As an Autistic These are the Things I Dread the Most About Christmas

I dread the crowded streets as people rush to buy Christmas presents and having to hold my feelings of discomfort bordering on anger inside because people are too loud and too close, and are essentially tourists in the stores that are usually my safety zones, my escape from the world of chaos outside.

I dread people changing plans last minute. I really really don’t want that happen. If Christmas lunch is changed to the 26th, or not at 12 o’clock or the venue is changed.

I dread having a depressive episode during such a happy season.

I dread the last minute pre-Christmas family drama coming out of nowhere.

I dread the bendy roads that give me motion sickness on the way to Christmas lunch.

I dread that first few minutes of awkwardness when I arrive at Christmas lunch, not knowing whether to sit or stand, or where to sit.

I dread the loud and sometimes angry voices from the kitchen, but glad it has nothing to do with me.

I dread people asking me what I’ve been up to lately and trying to make it sound as interesting as possible.

I dread trying to use small talk to talk to people and the resulting very uncomfortable long gap of silence that always follows and makes me feel like this is hopeless.

I dread remembering to make eye contact, but not stare too long.

I dread when I go to talk and my words come out in a garbled mess and I try desperately to make the next sentence come out fluently and coherently.

I dread being hugged and made to feel like everyone likes to hug, and then feeling like a cold psychopath because I don’t like them. I like hugs when given a choice to make them.

I dread being depressed on such a happy day.

I dread having to bite my tongue when someone says something offensive.

I dread telling an extrovert something meant just for them and they go and tell it to everyone else in their bellowing voice.

I dread my nephews opening the presents I bought them that I carefully and thoughtfully selected, only to push them aside and look for more presents

I dread my nephews losing interest in me because I have no cool games they can play.

I dread trying to talk to my nieces.

I dread meeting strangers that are friends of the family.

I dread some older family members (especially relatives I barely see) for giving me a hard time about being quiet.

I dread not having a quiet space to retreat to when I feel overwhelmed or depressed.

I dread people interrupting me when I’m engaged in something important, even if I’m just talking to someone on social media.

I dread drinking too much and end up acting like a buffoon, just because I wanted to feel less nervous and be comfortable speaking.

I dread people acting like their opinions are facts.

I dread that one person who makes a racist comment and I dread not telling them what I really think of them.

I dread family drama.

I dread the food not being ready in time. I dread having to ask what dish has citrus in it.

I dread meeting strangers and seeing their disappointed looks when I barely talk to them.

I dread drunk people telling me not to be offended.

I dread it being over.

Remember to ask about what your autistic family member feels, worries about and needs on Christmas Day.

Note: This doesn’t mean I won’t try to talk to anyone or hell, even hug, but I think it’s important to show people how I struggle.

The Conversation Conundrum

Engaging in conversation comes easy to most because of the way the human brain develops throughout childhood. We have an innate ability to pick up on social behaviour which helps us build up our social skills that by around the age of 10 we have a basic ability to talk to other children about the common things children talk about. However, for some of us this innate ability is missing, especially in those with autism, other neurological disorders or people with delayed social development.

I’m in the latter category. For me personally I never really had the desire to socialise and due to a severe social anxiety disorder known as selective mutism I rarely talked outside the family home. I saw some progress in my teens but I didn’t see much dramatic change until my mid 20s. By this time I was already diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and ADHD, and I can’t deny that being prescribed Ritalin not only helped me talk more but have the desire to talk to people at all. I finally had the patience and clear headedness to be able to pick up on social behaviour and put it into practice.

Learning new social skills was a matter of listening to two other people sit beside me and have a conversation and to carefully watch their body language; anything from the length of eye contact made to subtle hand movements. I often got some pretty confused looks from the people I was secretly learning from. I didn’t just pick up social skills from people talking to each other or from my own feeble attempts at having a conversation with someone but from watching actors on TV and in film. I’m a longtime fan of children’s films in the 80s and 90s and I’ve always mimicked the words, mannerisms and even dress sense of those young protagonists.

Some TV shows have been central to my social development or just made me understand confusing neurotypical (someone without a neurological disorder) behaviour. That wasn’t something I wanted to mimic but just be aware of because it was so illogical, things like lying and keeping secrets and the eventual confrontation that surfaced after being caught out. It was mostly science fiction shows that taught me the importance of teamwork and how to think about others. Recently, a TV show on Netflix called Granite Flats showed me how to apologize to people. These sound like very simple things to know but I’m not just taught these things by the characters on a show or film, but the way they say these things helps me actually get the words out at all otherwise it’s very difficult for me to say things such as ‘sorry.’ I don’t just mimic actors but become their characters. I actually sound exactly like the characters, anyone from Data on Star Trek to Captain Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly. I rather enjoy sounding like a space cowboy too. But I can also mimic people I know if I look up to them enough.

