Category Archives: social skills

Body Language & Neurodiversity

Image is of a child with black hair wearing pink, chewing on a necklace. Text reads: “I look different when I listen / I may stare into space to focus on what I hear / Rocking or quietly fidgeting keeps me calm and focused / Sitting oddly may be more comfortable / A blank expression means I’m thinking / Biting a rubber toy is better than biting myself / If I disrupting others, please gently talk to me” All showing that neurodiverse body language can be different from neurotypical body language. Image from wikipedia, by Miss Luna Rose.

There’s this one youtube channel I watch called Observe. It’s a guy who is studying how to read body language, and he puts out videos where he analyzes body language of various people – sometimes it’s true crime, sometimes it’s other youtubers, sometimes it’s from “reality” TV; it’s a whole range of things. I happen to really like the guy – he is very honest about how interpreting body language is limited, it can never be perfectly accurate, etc. He explains those limitations in the beginning of all of his videos.

And in watching said videos, I have noticed that he seems to have a gap in his knowledge around how body language can be different in neurodivergent people. There have been multiple times where he’s made a comment about someone’s body language that really jumped out at me because I can see how his analysis is so different from my own lived experience and what I know from my friends who are also on the spectrum. So I wanted to talk some about that.

I do want to get some heavy disclaimers in here. First of all, none of this is meant to be criticism of Observe or his channel or his analyses of people. I think he’s great, I think his analyses are great, and I’m not inclined to say any of the videos he made that I will be commenting on are wrong – only that I can see how I (and possibly other neurodivergent people) are different from how he seems to think of things. Second of all – I am not a body language expert. I am not claiming to be at all. I am only an expert on myself and how I interact with the world. That is the direction I am coming from here.

ANYWAY. That’s enough preamble, let’s get to talking about some actual points.

He made a video about Mr. and Mrs. Philpott. I have no reason to believe the people in question are autistic or even neurodivergent, so I am not disagreeing with his analysis. I just want to talk about a point he made that really jumped out to me when I was watching the video. 

Mr. Observe says: “He starts off and he has a lot of halting, a very jilted timing to the flow of his words. He’s not speaking fluidly and he does have the ability to do that. This instance of having halt in your wording can be an indicator of psychological processing which could be an indicator of deceit. It would be considered a red flag in my book or according to the methodology of the university that I go to it would be called a point of interest.”

This downright jolted me. This is the first time in my life that I had EVER seen jilted timing of speech be tied to deceit. I can see now how that connection would be made, but it really startled me at the time. 

Here’s the thing – my speech can be incredibly jilted too. It isn’t always – I do have the ability to speak smoothly, but only if I already know what I’m going to say and have it all thought out and processed ahead of time. Otherwise? My speech is odd, my timing is jilted, there is no real flow to my words, etc. People I’m talking to have had, on a variety of occasions, difficulty telling when I’m done talking or when I’m just pausing. It does come from psychological processing, as Mr. Observe said. But for me, that psychological processing has nothing to do with deceit and everything to do with trying to translate what’s going on in my head into words, and then getting the words out of my mouth. Both of those things can be pretty challenging on their own, and when I’m trying to do it in real time, well, things get weird. But it does not, at all, mean that I’m lying.

I also talk in that weird cadence when I’m talking about anything emotionally fraught for me. Even if it is reasonably processed, it just never comes out smoothly. In order for me to talk smoothly when I’m having a lot of feelings in that moment I basically need to have it all scripted out ahead of time, and even then sometimes my cadence will be weird and my speech jilted. The point being – while the man in Mr. Observe’s video is known beyond all doubt to be lying, if I was actually for real in a situation in which a beloved family member was missing and/or dead, my speech would be just as jilted and strange as Mr. Philpott’s was. It’s scary to think that people may take me for a liar simply because my ability to speak smoothly comes and goes.

Again, just to reiterate this point yet again – I am not inclined to say that Mr. Observe was wrong in his analysis in this particular instance. Only that he drew a connection that is not at all safe to draw when, say, looking at a neurodivergent person. 

Onto another video by Mr. Observe! This one on Nikki Phillips & her husband Dan. (content warning if you’re following my links – this one talks about abuse of an animal and may be very hard to watch) Once again, he speaks of stilted body language and this time also about awkward body movements. He didn’t mention her baseline this time (a “baseline” being how a person’s body language normally looks, to compare against to see if anything odd pops up) so I can only assume he intended to say that those things were different from her typical body language.

Well, I’ve already gotten into stilted speech, so let’s talk about awkward body language. My body language can be pretty expletive awkward. I had to very consciously and deliberately learn how to express my body language in a way that neurotypicals understand. My facial expressions were (still are, though less so) things that I “put on” for other people to see. The emotion behind the expression was real, but the way I made it so that other people could see the emotion was very much not.

Doing that correctly is tough. For instance, Mr. Observe talks about facial expressions coming on suddenly, lasting too long, and then suddenly leaving, and how that’s a sign of deceit. Well, in the video in question I’m sure it was. For me, though, it’s quite different.

