We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know – The Hidden Disconnect of Socializing While Autistic
I’ve often heard that neurotypical people learn their social skills through interacting with other people. That it’s just something that happens automatically during time spent with their neurotypical family, friends, teachers, etc. I’m sure there is some trial and error involved, but, for the most part, at a certain age, neurotypical people just seem to–”get it” when it comes to knowing how to socialize with others without causing major and continued upheaval in their lives.
As an autistic person, I cannot fathom learning how to socialize from my environment because my brain is not designed that way. I don’t learn anything implicitly, I learn by being explicitly taught. This can cause a lot of problems socializing with neurotypicals because what they learn automatically, I cannot learn unless I’m taught.
If I offend someone, and I don’t know why, I will ask in earnest what I did, so I can avoid doing it in the future. Unfortunately, the neurotypical person will usually respond with even more offense than they started with and be appalled at the idea that 1) I truly didn’t know and 2) I’m asking them to explain.
The Circular Nature of Socializing But Not Learning for the Autistic Person
When I was younger, this is how my attempts to socialize with neurotypical people would usually go:
I would meet a person, talk to them, get together with them, have some type of interaction that would leave me feeling vaguely uncomfortable and confused, repeat a few times, and then the person would disappear from my life. I would contact them to see what went wrong, and I would be met with either anger or complete silence.
See, when neurotypical people go into social situations when they’re younger and they are still figuring things out, they will make some social mistakes. However, they seem to learn from them through this trial-and-error process. Simply being in the social situation itself is enough to make them realize they made a mistake. They then learn from it, mature, and move forward.
When an autistic person goes into a social situation that goes badly, they usually don’t learn from it, mature, and move forward because their questions are not answered. They are given no explanation as to what’s wrong and are (usually) offered no second chances to redeem themselves. Or, perhaps worse, they are slowly “phased out” after repeated unfortunate social interactions even though they are not aware that anything is wrong in the dynamic until their friends ghost them completely.
This leads to years and even decades of the same pattern: Make a friend, spend time with new friend, insult new friend unknowingly, lose friend, ask questions, get no answers, retreat from the world, heal, venture back out to make a friend, etc. Rinse, repeat.
We Lose the Chance at Maturity Through Experience Without Trauma
I think that neurotypical people achieve maturity through their day-to-day experiences in life because they understand social nuance, context, facial expressions, body language, intentions, double meanings, etc. If they do make a mistake, they can easily apologize and move forward in a more informed way because they are able to take in the context cues around them and adjust accordingly.
I think that many autistic people achieve maturity through trauma. Deep, shatteringly painful events such as sudden friendship loss, sudden job loss, toxic relationships, relationship breakups, bullying, being emotionally or physically attacked, and/or being “called out” publicly on social media.
Because we are unable to see the subtle signs of something going wrong between ourselves and others, people take our non-response as not caring, instead of what it truly is; an inability to read social cues while also living in a world where people who do understand them will not explain them.
This is why, for many autistic people, learning doesn’t take place until there is an explosion of emotion, and everything comes suddenly crumbling down around us.
Explanation is a Necessary Accommodation for a Neurological Difference
While I believe in building a bridge between the neurotypes, I’ve always understood and related to other autistic people much better and feel safer in their company. Research has even shown that autistic people socialize quite well with other autistic people and neurotypical people socialize just fine with other neurotypical people. It’s when the two try to interact that things can become challenging.
However, total avoidance of neurotypical people just isn’t an option for most autistic people, nor should it remain the only safe option for us. Furthermore, autistic people have no choice but to work with and interact with neurotypical people at least some of the time, so there needs to be more understanding of our differences instead of automatic rejection.
If you are a neurotypical person who has an autistic person in your life, the best thing you can do for them is to explain, in detail, what it is that you viewed as offensive before completely writing them off, talking behind their back, calling them out publicly, or just disappearing from their life.
Explanation is accommodation. Just like glasses, a mobility aid, or a hearing aid, a clear, concise explanation of what happened, what was viewed as offensive, and what can be done to remedy the situation and keep it from happening in the future are all reasonable and required accommodations for someone with this neurological difference.
Most autistic people do not learn social skills through socializing because our brains are not designed the way a neurotypical brain is. Therefore, we unintentionally push away the very people we are trying to form relationships with. Oftentimes, when we reach out, we end up accidentally hurting others and getting ourselves hurt in the process. When we genuinely ask for explanations as to why our friends no longer want us around, we are met with even more anger and rejection on top of the pain and confusion we already feel.
As a neurotypical person, explaining what you feel went wrong and what you were offended by and why (never skip the why, it is essential to our understanding), you are offering a needed accommodation to a person whose brain works differently from yours.
In my opinion, providing this accommodation is no different than raising the volume of your voice for someone who is hard of hearing or explicitly explaining the color of something to a colorblind person.