I’ve come far in the 5 or so years that I’ve been training up my social skills. I’ve also lost them and had to build them up over again which is what happens to autistic adults when they are under extreme stress. I can even lose these skills if I go a long time without talking to anyone. So, it’s important for me to get out there not just for emotional reasons but so I can retain the skills I’ve learned and continue to build them up. There are differences between what an autistic person wants to get out of a conversation verses an NT. An NT, or non-autistic person doesn’t care so much about what words are said but just the time spent with another person, whereas an autistic person really wants to share information and hopes that the other person will learn something new and remember it. That’s not always the case though. In my experience people don’t remember much of what was said at all.

I do enjoy the time I get to spend with people. I’m trying to focus less on the information I give and more on the time spent, especially when building a new relationship with someone. Talking though is still very hard for me to do. I have the usual problems that anyone with social awkwardness or delayed social skills goes through like not knowing what to say at all or worrying about whether the topic is relevant or socially acceptable, and then I have to work out whether what I say will come across as offensive before even saying it. But the actual act of speaking and making thoughts formed in my mind come out of my mouth in the order that I thought them is often a task I fail at. They don’t come out in the right order. I think this is because I think of two ways to say something and combine the two ways together in one sentence. I also get a blank half way through a sentence that I often spend a lot of time quickly trying to remember what I thought of a few seconds ago and grabbing any bunch of words that come to mind and make my best attempt to form a sentence out of them.

However, my friend Patrick seems to be the complete opposite of that. He’s a musician, a bass player that I’ve recently met after years of taking photos of bands he’s been in. I was in awe of his ability to keep a conversation going but staying relevant to the subject. I wanted to emulate that but at the same time it’s my impulsive mouth that makes me say anything at all. Sure, those words can often embarrass me or unknowingly offend others and often make me feel stupid, but it’s my thing. However, I’ve been noticing that I am holding my tongue more in an attempt to stay relevant. Pat though is a really nice guy and despite my social awkwardness which can lead to a lot of impatience by people or have them making fun of me for stumbling, he remains patient and tries to help me get around my little handicap.

Even though I’m still developing my social skills I’ve learned a lot and have a high amount of empathy for an autistic person and even find myself mentally telling non-autistic people to think about how others feel or will respond to the way they’ve said something. It seems these days with social media being such a huge part of people’s lives that they’ve forgotten the very first thing I learned in my social skills training: not everyone will agree with you or have the same interests. Psychologists call it having a poor theory of mind or mind blindness when you fail to understand this. I remember when I struggled to keep thinking of others as separate individuals from me with their own likes, hates and wants, and their own experiences which help shape their personalities.

Still, most people seem to have adequate enough social skills to think they don’t need any further help and still they look at those who struggle socially with impatience. The best thing you can do for someone who is struggling to speak is be patient, not assume you know what they are going to say or finish their sentences for them. We don’t all have the same social ability and the person struggling is often very frustrated at themselves. It’s not uncommon for the more introverted person to hold something against an extrovert who replies before they’ve even finished talking or repeats their words to other people. To them it’s very rude. As for rudeness, sometimes those with poor social skills can say something that might be interpreted as rude but often they’ve just failed to realize it would come across this way. If you keep this in mind and not respond with anger you can probably avoid confrontation and the person will not become depressed over their mistake. Having poor social skills leads to a lot of anxiety and depression and these two disorders really interfere with developing new social skills.

My mood disorder gets in the way of me developing socially. Sometimes I get too hyper and impulsive and slightly delusional to apply what I learned when I was in a more euthymic state, and my depressed and anxious states lead to a lot of self-doubt and negative social scripting, which is thinking of worse possible outcomes in a social situation. Usually though, I use social scripting to help me come up with subjects to use in a conversation and it actually does work.

I still get surprised when I hit a brick wall in my social skills, which happens when people act in ways that I don’t understand or I realize that despite all the years I’ve put into developing new social skills I’m still not able to steer myself out of difficult situations. Usually, my answer to dealing with a heated dispute between me and a friend is to completely get them out of my life. Not everyone is happy with me using this approach but I’m at a loss to know how to work out a solution. So, much work is still left to do if I want to keep my friends. I applaud my friends for trying to keep our relationship intact, I just hope one day I can return the favour.