I can remember being a very young child and my mom explicitly teaching me how to grin, or do an open-mouth smile. Because I didn’t know how. Jumping ahead some 30 years – I can remember trying to figure out how to do facial expressions correctly, knowing that I was messing it up, but not knowing how to fix it. Once again talking about grinning – I would be in a social situation, and someone would say something funny. So I would laugh and put a grin on, because I knew that’s what you’re supposed to do. But… then what? Every time, the grin would last too long, I would realize that I probably shouldn’t be grinning anymore, so I would take it off. People generally gave me funny looks, but I genuinely didn’t know the correct way to do it. Eventually I learned that grins are supposed to be very short, but taper quickly off into a smaller smile that can itself taper off. LIGHT BULB MOMENT for me! Expressions taper! THAT’S why I didn’t look right! I was just putting them on and taking them off like a mask. No wonder people looked at me funny.

I have gotten much better at it now, but even so – my expression of emotions tends to be false, simply because my natural way of expressing myself is unsettling to neurotypicals. I flap, I make noises, I shake my head, I position my body in ways that NTs would (and do, when they see it) find weird. 

In this video, Mr. Observe also noted that when emotional displays are “off” people generally don’t feel an empathetic response. That was telling. If you’re autistic, you’ve probably had experiences of NTs really failing in having empathy for you (even while being told that you’re the one who lacks empathy, oh this is a touchy topic for me). Well, maybe this is why! We don’t “look right” and NTs don’t respond to that particularly well. 

Now, there was one part where Mr. Observe DID mention neurodivergent people, which I really appreciated. It involved one of the people being randomly distracted by a bird, and that may not be unusual in neurodivergent people but was unusual for that particular person. I really appreciate that nod to neurodiversity and how our behavior can be different from what’s “normal.” I only wish he did that more often.

Ok, one last video note before I get into some other things. In this one Mr. Observe was looking at clips from a reality TV show, this one centered on two people named Big Ed and Liz. At around 41:08 Mr. Observe notes that Big Eg was avoiding looking at Liz, and that this is an “indicator of possible shame.”

Interesting.

This is also connected to how autistic people tend to look away from people/avoid eye contact, and how that is seen as a sign of dishonesty. 

Well, personally I hate making eye contact and I am EXTREMELY uncomfortable looking directly at people. It is a thing I very much try to avoid if I can, but it has nothing to do with shame or dishonesty. In my case, it’s more about avoiding overload. SO MUCH of a person comes out of their face; it can be absolutely overwhelming. Also, and I’m not entirely sure why this is, looking directly at a person feels incredibly aggressive to me.

All this means that there are two instances in which I will look directly at a person. Most often it’s because I’m masking. Maybe I’m at a doctor’s office and I want to look as normal as possible – I will try very hard to make appropriate levels of eye contact and look directly at the person I’m talking to. The other typical instance is when I am actually feeling angry or aggressive. Based on how NTs react to this, it isn’t actually a glare in the way an NT might act. It’s just… looking at someone. But that, in and of itself, already feels incredibly aggressive to me, so why would I add anything to it? 

Now, in terms of Mr. Observe’s videos, all this probably doesn’t matter ALL that much, except for that he is trying to be an educational source and people are going to be watching his commentary without necessarily realizing how different things can be for neurodiverse people. And quite frankly, no one necessarily knows when they are interacting with an autistic or otherwise neurodivergent person. Not unless we tell them, or they already understand what they are looking at and what it means – which is not that many people. 

One place where this can REALLY start to matter is in interactions with police. Unfortunately, police can and do interpret autistic body language, mannerisms, and extra time needed for processing as being non-compliant or dishonest, and that puts autistic people at higher risk for police violence.

From the AELE Monthly Law Journal:

“Some autistic persons have difficulty making and maintaining eye contact with others. A police officer may mistakenly interpret this as “suspicious,” having something to hide, or defiance, when in reality it is not being able to or not knowing how to respond appropriately, or even fear from what, to many, would be a routine social encounter. The result has sometimes, unfortunately, been rapid escalation of the encounter, with ensuing injury or death.”

This is a very real thing for autistic people (and I feel the need to add in – black autistic people are at even greater risk, and that is absolutely horrible and tragic). The journal goes on to talk about a few specific instances of police violence towards autistic people, sometimes even after they had been informed that the individual in question is autistic. Sometimes even to the point of killing the person. 

While I cannot cite it – I also remember someone in an autism group I was in ages ago telling the group an interaction she had with police. While she might generally have been described as “high functioning” she is still autistic, and it can still show. She had an encounter with police where as she got more and more overloaded and struggled more and more to process what they wanted, the police responded with ever increasing aggression. It sounded terrifying. She was lucky, though. She was able to eventually blurt out “I’m autistic!” and apparently they had some training to know to back off and calm down. They then told her that she should have told them that she’s autistic right from the start. Which… I don’t know, maybe she should have? But also maybe she shouldn’t have to? Sometimes disclosing that we’re autistic to police can help, but sometimes it doesn’t. It can be hard to know what to do.

I am personally very afraid of having an encounter with police. I know I’ll need to act “normal,” and I also know that in that situation, I probably won’t be able to. While I rarely scream and cower in a corner with my hands over my ears anymore, I can’t definitively say that such behavior is entirely in my past. 

