Less socially interested people are still full human beings

The recent study “Being vs. Appearing Socially Uninterested: Challenging Assumptions about Social Motivation in Autism,” and the resulting New York Times article, got me thinking about the value we place on socializing. The article does a good job, I think, on telling non-autistic audiences that we are just as human as they are. That autistic people need to be met halfway just like anyone else. That our body language and communication and social interests displaying differently than others does not mean it is lesser.

So I don’t really have a bone to pick with that. Mostly, I just got to thinking about the immense value we place on socializing in the first place. There is, of course, an expectation that people should engage in socialization. And to an extent I think most or all people want and need it. But sometimes I remember that I was fine in elementary school before I acquired any friends I had frequent contact with, and I was really happy by myself. All the time. Reading books, writing stories, playing outside in make-believe, playing with my beanie babies. I wasn’t actually particularly wrapped up in social relationships until the third grade. Even then, it was the teacher who decided I needed company and sent another third-grader over.

And even now, I definitely have more friends than I used to. But I am often only interested in socializing within a certain circle of people. Small talk is the bane of my existence. I don’t really engage in lengthy conversations with acquaintances, even. I crave social interaction – but I mostly want to socialize with the people I feel most comfortable with. 

I know socialization helps people relate to and care about each other, most likely. I find it easy to still care about someone even if we don’t talk much. That doesn’t make me unique or better, it’s just how I work. I do understand there is value in socialization as a tool for compassion. But just because someone really isn’t interested in socializing doesn’t mean a person is bad. Less socially interested people have equal value to more socially interested people. We have the ability to be compassionate. We are still full human beings.

Expecting ways of communicating to define an Autistic person

Feedback is welcomed, but please see the bottom of the post first.*

Autistics have largely argued that no one should assume we are alike. Our differences include communication styles, external presentations, or supports needed. Being human like anyone else, we also differ in goals, interests, and hobbies. We’re all still Autistic, but we need others to stop basing all their assumptions on that. In particular, people make assumptions from communication styles. Some of us communicate with significant support, little support, or somewhere in between. Some of us use assistive technology and some of us don’t. Some of us don’t have access to language most people understand. And defining us based on communication style we use (or off any one or two traits) is unhelpful.

Yet it’s not just an issue of non-autistic people making snap judgments. Some Autistics who talk neurodiversity on the Internet also like to ascribe certain Autistic traits to select narratives. One such narrative is that those of us who identify ourselves as speaking Autistics tend to be non-visibly autistic and have few direct support needs. Often, the narrative includes the idea that we’ve learned how read non-autistic people’s behavior or at least mimic it. Many posts intended to be helpful for community members are written through this lens. There are Autistic people who fit this narrative, and there is nothing wrong with that. The issue occurs when the narrative doesn’t make room for other people’s stories.

I identify myself as a mostly-speaking Autistic, and I don’t fit well into that narrative. My communication style is assumed to be “expressive” because I talk out loud most of the time. I’ve written about it before in the blog post “You call me expressive and miss the struggle it takes.” There, I wrote about my personal relationship with speech, and the incorrect inference someone made about me. They decided that I couldn’t have many support needs or real struggles with communication out loud.

But I do have a number of direct support needs, somewhere between “needs little to no direct support” and “has high direct support needs.” My mother, who lives several states away, attempts to provide what support she can, but I honestly need more in-person help. I am able to take care of my cat, but taking care of my own needs is harder. I am forced to navigate a system and a world not designed for me with very little built-in to help me. I also am not good at reading people, and it’s a challenge to mimic non-autistic people’s social norms. The majority of the time I also display body language and speech patterns that are visibly Autistic and/or neurodivergent.

Not all autistic people who speak the majority of the time are like each other, and it is harmful to assume this falsehood. I received and still get little support, in the past (such as during college) and now, when I need it. Many posts I see that are intended to be helpful for the type of Autistic they assume I am are actually not, either. And it harms Autistic people with higher support needs than mine, as well. The narrative doesn’t leave much room to presume competence (which is different than valuing a person only if they have some secret gift, which many seem to base their respect around). Few posts in the community are geared to be helpful for high-support Autistics who are very visibly so (Yes, I have admittedly written these posts before, and will probably mess up again in the future).

People who espouse this narrative seem to assume that other Autistics have the same struggles and the same strengths – and therefore there is no room to even consider what high-support Autistic people, and other people who don’t fit the narrative, can contribute to our movement. Non-autistic people should stop judging us from one or two features. But some in the Autistic community would do well to stop, too.

*(For the record – no, I’m not saying most of the people in the community make these kinds of assumptions. Just some do, but it still really needs to stop).

You call me expressive and miss the struggle it takes

Someone, back when I was in college, insisted I was expressive compared to an Autistic 10-year-old she knew: Yeah, but you’re different, you’re expressive. This post could go in a few different directions that I’d like to list because there were so many issues I (still) have with that statement:

  • that’s it’s okay to not be a wordsmith out loud or at all;
  • that comparing two people with an age difference of ten years – or comparing Autistic people to each other at all like that – isn’t useful;
  • that expressiveness doesn’t just come with words, so stop discounting people who don’t do them out loud well or at all;

and

  • my personal experience with the concept of expressiveness, movement, speech, and trying to go fast to keep up.

I chose the last one.

I may think in words, not pictures or concepts – but getting the worded thoughts to speech is another task entirely. Spontaneous conversation is hard. There’s this thing I do, which is simultaneously talk really fast, and not say half of what I wanted or meant to say. The speed at which conversations go doesn’t always give me the time to say the appropriate thing, so I spit out then closest thing in my head to what I mean. Sometimes it’s the wrong thing or makes no sense.

I don’t use spoken echolalia from pop culture and people around me so much as I use the same format for sentences over and over again, slipping in different words – or I stumble through words, speaking quickly but not always coherently.

I move in the same way I talk: scuffing and stumbling on stray objects. I can’t always find my body in space; I can’t always figure out object proximity because of visual processing and go crashing into it. I can’t cut food or tie shoelaces effectively, and learning how to do needlework was a short-lived venture. My feet drag the ground when I walk or I put my feet down with unnecessary force; there isn’t an in-between. Door frames are my enemy.

Or: I rock to other people’s rocking, flap to other people’s flapping, turn to look in the same direction as anyone I’m with – I’m echopraxic and copy movements. Or I don’t remember how to move at all. If I move, it’s fast, though – and it takes a lot of work.

I am tired of trying to move fast in conversations with non-autistic people (and sometimes other autistic folks). I am tired of the fast pace of movement I set for myself, lest I fall behind non-autistic standards. I am tired that the ways I communicate and move don’t seem to be enough for a lot of people.

Or, if you flip that coin, I am tired of the way people dismiss the struggle to move fast and the struggle to sound like I know what I’m talking about and call me expressive. 

I want to learn to stop going so fast. I want to learn that it’s okay for me to take long pauses, stimming idly as I let the words form and coalesce into sentences.

I don’t want to hear that I’m expressive.

I want to learn that it’s okay to never be able coordinate my movements when I turn toward a door frame, resulting in the inevitable collision. I want to learn that I can focus on my movements, unapologetically Autistic in the ways my hands move, slowing to let myself tap invisible pianos and move my hands back and forth to the music.

I want people to learn to value diversity in communication and movement. I want people to make the effort to understand me, as I make the effort to understand them.  I want people to learn that the ways I speak and move are, now and always, acceptable and valid.