Category Archives: Social Relationships

Familiar strangers

I can be pretty good at talking to strangers. I can get through a targeted and purposeful interaction by being my natural affect-less self. That rarely seems to bother people – at least not that I’ve noticed. I can pretty easily pass as being ‘just’ in a hurry or distracted, and the other person can handle that without being uncomfortable.

It becomes much more difficult when I’m interacting with someone who isn’t a complete stranger. I go to my local pharmacy about twice a month to collect prescriptions. There is one person who works there most of the time, who has come to recognise me. I was perfectly happy to keep our interaction the same as it’s always been: I give my name, they go and bring my prescription. But before long they learned my name and didn’t need to ask for it any more.

It’s only as I write this that I realise most other people in my position would have developed their relationship with the pharmacist more than I have. I have never spoken to the pharmacist about anything other than my prescriptions. Ever. Not about the weather, not about my day, or their day, or local news, or anything at all that’s not related to the specific reason I’m there. The idea has literally never occurred to me.

Why would I talk to them about anything else? It would just confuse me. It would distract from the purpose of that specific interaction (i.e. to get my prescription). But it would also blur the definitions of the relationship. A pharmacist is someone you talk to about prescriptions. A friend or family member is someone you talk to about the weather (or your day, or their day, or the news..). Why would I talk to the pharmacist about ‘friend-level’ subjects? Am I trying to become their friend? It’s not very likely.

It’s not that I don’t like the pharmacist – I really do! They bring my prescriptions, they’re always helpful if there’s been a mistake or delay, they never seem rushed or distracted. They have all the qualities of an excellent pharmacist. I just don’t seem to have the connection that some people have: “If you like a person -> expand the interaction”. That doesn’t make sense to me when the interaction is happening for a specific purpose. I’m never actually going to become friends with my pharmacist, so there’s nothing to be gained from expanding the interaction.

It seems like other people do gain something from interacting with strangers or people they only know in a certain context. And not just that, but it’s also an instinctive reaction. I frequently see family members interacting with strangers and acting ‘friendly’ without even seeming to notice – sometimes they even deny it when I point it out! It’s so automatic that they can barely conceive of the idea of not doing it, so they don’t realise they are actually ‘doing’ anything. They would only notice if they saw me interact with a familiar person like the pharmacist, and recognised that I was definitely not doing it.

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Old friends

A few weeks ago I unexpectedly ran into two people who I haven’t seen in a year. The year before that I only saw them a few times in total. But up until two years ago, they were part of my very closest small friend group.

It was very strange seeing them again. A lot has changed in all of our lives. I certainly feel like I’m very different to who I was when I was close with them. But at the same time, talking to them again made me feel like almost no time had passed since the last time.

Running into an old friend is a very unfamiliar experience for me. I’m pretty young anyway, so I haven’t had much time to develop and then lose touch with friends. I’ve also hardly had any ‘friends’ in the first place. Most times when I’ve lost touch with people (like when I left primary school, and then when I left secondary school), it’s been a relief to have them out of my life. But losing touch with someone who I actually have largely positive memories and feelings towards – that’s never really happened before.

We lost touch because we all left college and were no longer seeing each other daily just out of habit. Everyone became busy with their new things and meeting up became more like a chore than anything else. It’s been two years since college ended and I still have no idea how I actually feel about the situation. Am I sad? Do I miss them? Do I care? I’m not sure. I really did enjoy spending time with them when we were close. But I don’t feel like I desperately want to spend time with them now. We would have very little to talk about, not much in common, and no shared reference points.

So, were we only friends because we happened to be at college and school together? It can’t be quite that simple, because there are plenty of people who I went to school and college with, but I certainly didn’t have ‘plenty’ of friends. Is it just that we happened to be in more classes together? Is it just because they took pity on me and invited me to sit with them at lunch when they saw me by myself? (Yes, that really is how we first met).

If we have other things in common apart from college, then why have we lost touch? Surely if we really enjoy each other’s company, we should all still be putting in just as much effort to see each other as we always used to (even if external circumstances made that rare or more difficult). But that’s not the case either. When we left college, I pretty much accepted that we were going to lose touch, and soon gave up on trying to initiate contact. Most of the others seemed to do the same thing.

Did we stop getting in touch so that we wouldn’t be saddened by letting it happen organically? I don’t think that was the reason for me. I knew it was going to happen sooner or later, so I was resigned to the potential sadness involved, regardless of when or how we lost touch.