All of which is to say – while this can just be interesting observations while watching a youtube video about body language, it is also a very real thing that impacts the lives of autistic people, sometimes in incredibly dangerous or even deadly ways. We need better awareness that neurodivergent people do not necessarily act the way people think we “should” and that you can’t just assume someone is neurotypical until told otherwise. That’s how people get hurt. That’s why people sometimes respond very badly to autistic people and we don’t understand why or how to fix it. It’s why the job of fixing it has somehow been placed on the shoulders of autistic people, even as we’re just trying to live our lives. 

Anyway, just to say for one last time – I really do like Mr. Observe and I like his channel. I think he is genuinely trying to be thoughtful and realistic about what he’s doing. I just also think this is one area where maybe his education is falling a bit short.

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Disconnect and Effort

Sometimes (a lot of times) (all the time) I feel like there is a vast gulf between me and the rest of humanity. Or at least neurotypical humanity, which seems to be most of them. I’m sure there are many reasons I feel such a disconnect – I am not silly enough to try to claim there is only one “real” reason that is the cause of it all. That said, I think I have figured out one of the reasons I feel such a disconnect.

That reason lies in the effort it takes me to socialize. When it comes down to it, very nearly all human interaction requires HUGE effort on my part. It is extremely normal for me to spend all of my resources managing social interaction to the point of complete and utter exhaustion that requires over 24 hours to recover from. This is the life I live, and it will never change. Going to a religious observance or a LARP takes literally everything I have.

“Simple” things like conversation also take intense effort. I constantly run things through in my head, trying to detect codes or metaphors, decode those codes or metaphors, figure out replies, and how to take the concept of the reply and turn it into words, and how to arrange those words so that they make sense, and how to arrange my facial expression in an appropriate way, and I have to do it all fast enough that the conversation seems normal to them. It’s HARD. Even when I can manage it, it is exhausting and sometimes downright painful.

While I like to socialize one-on-one, even that is often extremely draining. The demands of conversation, of facial expression, of managing the constant bombardment of PERSONNESS that is right there all wears on me. It’s a lot of effort. It’s work.

But the primary point I am trying to make here is that putting lots of effort into socialization and friendship and even just acquaintanceship is normal to me. It’s standard. It’s just what I need to do if I’m going to interact with people.

And here’s the important part – it’s NOT normal to neurotypicals. I think in much of my past I kinda knew that, but it didn’t really sink in. I would ask for a level of effort from other people that was really only a fraction of the effort I put in all the time, and the response would be anger! How dare I ask so much from them! Nor has this been a one-off occurrence. While the response is not always anger, I have definitely gathered over the years that asking people to put in even some of the effort I put in is just asking too much. It’s being unreasonable and demanding.

Sometimes people will speak of putting in lots of effort. And I get confused, because at the very least, what I see is still less, or maybe equivalent to, my standard effort in socialization. I’ll wind up thinking something like “that is a special effort? but I do more work every time we interact.”

I know that socialization isn’t necessarily easy for neurotypicals. “We all find it hard” would be a very predictable but extremely horrible response to this post. Yes, we all find it hard. What I hope you can take from this is that I find it *much harder* than your average neurotypical. I have learned to no longer be shocked when a neurotypical can go to a LARP, and then go do a thing the next day. I cannot. I probably never will.

So yeah. I feel a disconnect. I’m over here and y’all are so far away, sometimes I think it’s no wonder I can’t bridge that gap. And neurotypicals have so many people who are so near, I suppose it is not surprising that most of them have no interest in doing the work required to build a bridge and meet in the middle. (on a side note, neurotypicals have also told me that I should not try to connect with other autistic people, because autistic people would be too rigid and I need people who can flex to my autistic weirdnesses, or something like that. apparently I’m doomed)

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On Giving Advice

This post comes from a combination of my own slow, painful learning process complete with countless mistakes and people getting angry with me, and what I’ve found I like best from other people who want to give me advice.

When it comes right down to it, advice-giving is fraught with danger. I’ve seen plenty of neurotypicals mess this one up too, and I often see people cite it as a reason for friction between men and women – with men wanting to give advice, but women wanting sympathy or emotional support. So just to be clear, I am coming at this from the perspective of someone who is, more or less, a woman.

Now, onwards to my advice regarding giving advice! Let’s say a friend or someone you care about is talking about something craptastic in their life that is giving them trouble. And let’s say you think you have ideas that might help that you want to express. What is a good way to go about doing so?

  • Don’t.

Yep, that’s step one. Always always always start by holding back. There are circumstances and things you might be able to say that would help, but you need to make really sure that you are in those circumstances BEFORE shooting your mouth off with whatever advice you have going on.

  1. You don’t get it. Period.

Whatever is happening with your friend, however much it seems you know about what is going on, you don’t really get it. There may be nuance to the situation that you don’t know about or understand. There may be details that they are keeping private that change what the right thing to do is. They may have different capabilities than you, they may be experiencing the situation in a different way than you imagine you would. No matter how much you think that you understand, always remember that you don’t. Not really. Not completely.

