Kids with Asperger’s are often characterized as showing little difference from their peers until a tipping point is reached when their peers’ social development outstrips theirs and they are left behind. Temple Grandin has explained it in this way: children typically go through a subject and object-focused period which is then replaced by the social status-focused period of adolescence. Autistics arguably remain only comfortable in the first stage their whole lives, never feeling at home in the second. It was true for me: I kept learning about computer hardware and software while my friends all started engaging teenage obsessions over fashion, media, and being “cool”. (As a wry aside, if the word “cool” has always had mostly negative connotations for you, you were probably never “cool”.) I became increasingly obsolete as a friend as our development diverged, though I can now see that it wasn’t anybody’s fault: it was just differences we felt but didn’t understand.
What makes the difference? Let me touch briefly on each of the three areas of social understanding, communication, and special interests.
Differences in autistic social understanding are theorized to stem from a variety of sources. Explanations multiply and studies continue to build them up or wear them down over time, but the experiences they try to explain remain common in the autistic community. One theory I will explain is relatively slower processing. Like many autistic people, I have trouble taking in or processing a lot of information quickly, even though I have a large capacity for information overall. This is related to a strong autistic orientation toward details over against general impressions of how details cohere. In other words, I get focused on the details and can get behind in trying to keep up with something as dynamic as socializing, particularly in a group setting. Social occasions are surprisingly dense with information when you really stop to think about it: they require enormous acts of calculation for autistic people and wear us out. Things get missed and, honestly, in the grand scheme of things, one starts wonder if classic small talk about the weather or celebrities is worth the trouble.
(Although I mostly only suffer difficulty in this area when I’m tired, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that sensory processing difficulties in the majority of autistics also pose significant barriers to social understanding, since they can distract, demotivate, or literally stand in the way.)
This leads me to autistic communication, the second diagnostic criteria. Largely because of slow social processing, autistic people don’t learn the rules of “polite” conversation very smoothly growing up. Classic “Aspie” social habits include deep, oftentimes rambling conversation on subjects of interest, and fumbling struggles to maintain a conversation on subjects of disinterest. We find it hard or impossible to flexibly project different personas in different groups like “neurotypical” (NT) people, so we tend to either exhaust ourselves trying to fit in or else present more simply as ourselves in every context. We also tend to be direct, often blunt unless and until we learn the art of diplomacy (which some never do). These and other tendencies amount to a distinct range of autistic social styles of communication which contrast and sometime clash with the “NT” range of social styles. The difference has been compared to those found between different ethnic cultures. Pretty much everybody has observed this sort of behavior because autistic traits are not rare, although they have usually not been recognized as such.
Lastly, special interests, my favorite! Oh, how we autistic people love what we love! It’s what we spend our time on instead of standing about gabbing about nothing. I’m joking! (Somewhat.) It’s actually true that autistic people are more oriented by their neurology to deeply, deeply pursue subjects of interest rather than social status. They are called “restricted interests” clinically, not because they are shallow or limited to a short list of “autistic” subjects, but because they aren’t typical in scope or intensity. (In other words, they are more than what polite conversation would nurture or endure.)
Let me give an example of mine: self-defense. When I devoted a lot of time to studying the subject, it always eventually became evident to whoever I talked to that I wasn’t approaching it like them, whether they were a sport shooter, a member of law enforcement or the military, a gun collector, or a hunter. I came at it in a more intensely individual and philosophical way. I researched weapons (and their history), military history and culture, law enforcement history and culture, the psychology and physiology of violence, legal structures around legitimate use of force, theological definitions of self defense and just war, biographies of warriors, histories of anti-narcotic, anti-terrorism, and espionage agencies, etc. I drank it all in and was able to put some of it to good use, but in the end I was just a nerd getting high on understanding. It has been called autism’s “obsessive joy” and it is the main reason that I am thankful to be autistic.
In conclusion, I admit this account of the subject is very partial to my own story and veers zanily from the general to the specific, perhaps succeeding at neither in great measure. My hope is that it will shed a little light for its readers on autism in general and perhaps more directly introduce my friends and family to important truths about me. I do not like to hide my light under a bushel, to borrow an analogy, and want to be open, maybe even understood. 🙂