In the last few years, I have increasingly developed online friendships. These are a very real and important experience for me, but they also cause me even more confusion about the definition and purpose of friendships. If I made friends with the school friends at least partly because we were at school together, then why did I make friends with people online? We certainly haven’t been forced together by circumstance. Some aspects of getting to know each other online are extremely inconvenient: geographical distance, timezone differences, lack of easy ways of getting in contact. And yet it’s happened anyway, and some of my online friendships are much closer and more significant to me than in-person friendships of the past. Why? I don’t know! I don’t understand any of it! What are friends, anyway?!

My instinct is that my online friendships formed because we had a lot in common. Online profiles make it really easy to summarise your interests, identities, and personality. A significant number of my online friendships happened because I read someone’s profile and then sent them a half-joky message saying “We have lots in common, we should be friends!”. That kind of thing can’t really happen in-person. Instead you have to try to subtly collect information about a person until you can decide whether you will be capable of getting along. I guess some people might find that easy (or even enjoyable?), but I certainly don’t.

I suppose it’s also easier to reach a wider pool of people online. It’s easier to narrow down the type of people you’re exposed to by your own interests and preferences. So that makes it possible to be a lot more picky. If I wanted to be friends with autistic people at college, there would have been maybe two or three people who I was aware of. If I want to meet autistic people online, all I have to do is write a bit about myself and I end up surrounded by a community of autistic people.

So the friends I make online are likely to be more closely suited to me than people I meet in person. Maybe that’s why I don’t feel sad about losing touch with my college friends. They were really good friends at the time, and were very important to me. But they were important as my school and college friends. Now we aren’t at school or college anymore, I don’t need school and college friends – and neither do they. They have their own new friends now: university friends, work friends. And I have my own new friends too, friends that are suited to my life as it is now.

Precise language

When I had my formal assessment, the report said I used very precise language. I didn’t really understand what that meant. I’m still not totally sure  understand it. But I had a small realisation recently when I was trying to communicate with someone.

I emailed my distance-learning tutor with a question about something I was working on. When I got a reply, he seemed to be answering a completely different question to the one I asked! By default,  I assumed that was my problem and my fault. But when I talked to my friend, they suggested it might be the opposite.

Rather than a sign that I’m bad at communicating with people, it could be a sign that my communication is more precise. So much so, that other people don’t respond with the precision I expect. It seemed like my tutor had given the email a cursory glance and just replied to the question he assumed I was asking. Which would probably work with a neurotypical student – someone who used vague enough language that the message could be picked up from a cursory glance!

I’m trying to give him the benefit of the doubt, here. I could assume that every student that ever emails him gets a disappointing response to the wrong questions. But that seems unlikely somehow – surely he would have noticed if that was the case. So the next logical conclusion is that something is different in the communication with me, compared to with other students.

Which is where the precise language part comes in. I guess I learnt to communicate while learning that other people didn’t seem to pick up on my own hidden meanings – because I was surrounded by NTs who had their own unspoken language and didn’t speak mine. So, I had to learn to make my words completely unambiguous, to prevent that from happening.

This might be part of the reason I’m so good at explaining things to other people. I’m an expert at making words express exactly what I want them to. But it also means I get frustrated when other people can’t do the same in return. I have had countless infuriating text-message conversations with friends, where I have had to resort to listing my points with  numbers, and demanding they respond to them each individually! I’m sure it’s equally irritating for them, but I don’t know how else to make the conversation work. Clearly it’s not possible for me to communicate in NT language (I have certainly tried). So I just have to hope that other people will try to ‘meet me part way’ and do a bit of the translating themselves.

Binary trust and friendship

My ability to trust people seems to be binary. I don’t have the capacity for complex in-between levels of trust or closeness, like “acquaintance”, “friend”, or “close friend”. Everyone in my life can be sorted into one or the other.

By default, strangers start off as ‘untrustworthy’. The untrustworthy state has certain characteristics:

  • I don’t automatically believe things they say, unless it’s supported by evidence or by a ‘trustworthy’ person.
  • I don’t expect them to honour commitments or keep promises.
  • I don’t tell them anything about myself that I consider private, personal, or important.

It takes a long time for someone to become trustworthy. I only started properly trusting my newest friend from college after almost two years of spending time together every day. That in-between period consists of me being cautious and guarded, while observing the other person to gather evidence of trustworthiness. When I eventually decide to trust them:

  • I assume they are telling the truth and believe the things they say.
  • I expect them to honour commitments and keep promises.
  • I will tell them anything about myself that I want to.