  1. Stick to what you know.

SOOO many people mess this one up. Let’s say Joe’s friend Amy just got diagnosed with cooties. Joe just read an article saying that people with cooties need to cross their legs, dance the polka, and cough three times. “Wow!” says Joe. “I should tell this to Amy!” NO JOE, DON’T DO THAT. Amy probably already knows. Amy is probably doing lots of research about cooties on her own, and is talking to lots of doctors, and has plenty of cooties experts in her life. Joe is not a cooties expert, and should not attempt to dispense medical advice on cooties.

On the other hand, maybe Amy is REALLY ANGRY about having cooties, and along with dealing with the cooties, she’s dealing with all this anger. And maybe Joe has had experience in the past with being REALLY ANGRY about something and learned techniques for dealing with that anger. In that case, Joe definitely has something that might be useful. So, should he go ahead and give Amy his advice? Well, that depends…

  1. Did they ask?

Sometimes, if a person is open to advice, they will just say so. Maybe they’re open to advice in general, and maybe they state that only specific kinds of advice are welcome. In those cases, if your advice fits what they are looking for, then hey! You can give your advice! Woo hoo!

4a. Check first.

Of course, maybe they did not ask for advice. In that case, if you have something you think would be super, super useful, and it comes from things you really do know about, it is permissible to ask the person if they are open to advice. A few ways to ask might include “are you open to advice?” or “May I talk to you about anger?” or “I had cooties in the past, would it be ok if I shared what I learned from my experience?” If they say yes, hurrah! You get to give advice! If they say no, accept it. Keep your thoughts to yourself.

  1. Remember step 2.

I am so, so very serious about step two. Even if you are sticking to what you know, it is absolutely vital to remember that your experience is just that – your experience. It isn’t your friend’s experience, and what worked for you, even if it was amazing, may not work for your friend. Be aware of your limitations.

  1. Try to talk about yourself, rather than saying “you should do x.”

On top of being aware of your limitations, openly express them! I’ve noticed that some people put their advice in absolute terms, but I strongly recommend against that. Say things like “Spinning to the left on one foot really helped me with my cooties, so I think you could try that” and NOT NOT NOT “Spin to the left on one foot. It will cure you!” Go ahead and share your experience, what worked for you, what you think is worth trying, and anything else that might be helpful, and refrain from putting on some front of Knowing All The Answers. Because you don’t. Be ok with that.

  1. Never, EVER invalidate.

If your friend says “that won’t work for me,” just believe them. Yeah, maybe they’re feeling really down and depressed and see everything as hopeless. Maybe your advice really would help. If that is the case – you cannot fix that. All you can do is accept what they say as their truth.

Also, it is incredibly important to remember step two, once again. It is also very possible that your advice really wouldn’t work, or that they’ve already tried it, or whatever else. Remember that their experience is not your experience, and there are probably factors that you just do not understand. Just because something worked great for you, that doesn’t mean it will work great for them.

  1. Other things that can help.

You don’t actually have to give advice in order to be helpful to a person who is dealing with ickiness in their lives. I think often bad advice-giving is a misguided attempt to help. However, there ARE other things you can do.

  • offer hugs. Even in text, a *hug* conveys that you are thinking of them and you care. It may seem like a small, silly thing, but to a person who is struggling with awful and feels alone, a page full of *hugs* just for them can be incredibly nice.
  • offer sympathy. “I’m so sorry you are dealing with this” is also a very nice thing to see or hear when you feel alone.
  • be a cheerleader. “You can do it!” “I believe in you!” “You are strong!”
  • Want to do something more substantial? Offer your services, in whatever capacity you can manage. If your friend’s life is all taken up with dealing with cooties, small things like cooking dinner and doing the laundry can become overwhelming tasks. You can help with that! An open-ended “let me know if there’s anything I can do to help” is common, but I do not recommend it. Instead, offer, or even ask, to do specific things. Or, if you don’t know what you can do but you really want to do something, try “what can I do to help?”
  • Ask questions. Actively listen, asking open-ended questions for further detail, asking for explanations if you do not understand something, and generally encouraging the person to lay it out there. IF, of course, they actually want to. Don’t push it if they indicate they’d rather not go into detail.
  • Finally, just listen. Sometimes people just need to bitch and moan for a while, and the best thing you can do is listen. Sometimes the choicest commentary is simply “wow, that sucks!”

So that’s what I’ve learned in my life about giving, and not giving, advice. What sorts of things have you learned?

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Trust

Image is of a “trust fall,” an exercize where a person falls backwards with someone (or several people) behind them, trusting that said person(s) will catch them. Once was doing a trust fall thing with someone, and they dropped me.

I don’t think I’ve talked about trust much before on this blog and to be honest, I’m not sure why. I do a lot of thinking about trust, largely because my relationship with trust is more than a little bit dysfunctional. I’ve often wondered why that is, and it seems the Aspergers might just play a significant role.

Trust is such a weird, tricky thing to me. What does it mean to trust someone, or not trust someone? I often feel most comfortable in the in-between space, where I neither trust nor distrust. Everything just is, without expectation. However, while that sure sounds lovely and makes for a nice little sound-bite, it does not necessarily translate very well in reality. Expectations come with knowing someone well or for long enough, and it’s a normal part of interaction. So while I tried to just fling the concept of trust away from me for several years there, it did not work very well.

