the proper tone of voice, all without ever thinking about it. That social interaction comes as naturally and easily to an NT as breathing.
Aspies/Auties are not so lucky. I don’t pretend to speak for everyone on the spectrum – we all have our individual challenges, and we all have our own learned coping skills – but here’s how it is for me.
As an Aspie, every tiny little social interaction is an immense intellectual exercise. There is so much calculus that has to be done.
First, I have to recognize the other person – sometimes the face just doesn’t pull up from my database, or I can’t get a name to go with it, or I can’t remember how I know that person.
Then I have to determine what level of interaction is appropriate, given how well I know them – is this a smile and wave situation, or will they expect a hug or something? If they expect a hug or handshake, I have to decide if I can deal with being touched at the moment, and/or steel myself for it.
Then I have to remember to make eye contact, and consciously hike the corners of my mouth up into the expected smile to prevent the other person from asking what’s wrong with me.
Once my face is arranged correctly, I have to make sure I heard their greeting correctly (because I was busy figuring out who they were and what I needed to look like), and compare said greeting to my list of scripts to find the acceptable response. After finding the response, I have to figure out how loud or soft my voice ought to be, and then say my response out loud, speaking clearly, all before the moment has passed and the person walks away.
That’s a LOT of possible points of failure. There are so many steps to this social calculus I have to do, that it’s pretty much inevitable that I’ll mess it up from time to time.
The worst situations are when I’m walking, or at my desk working, or focused on going about my day, and people interrupt me with a greeting. If I’m not with another person, I am always deep in my own thoughts, and someone speaking to me rips me out of that, which is jarring. And then, while shaken and mildly disoriented, I have to do all that calculus listed above just to get through someone saying “Hi, how are you?” when they didn’t actually want an answer anyway, they only wanted me to say “hi” back. I find that mean and inconsiderate of the NTs who do it, even though I know they don’t mean any harm.
It is both a blessing and a curse for me to live in the American South. Around here, small talk is elevated to a social ritual that one cannot avoid, but, much like in a church, there are accepted scripts for said ritual. If someone says “How’re you doing?”, I can answer with “Fine, thanks” or “Good, how are you?” and my side of the interaction is fulfilled. Sometimes I can even get away with just saying “Hi” if it’s a quick greeting as someone walks by me. It took me until I was 30 to get those small scripts mostly automatic, but now it’s almost as easy as a Catholic saying “And with your spirit” or “And also with you” (depending on your age and church).
The other good side of living here (and I realize it smacks of misogyny, but it works in my favor) is that nobody thinks anything of a woman who smiles and stays mostly silent. As long as I keep those lips crooked properly, I can appear to be well-mannered. So far, my best coping strategy has been trying to channel the characters from my beloved Old Hollywood movies. Those women had social graces that have all but disappeared in the 21st century, and my imitation of them would probably look very out of place anywhere more modern than the South. But here, it just looks like I was raised by a stern grandmother or something, just a little old-fashioned. Still, it’s draining, and the longer I have to keep it up, the higher the chances I will slip.
What kind of social calculus do you have to do on a daily basis? Got any tips and tricks to share?