I think my binary trust state is a result of a combination of different things. Part of it is probably autistic black-and-white thinking, part of it is having different social skills and standards to NT people. And another part is probably a learned defence mechanism, as a result of having so many negative social experiences in the past.

When I like someone, I am immediately desperate to get to know them. I don’t see the point in waiting around with small talk, when I already know that I like them enough to make friends. But this method doesn’t tend to work with NTs, because they get freaked out or confused by it and things go wrong. So as a result, I’ve taught myself to suppress that urge, and instead to be very cautious in order to protect myself.

Binary trust also protects me from good relationships which go wrong. If I’ve classified someone as trustworthy and they break that trust, they are demoted permanently. This happened with a secondary school friend after I found out they lied to me.

The interesting thing is that my trust state for someone doesn’t have that much of an impact on what the relationship actually looks like from outside. When I stopped trusting that secondary school friend, we didn’t stop being friends. They probably didn’t even realise anything had changed from me! I was still happy to spend time with them and have fun together. I had just lowered my expectations, so I no longer believed things they said without evidence, or expected them to keep commitments, or told them anything more about myself that was important.

Similarly, when I eventually classified my college friend as trustworthy, they probably didn’t notice much difference. I had changed my rules for my interactions, but the rules themselves aren’t the only things which define the interaction.

I think the main reason for this is that I’m an extreme social mirrorer. When I made my secondary school friends, it happened because they took pity on me standing around by myself. They immediately started treating me as a friend, and so I reciprocated. Even though it was still another year before I properly classed them as trustworthy, my behaviour matched theirs straight away.

Similarly, I mirrored my college friend. But in this case, they were extremely reserved, and so I was too. Which made it even harder for us to become friends! And when I eventually decided they were trustworthy, things didn’t change much because I was still mirroring them and being reserved. It just meant that if situations arose in which I could e.g. tell them something about myself, I was allowed to do that under my new rules.

It’s only in recent years that I’ve noticed this binary trust state. I’m not sure if that’s because it’s a relatively recent development, or because I’ve just never been aware of it. Probably a mix of the two. It’s strange to think that other people don’t do this, though. It’s hard to imagine being able to have complicated rules that are different for every person in your life. How would you keep track?!

Big news and important conversations

I have trouble with important conversations. I’m sure everyone does, really. That’s why they’re important after all: because they’re difficult but have to happen anyway. But I think the trouble I have is sometimes different to other people.

Recently, I got some exciting news – a knitting magazine commissioned me to design a pattern. When I shared the news with my family, I’m pretty sure I did it wrong! I mean, I didn’t upset or offend them or anything. But when I told my brother, he exclaimed that I didn’t tell him as soon as he came home and instead waited until a bit later. And my mum said “You never tell us anything!” because the news was surprising.

It was just a regular example of autistic-NT mistranslation. I’ve been thinking about it a bit, and I still can’t figure out what would have been different for them to not have reacted in those ways.

How are you supposed to make news less surprising? Should I have eased into the conversation by saying “So… I’ve been knitting a lot lately…”? The main point is still pretty much one sentence-worth of information, so I don’t see how you could do it in a less abrupt way.

And it’s really hard to know when is the right time to initiate a conversation. Should I have blurted it out the moment my brother walked through the door? Surely not! I thought that I was waiting an appropriate time so as not to seem self-centred and to let him settle in back at home before bringing up something major.

I’m not really bothered by this. I’m perfectly aware of the fact that it’s hard for me to communicate with people, and sometimes it goes wrong and sometimes I’m not always sure how or why it went wrong. I just find it interesting. I guess this is an area where I’m missing out on the innate rules that other people seem to have. Rules like:

  • How to correctly judge the importance of different topics.
  • How to talk about topics of different levels of importance.
  • Which levels of importance are required information for which levels of relationship.

This is yet another reason that I generally prefer text-based communication. It’s so much easier to introduce a new topic via, e.g. email or text. It’s perfectly natural to add a new point whenever you think of it. You don’t have to worry about choosing the correct time and situation for the other person to talk about it, and worry that they might be busy or stressed or distracted. They get to make that decision, because the interaction is delayed and so they can choose the right time to work on their response. It seems so much simpler that way. In a face-to-face conversation, both people are trying to carefully think about both people at once. That’s twice as many people to stress about!

Scripting

When I’m with same-age friends, I often end up being the one who interacts with the ‘adults’ and strangers on behalf of the group. It’s usually me who talks to the person at the checkout, or the waiter, or whoever seems to be in charge and know what they’re doing.