Nee actually has a definition of trust that I find pretty nifty. Basically, trust is, to him, about predictability. Trust is knowing reasonably well how a person will act in a given situation. In this case, trust is not always positive. Sometimes, I can trust that a person will let me down, or trust that someone cannot keep a secret. This influences my behavior and what I choose to share and how I choose to interact with them.

I still feel weird about the word, though. I think it’s one of those nebulous concepts that I have so much trouble with. I can’t nail it down, so I feel like I’m trying to wrap a net around fog when I try to get a solid handle on what it is.

Another important point about trust (wow, I’m jumping all around here) is that even for a single individual, trust is non-transferable. Maybe I can trust that someone will keep something private, but not trust that they will be kind to me in a conversation. People are strange and unreliable creatures, and a person might be super reliable in one sense and not at all reliable in another. Or, even worse, they might be totally reliable one day and not at all reliable another.

Navigating all this complexity is very difficult for me. I wish people were more consistent, but they just aren’t. I suspect my own inability to keep up and to accurately assess people’s moods at a glance really has an impact on my willingness and ability to trust people.

Nonetheless, I have found that I still have the ability to feel betrayed by an action. It stands to reason that if I feel a sense of betrayal due to someone someone did, I must have first had a sense of trust that they would not do that thing, right? So it’s tempting to attempt to go back to no expectations – only there is a point where lack of trust and distrust become very similar, and people, in my experience, do not care to be distrusted. It is insulting.

I also think that in my case, my autism makes me more vulnerable. I have an unfortunate tendency to believe people, which can very easily lead to my getting hurt. I also seem to view socialization in a simplified way, causing me to miss nuance that might be obvious or important to someone else. (of course, this goes with my usual rant that this is, of course my fault, and if other people miss nuance that is obvious or important to me, that is somehow also my fault. I think differently, but that doesn’t make me less)

I don’t actually have any answers here, only perspective. The perspective of someone who is frequently confused by this “trust” thing, all too frequently hurt, and who has little idea of what to do with it all.

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Introversion and Socialization

So I’m an introvert. I actually suspect my introversion and autism are linked, through sensory processing difficulties. Not that they’re the same thing, by any means, but they do impact each other. Humans are noisy and smelly and tend to move around and do things, which means there’s a lot of sensory input to keep up with. More people means more sensory input, which increases the risk of sensory overload. So I’m careful with my socialization.

Beyond that, I really am an introvert. However, I also like to socialize. I’ve gotten the impression that there is this idea (at least in the US) that introverts must all be asocial and want to avoid people at all costs. People also claim or believe that introverts are “just shy” and will turn into happy extroverts if we can just be brought “out of our shell.” This is particularly frustrating for me, but since I’ve written about that before I will not try to get into it again.

No, this comes from someone recently asking me to explain how I can be an introvert and still like to socialize, as apparently this was a totally unfamiliar concept to them.

The usual way of explaining introversion (when people aren’t insisting that it’s shyness or anxiety or asocialness or whatever) is that being around people saps our energy, as opposed to extroverts who gain energy by being around people. This is, at least in my case, more or less true. I have a finite amount of social energy, so I have to be careful where I spend it. Once it’s gone, that’s it. I can’t socialize anymore, and I have to wait for the energy to recharge. If I drain myself too much, it can take a week or more before I have enough energy to socialize again. So I’m careful. I budget my social time.

But I do have friends. I like hanging out with people. I really enjoy crafting with people who I like to be around. I enjoy rituals with my grove, and I enjoy the LARPs that I’ve taken to doing. The big thing is – when I decide that I would like to socialize with you, I am saying that I like you enough to spend some of my limited social budget on you.

Another point I want to make is that sometimes I see extroverts talking as though the extrovert style of socializing is somehow the “right” way to socialize. I once saw an extrovert defending introverts and saying how introverts can socialize too, by saying that we could go to a party and do the social butterfly dance just like extroverts, we just end up tired at the end. And honestly, I kinda thought that extrovert was part of the problem. Maybe I don’t want to go to parties. Maybe I don’t want to do the social butterfly dance. Hell, maybe I can’t do the social butterfly dance because it involves intricate social cues that I seriously cannot keep up with. Not only is it ok to be an introvert, but it is ok to socialize like an introvert. No matter what extroverts might say. So I mostly try to do my socializing one-on-one (as I’m sure I’ve mentioned many many times on this blog). Extroverts don’t always like to socialize this way. I’ve known plenty of extroverts in my life who were utterly baffled by the idea that I might get more out of one-on-one interaction than in a loud, chaotic group. However, their lack of understanding does not make it any less true.

But really my point is that I can TOTALLY be introverted and also be social. Maybe less frequently social, maybe a different kind of social, but STILL SOCIAL. IT STILL COUNTS.

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Social Codes

A couple weeks ago I asked for help putting together a list of social codes people use, when we say certain words but mean something else. You provided! Thank you so much! Before leaping into the list, I just want to make a point to say (as has been pointed out to me), many of these depend on the context in which they are said. I have tried to include notes on the contexts in question, but please do point out to me any I have missed. Also, this is an ongoing list, so if you have any more I would love for you to tell me so I can add them!