Naturally Introverted

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Recently I’ve come across a website called The Quiet Revolution, a site that has many helpful posts about how to live in this extroverted dominated world as an introverted person. It’s important to me to really embrace my introversion because for a long time I have been trying to really push it away and become a more outgoing person. I even have had it taken away by going on medication for my ADHD so now it’s important to me to really return to my more natural state of mind, who I was before all these medications started to interfere with my brain.

Firstly, let me start off by telling those of you who don’t know I’m also autistic and identify myself as a severe introvert because not do I only thrive in solitude but prefer it and can be very stubborn to come out of it. I seem to become more withdrawn around a group of people due to my sensory sensitivity and the fact that I often do not share the same interests as other people, and am rotten at small talk. Although, because of the dramatic change to my brain on Ritalin I was able to have time to really learn and practice social skills so these days I’m probably 30% better  than what I was before. I’ve become impulsive and use that impulsivity to help me start conversations with people. A conversation with an ADHD person does not last long though. It starts, derides, jumps to some other subject randomly and then wanders away. One autistic symptom I’ve managed to completely reduce is talking only about my interests and not notice when people weren’t interested. I wish I could have that back. My trick is now to surround myself around people who have the same interests as me.

Introversion is like my default programming and as I’ve mentioned I had it taken away when I went on Ritalin. I became extroverted and I still at times can become temporarily extroverted. I know what it’s like to want to seek anybody out to talk to or just be around them. Some nights at home alone were painful because I just wanted to hang out with people. For the most part though I can be alone for hours and not miss a single soul. In my current living arrangements I’m not always able to be alone so I really yearn for that moment when I am.

Lately though the extroverts have outnumbered the introverts in this house and I’ve kind of felt like I’ve got pressure on me to talk more and not just that – to change to what seems normal to them. Introverts may want people to change for the better but we can still be content if people just stay the same. If it’s really something that’s annoying us we can confront people about it but we really rather not. Remember, I am speaking from the perspective of an autistic introvert so not all will agree with my interpretation of an introvert.

Introverts and extroverts are almost like two different species and are each annoyed by each other’s differences, but we need to remember that extroverts can’t help being outgoing just like introverts can’t help being quiet and staying at home but that doesn’t mean that we should allow them to change us. Extroverts can seem like they’re trying to control you but you just need to let them know that you’re introverted and will stay that way. It’s who you are naturally and there’s nothing wrong with it.

Introverts can give just as much to society as extroverts can. We ought to tolerate each other’s differences more, because it those differences that make us interesting. If we were all outgoing and chatty I’m sure we’d get bored with nothing new happening and if we were all quiet and stayed at home then we’d never meet each other. And I’ve tried to make a quiet friend – it is very hard. The person did come off as disinterested to me and that’s how some people see shy and quiet people. I’ve probably been seen that way many times. Once a housemate’s son came over to the house and in greeting offered his hand but I didn’t shake it. I’m not used to such a thing so didn’t expect it and couldn’t just do it once I realised that was required of me.

These past three years I have been really pushing my social skills development and taking any opportunity to practice what I’ve learned on people, or just taken another opportunity to pick up some more tips from them. When I went out to see bands I would try and meet them after a show and spit out whatever words I could. There was one band member in particular that I was so desperate to meet and talk to but I never got the chance so I would always say ‘next time I will do it, I will push myself right out of my comfort zone just to do it.’ But now it doesn’t seem that important to me. Maybe it will happen and maybe it won’t – but who really cares? I’ve stopped obsessing about it and stopped trying to act as normal and social as him just so we could better get along. I hope no one is offended by my use of the word ‘normal’ – to me normal is average and average is boring, uninspired, unoriginal and other things I’m not. I still think that musician is pretty cool though.

For so long I have tried to go against the grain of who I naturally am. I’ve pushed this brain so hard to be good at maths, to play a musical instrument and other things that I just don’t have the skills for. But I do have other skills and so all my time will be spent on pursuing work in that area than in an area my brain really has no clue about or passion for. Even the social skills learning is starting to feel like a futile effort; for every new skill I learn there’s one other thing I’m confused by, or accidental offend people about or just had no idea of the existence of. Maybe I won’t push myself as hard and accept the fact that I am autistic and will always struggle in this way. As long as I try to be polite and helpful then people should understand I’m not using my autism as a crutch.

As for the extroverted part of me, yeah, I’ll embrace it when it comes as long as I remember who I am the majority of the time: a quiet but deep reflector who seems to accept things as they come but is not afraid to stand up for herself once in a while, especially when it comes to people trying to push me out of my shell. No, I quite like my shell. Leave me be.