It’s strange, because I’m not very good at interacting with people. I can’t really keep up with smalltalk or start a conversation with a friend. And yet I’m much better at those kinds of stranger interactions than my peers.

I think it’s to do with scripting. For a lot of autistic people, scripting is important. It lets us plan out what needs to be said, and prepare for all eventualities. We can use scripts to make sure we know the right thing to say in a certain situation. I’m good at purposeful conversation with strangers because I’m good at scripting. I plan what I need to say and make sure I get my point across with the most efficiency.

But I’m bad at non-purposeful social interactions, for the same reason. When there’s not a specific piece of information that needs to be exchanged, it’s impossible to plan out the interaction. What am I supposed to say? How do I say it? What do I expect them to say in response? It’s a nightmare.

Neurotypical people my age are generally good at that stuff. They seem to like improvising and playing with social dances and games. But because they’re good at that, they also tend to be bad at scripting – because they don’t generally need it. So when they do need to have a functional interaction, it’s difficult – because their usual social skills are less relevant. Tactical dishonesty and subtlety is not very useful when trying to get a specific message across.

I always used to be confused when my outgoing friends became suddenly shy and awkward when trying to interact with a stranger like a cashier or waiter. Over time I learned that their social skills were better suited to social relationships. While mine are better suited to functional interactions.

I think this is quite an interesting example of how autistic people don’t have worse social skills, but just different skills.

Why I love board games

I’m not sure if board games are a particularly autistic thing. But I know that they are a very popular pastime among my family, and one of my favourite modes of interaction. I think board games bring together several different factors which combine to make one of the best social situations for me to enjoy.

Structured

There are clear parameters for the interaction. Everyone knows that we are going to sit around the table until the game is finished and that we all have a specific purpose for being there. There’s no need to try and improvise with conversation or work out what people want to be doing, because everyone already knows what they’re doing there.

Time-limited

There is a predefined end for the interaction – when the game ends. That provides a socially-acceptable natural time to leave or take a break, without having to create an excuse if I want to get out of the situation.

Rule-bound

There are rules to the game. No-one will think I’m being overly rigid or pedantic if I enforce the rules by reminding people what to do and how to play (me and my dad are usually the designated arbiters!). Similarly, no-one will find it weird when we explicitly discuss the rules of the situation (whereas it’s totally unacceptable to ask about the rules of a typical social interaction).

Systemising

I love games generally. There’s a lot of room for planning and strategising, and I get to stretch my brain and work hard to try and win. But it’s all within defined rules which stops the choices from being overwhelming.

I don’t have much of a conclusion for this post! Just that I’m glad my family have a popular type of interaction that works well for me.

Social catalyst

I often find myself acting as a social catalyst. I’m good at bringing other people together, smoothing things over, improving people’s relationships with each other. I end up as an impartial outsider who helps out the social group without really being part of it.

Here are some examples of times I was a social catalyst:

  • When I was younger, I made friends with two people who were already ‘best friends’ with each other. When one of them was upset, I would immediately offer to leave the two of them alone to talk, because I knew they didn’t trust me as much and might not have wanted me around.
  • When I’m out with my friends, I’m often the one who interacts with strangers like waiters or salespeople on behalf of the group, because they’re often uncomfortable to talk to them.
  • When my friend was upset, I offered to go and send her partner to talk to her, because I didn’t know what I could say to help – but I just wanted her to feel better.

The general trend is that I prioritise the happiness of other people (or the group as a whole), over my own – even when they directly contradict one another. If someone is uncomfortable or upset, I often don’t know how to help. But I still want to help, so I try to find another way to make them feel better And usually the next most obvious response is to bring them another person who does know how to help, instead of me.

It’s quite difficult to write about, because the situation involves two directly competing urges in a single situation. One urge is to stay, socialise, enjoy the company of the other person – because I like them. The other urge is to alter the situation to make the other person happier – because I care about them.

In reality, I almost always end up choosing the second option. The first option might seem appealing but I know that I would find it difficult and uncomfortable anyway. I won’t know how to help, I’ll feel bad about that, and I’ll end up unable to enjoy any interaction with the person in the end. So I choose the second option. I give up my own chance at an enjoyable interaction (because I know the chance of it actually being successful or enjoyable is very slim), in order to make the other person happy without me. The options are either: both of us are unhappy and uncomfortable, or: one of us (me) is unhappy, and the other is (possibly) cheered up.

It’s taken me a long time to see that this is a thing that I do, and to be able to actually describe it to myself. I’m not sure what I should do now that I recognise it, though.