And now, in no particular order, I give you social codes.

“Hi, how are you?” = “Hi, I acknowledge you as a person.” (US)

“I would like to get to know you better” = “I want to get into your pants/date you.” (US)

“Bless your (his/her) heart.” = Sometimes this is a compliment, but other times it is an insult/used sarcastically. (southern US)

“How was your weekend?” = This sometimes means “Please ask me about my weekend.” and other times is another version of “Hi, I acknowledge you as a person.” (US)

“We should do lunch sometime” = “Well, I gotta go now, bye, but I don’t literally plan on making lunch plans with you soon.”

“I’m sorry” = This can mean lots of things beyond apologies, including “I feel sympathy for you” and “You aren’t going to like this, please don’t get mad at me.”

“I think we should see other people” = “I am breaking up with you (and might already have someone else in mind).”

“Oh, you know…” or “Oh, just stuff…” or other vague replies to questions = “I am being vague on purpose because I do not want to answer you, please just drop it.”

wearing headphones, reading a book, or playing on a smartphone = ”I’m not really interested in conversing with others right now”

“You’re such a nice guy!” = “You’re cool, but I am not attracted to you.”

“We should do this again sometime!” = (often but not always) “We should never do this again.”

“That’s interesting” = “I don’t like this piece of art/music/book/whatever. but I don’t want to come out and tell you I don’t like it because I can see you do.” (midwestern US)

“You know what I mean?” (when said after some form of commentary) = “I want you to confirm that you’re listening and to affirm what I’m saying because I’m having strong feelings about this and need to know someone’s taking me seriously. If you need to disagree with me, acknowledge my feelings first then disagree gently.”

“Ok?” (when punctuating a statement or command) = “I want you to indicate to me that what I’m saying is registering and that you will behave accordingly in the future.”

“I’m talking to this guy,” or “I’m talking to this girl.” (in some high schools) = “We’re romantically interested in each other and are moving toward dating.”

“We should get coffee sometime.” = “I’d like to spend a casual 30 minutes or so with you, probably talking and learning more about each other or catching up on each others’ lives. I might take the initiative on this if I’m not too busy, or you may need to reach out to me to make it happen.”

catch you later = see you later

“Just a minute” = “Wait until I’m done with this, it may not be precisely a minute until I am done.”

“Sweet” (said as a reply to someone) = “That is cool”

“That’s ok” (in response to an apology) = “I hear your apology,” not “That action was ok with me.”

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Small Talk

“Small talk” seems to almost be a dirty word in many of the circles I run in – specifically, circles of introverts and the socially awkward (to be clear – those are SEPARATE circles, and I just happen to be in both of them, and small talk just happens to be a similarity between the two). I, too, have struggled quite a bit with the small talk of conversing with people I don’t know well, but a combination of getting my anxiety under control and re-framing how I thought about small talk helped quite a bit.

I used to see small talk much as how it is portray in the Star Trek:TNG episode Starship Mine. It shows Data rather hilariously making horrible, brain-numbing small talk with everyone, and eventually meeting up with someone who was equally brain-numbing with his small talk and, well, hilarity ensues.

This is how many people seem to view small talk and idle conversation – as mind numbing, boring, and ultimately pointless. I have found, though, that this is not the case at all. Or at least, it doesn’t have to be.

At this point, I view it as yet another social ritual. When making an initial connection with a stranger, it is entirely healthy for the conversation to start highly impersonal and gradually move towards the more personal. At first, yeah, the conversation won’t have much substance. That’s ok.

Personally, I view that as an excellent time to learn things like that particular person’s speech patterns and facial expressions. For me, being able to interact comfortably with someone requires that I first learn these things. There are two basic ways for me to do it – be the silent watcher who just hangs back and observes other people’s conversations, or engage in small talk that does not demand much from me to pursue, while leaving most of my brain power to learning how to interact with that person. Because yeah, for me, that’s someone I need to learn one person at a time. If you don’t need that, you are quite fortunate.

Being the silent watcher can come across as creepy, so I try to engage instead. So the next question becomes, what are good ways to engage?

It can be good to have some standbys. As I’ve ranted about before, asking about a person’s job is a common one. Personally, I prefer to ask about what a person does so that it is more open-ended – this can include job, school, hobbies, pastimes, etc.

On the highly impersonal end, usually done between people who have little to no established connection, there’s the weather, sports, tv shows, celebrity gossip, and pretty much anything in pop culture. Admittedly, I struggle with this as I live under a rock and am pretty blind to pop culture, but I can still comment on the weather and do my best to make appropriate noises in response to other things.

Next up, ask questions. Small talk does not have to stay small talk throughout an entire conversation. Allow for conversational drift, show interest in the person you are talking to, share things about yourself. Oh, and AVOID RELIGION AND POLITICS holy wow. Ok, this is not universally true – on rare instances you can talk to strangers about those things, but in general they are far too contentious for early conversation. Just don’t go there.

