Three Strokes to One: Social Situations

Autism, Identity

One of the metaphors that my diagnosing psychologist used to illustrate the exhaustion of being autistic in an allistic (that is, non-autistic) world is about paddling down a river. All of the neurotypical people are sitting in their kayaks paddling along with the current, but the autistic person is paddling through a current that runs in the other direction. For every one stroke the other kayakers paddle, the autistic kayaker has to paddle three strokes just to keep up.

It’s not a perfect metaphor, but I think it does speak to the extra effort that goes into much of daily life for me, especially social interactions and aspects of executive functioning (I’ve promised to explain executive functioning in more detail in a later post and I will – it’s a big topic).

When I was younger, I relied on scripting a lot. There are different kinds of autistic scripting, one involving repeating long strings of dialogue/narration from TV or books, but the kind of scripting I mean is that I would craft a script in my head before speaking, sometimes hours or days before interacting with someone, sometimes on the fly if needed – but it still took me extra time to work out what to say.

Throughout school, right into college, I consistently received feedback from teachers that I should participate in class more, because when I did, I had insightful things to say. What I couldn’t have explained was that the problem wasn’t lack of interest, or even shyness, but the difficulty of scripting on the fly in a class setting. Usually I would take so long to perfectly craft my script, that the conversation would have moved on by the time I was ready to say it. Sometimes it just didn’t seem worth it to try.

Now, I’ve had half my life to figure out getting by in the neurotypical world, so I am pretty good at it, good enough that most people won’t notice anything remarkably different about me, but it’s still tiring. Essentially, I have to do a lot of things consciously and deliberately that neurotypical people do naturally without thinking about it. Imagine if you had to tell yourself, “Breathe in. Now breathe out. Now in. Now out,” all the livelong day! Well, that’s a bit what it’s like for me to just operate in the world and talk to people. I am very, very used to it, but it still takes more effort than it takes most people.

I’ve known for a while that introverts find social interaction draining, and need alone time to recharge. That makes sense to me and for a long time I thought it was a sufficient explanation for my social needs. But within the past year or so, the degree to which I am drained by social interaction, and the time and the extent of withdrawal needed for me to recover, have become more and more obviously out of the typical range of introversion.

These days, after I spend some time socializing, say two to three hours, I probably need the rest of the day to keep mostly to myself. That might even last into the next day. If I overdo it entirely, it could literally take days for me to feel back to normal.To give you some idea of what an ordinary social interaction is like for me, this is what might be running through my head if I’m talking with casual acquaintances, or new friends, all the while I am trying to actually participate in the conversation in a meaningful, engaging, and appropriate fashion:

I’ll sit down in this chair. Is this the right chair?
Am I sitting awkwardly? What do I do with my hands?
I should be smiling. Make eye contact. Do I look too serious?
Relax your eyes. You’re squinting. You look too serious.
Should I have offered them something to drink?
Does my shirt look weird?
They’ve asked me a question, ummm, did they mean x y or z by that?
I tried to answer, did that make any sense or sound like pure gibberish?
I can’t tell if that was stupid.
There is a pause, is it an awkward pause or a normal pause?
I’ll fill this silence with a mumbled something-or-other, did that make it even worse?
Is it my turn to speak? Is it theirs?
What do I say next?
I’ll take a drink to stall for time.
They’re looking at their phone, does that mean I’m boring them?
Argh remember to smile!

It probably is not at all obvious that I am doing this running calculation; in fact, though I often appeared very uncomfortable or shy in my teen years, in adulthood I’ve often been told I seem pretty confident. Nevertheless, that is happening in my head most of the time! I do that sort of thing even when I am among just close friends, though with less anxiety, and with family, except for Mike and my kids because with them I can just let it all hang out. So, yeah. It’s exhausting! But it’s second nature now for my brain to do that constant analysis of the situation in order for me to participate.

(By the way, this is why online communication is so much easier. I don’t have to worry about what my face, body, and tone of voice are doing, and the extra processing time is built right in!)

Part of what is freeing about “coming out” as autistic is just not having to hide all of my extra paddling anymore. I’ll still have to do some of it, but I think and hope that at least I will be able to shed some of the anxiety about acting the way I think I am supposed to. I will know that my friends and family will know I am just different, and hopefully along the way I can explain things like – hey, I really have no idea when I am supposed to hug you. If I look like I’m having a bad time I might just be elsewhere in my mind, or a bit tapped out. I care about you a lot but usually don’t know how to show it.

Admitting that this is what socializing is like for me is a little scary. It makes me feel vulnerable. In a way it would be tempting to continue to pretend I am just like everyone else, except that the price of doing that has become too high. It takes too much out of me. Another thing that has been difficult about socializing in my 30s as an autistic person is simply realizing and admitting to myself that my desire to socialize exceeds my abilities at this time in my life. I socially flame out quickly these days and that can be very frustrating, but part of taking care of myself and conserving my resources so that I can do everything I want and need to do is being realistic about what I can handle.

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