One thing I see come up is the acronym FORD:

Food
Occupation
Recreation
Dreams

Change ‘occupation’ to ‘obsession’ and it’s actually a pretty good script. It starts fairly idle and impersonal, and moves into personal and significant. Nee suggested we change it to FJORD: Food, Job or Recreation, Dreams. Regardless, it’s a way to work through conversation with a person you’re getting to know.

But, you may be asking, what about small talk with coworkers when it never moves past the pointless and small? Well, then I see it as pretty much another version of the “hi, how are you?” ritual. It’s not about the words that are spoken, it’s about creating and maintaining a low-level connection between people who are otherwise not connected. Among co-workers, it can be incredibly useful to have at least a basic connection with each other, while being impractical or outright impossible to be close friends (or even friends at all). The solution is short, pointless conversations that involve acknowledging the other person (“Hi! You are a person!”) and interacting in a friendly and functional way (“We are capable of talking to each other without fighting!”). This is a worthy goal, and spending a minute here and there to comment on the weather or the sports team or TV show or whatever else is a low-cost way to do it.

So small talk doesn’t really bother me anymore. The more I practice the better I get at it, and I view it as a useful social ritual with distinct beneficial outcomes.

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What I meant/What I said

Connecting Cities 2013 - Networked City

I want to talk about a particular form of miscommunication that plagues me a bit in my life. When I have problems with miscommunication with people, it’s usually from this thing. That being – when what a person says and what a person meant are two different things.

Autism is defined by being a social disorder – that is what differentiates it from other developmental delays. As such, I do a lot of thinking about social things, including how I communicate. It is normal for me to spend a great deal of time thinking about what I want to say, why I want to say it, what my motivations and intentions are, what I am hoping to gain, and any number of other things that all culminate into the words I choose. This means that sometimes, especially for things that are personal or important, it can take me a long time to find my words. Weeks or months sometimes (and for the autism spectrum, that’s pretty fast. some people can take years). I also know that I can slip and mess up my words if I am in a situation where I am being pressured to find words before I can fully do my processing.

I have learned that other people do not go through this process. They just always have words. I have also learned, sometimes very harshly, that this means that people may not always be fully aware of what’s behind their words, or even believe that there is nothing else behind the words (this is almost never actually true). Additionally, allistic people are not immune to making errors in their communication or word choices.

What can be of profound frustration for me is what happens when those errors happen.

See, I try very hard to acknowledge my mistakes and do better. Other people… well, even if they have very good intentions, they are rarely happy to say “oh whoops, my mistake. let’s try again.” And that bothers me. A lot.

Ok, let me give an absurd example that probably never happens in real life that will hopefully help illustrate what I’m talking about.

Person1: I like baked potatoes!
Person2: What? I thought you hated baked potatoes.
P1: I do. What are you talking about? I like french fries.
P2. But you just said that you like baked potatoes.

It’s what happens next that can vex me. Now, it isn’t always bad. Nee and I seem to have a script that works very well when either one of us find ourselves accidentally using words that say something we don’t mean. So we would end the conversation something like this:

P1. Oh, did I? Whoops, sorry about that. I meant to talk about french fries.
P2. Oh, ok. I understand now.

This involves P1 admitting their mistake and acknowledging that what they said was not what they meant. It also involve P2 acknowledging that they meant something other than what they said. WIthout both parts, it does not really work. With this method of both parties participating and clearing up a word-usage error, meaning can come across more easily.

I think this has spoiled me, because I keep running into people who don’t work that way. Instead, the rest of the conversation goes something like this:

P1: I DID NOT JUST TALK ABOUT BAKED POTATOES! YOU ARE MAKING ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT WHAT I’M SAYING!
P2: Bwah?

It all tends to go downhill from there. And yes, some people really have gotten incredibly vitriolic on me about this sort of thing. From my perspective, now they are lying. I am willing to believe that they meant something other than what their words actually said, but if they insist that their words were correct and I’m just being awful then I cannot move forward. I mean, I guess it’s true that I made an assumption about their words – I assumed they meant what they said. As assumptions go, it’s one I am very comfortable with.

After my post on feeling broken people exhorted me to see strengths in my autism. And I do try to – I am very good with details, I can be extremely determined, I see the world in ways other people do not – but it can be challenging when most of the world seems to want to focus on, and constantly remind me of, my deficiencies. This is an area where it kind of seems to be both a strength and a weakness. I put much more effort than most people do on finding and looking at words. I do this because it is a necessity for me, but it also puts me in a position where it is habitual for me to inspect word choices, which can be helpful. Sadly, it means that when there is a disconnect between what is said and what is meant, I seem to stall. And the rest of the world does not seem interested in finding a way to clear it up. I am expected to simply ignore the words used in favor of what was “meant” (except, of course, when I am not to do that and I get yelled at and called rude for trying to fully understand what is behind a person’s words. I just cannot win).

I wish it was normal for people to inspect their words. I wish people didn’t take it as some kind of attack if I point out what was actually said. I wish people could just say “whoops, I made a word error. I actually meant this thing.” When I make a word error and acknowledge it and try to find better words, I wish people were more willing to accept that I meant something other than what I said. Sadly, none of that seems to happen with people other than Nee, and it can be frustrating for me.

Hey world! You need to be better!

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Flirting

 

So I watch this youtube series called Sexplanations that is super interesting and has lots of good information. Dr. Doe (the writer and narrator) put out a video on flirting that I kind of want to respond to. It was really interesting and informative, but I found myself with mixed feelings.

So first of all, apparently researchers have broken down and categorized how flirting works and have it all out there explicitly. If you’re anything like me, analyzing stuff like this is great! It’s a solid, step-by-step guide to help us understand flirting. Or at least, typical flirting.

If you don’t want to watch the video for whatever reason, here is a summary of what the video went over.

Dr. Doe defines flirting thusly: “Flirting is signalling intimate interest and it’s also determining whether or not the interest is mutual.”

The stages of flirting are as follows:
1. Field of Eligibles. This is basically where you show up at a bar or party or whatever and signal
a) I am here
b) this is my gender
c) you may approach me
through various non-verbal signals.

2. Eye contact. It is supposed to be more than one second but less than three. Also acceptable is many quick glances. This indicates interest.

3. Approach. Self explanatory, I think.

4. Talk. “Observe what you have in common and focus on that.” This is meant to be personalized, but not personal (and I’m not even going to try to get into the potential mess of defining the precise difference between the two). Basically, talk about things, but don’t be invasive.

5. Swivel and Turn. This is when the people go from a more side-to-side posture to a more face-to-face posture.

6. The touch. Casual touching. The general idea is that if it’s reciprocated or met with a smile or otherwise obviously positive response, that’s good and you can continue flirting. If the person startles or flinches, you should politely end the conversation/flirtation and move on.

7. Synchronization. This is when movements, breathing, looks around the room, etc all start to synchronize between the two people. Apparently it happens unconsciously.

She also makes a point to tell us that if at any point the flirtation seems confusing or jumbled or something, it’s time to end the flirtation and move on.

There was also explicit talk of consent, making sure everyone is on the same page, and accepting any kind of “no.” In many ways I found this video most informative, and I think other people would too. While it’s unlikely that I could flirt like that, for a variety of reasons, it might help me understand other people’s behavior. It gives me a baseline for interaction.

On the other hand, bits of it made me sad. For instance, the physical contact part. I generally need to hold off physical contact a lot longer than your average neurotypical person. I mean, your average neurotypical starts touching strangers RIGHT AWAY with that handshake thing. The touching part of flirting will, for most people, happen much sooner than I would be comfortable with. If someone I was just starting to talk to reached out and touched my hand, I would almost certainly wince and jerk away. Since in an NT this would probably be a non-verbal no, it would make sense for a person to interpret it that way from me, but that would be sad and frustrating for me if I was enjoying the flirtation.

Another other one was eye contact. The most I do is really quick glances at a person’s face, and I pretty much never increase that for anyone, over any length of time. Unlike touching this one is not even a matter of mismatched timing – it’s just a drastic difference between autistics and NTs. Again, it would be normal and natural for someone to assume the fact that I’m looking away a lot is a sign of disinterest since apparently it’s that way for other people, but it would be sad-making when people interpreted it that way for me.

I also find myself wondering about the synchronization bit. There’s interesting neuroscience out there about mirror neurons that I don’t really want to get into right now, but the general idea is that autistic people might have more difficulty synchronizing than NTs. Our brains just don’t work that way. So, like touching, at best this probably means that my timescale might be very different from many other people’s timescale, and it might be easy for a person to read lack of interest in a simple difference.

Finally, there was the bit about how we should just stop if things feel jumbled or confused. And really, I mostly agree with her. It’s important for people to be on the same page, and if it’s just not working to be willing to let go. However, anything as complex as all this flirting business is going to feel jumbled and complicated to me, and I don’t want to be told that I can’t play the game at all just because I’m neurologically different.

I’m not really sure what conclusions to draw from this, though. I mean, I’m certainly not going to go saying that the neurotypical way of flirting is wrong in some broad, objective way. Apparently enough people do it this way for researchers to sketch an outline, and it seems to work for many. Maybe even most. It’s just not the right way of flirting for me. I need to do things differently. Maybe I just need to play a slightly different game.

I’ll be honest – I do online dating. I’m actually not in the least bit ashamed of it, though I’ve noticed that some people find it less-than in some way. I’ve found it to be way better than managing meeting strangers in person. When we start with writing, I can explicitly communicate my needs and my differences, and how people respond to that will tell me a lot about whether or not I want to move forward at all. Anyone who thinks that refraining from all physical contact for at least the first few hours is some kind of terrible ordeal is not the person for me. Anyone who thinks regular eye contact is a must is not the person for me. And I can get that out of the way quickly, with significantly lower risk of miscommunication due to different forms of non-verbal language. I like words. Let’s use them!

I don’t want to say that autistics should only date other autistics and NTs should only date other NTs. I mean, I get kinda twitchy at many forms of “[group] should only date other people in [group].” Let’s not go there. But getting past it is going to take explicit communication, and fair or not, it’s going to mean the smaller group (you know, us) will need to be clear about what we need and how we work. We can do that, right?

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