I have been thinking about social norms lately. These thoughts were prompted by my youngest daughter’s refusal to conform to certain social niceties. Ever since my youngest bright eyed, dark haired, third daughter was born, she has refused to follow socially acceptable forms of behavior.
I can remember when she was a baby, even as young as seven or eight months old, she refused to look at people, even when they were inches away from her face. By the time she was a toddler, she not only refused to look at people, she refused to smile at anyone but me, my husband, and her siblings.
She was and still is a beautiful child (I suppose I am somewhat biased.). When I would go to the grocery store, people would comment about how pretty she was. They would lean down and smile at her. Every time someone looked at her she would make an awful scowl and refuse eye contact. More times than I care to mention, the person would comment about her scowl. I remember one woman becoming incredibly offended and saying that my daughter was an angry little child.
I never paid any attention to social norms comments.
I assumed that my daughter was just opinionated at an early age. I thought it was rude for people to assume she should smile at strangers. Why should she smile at random strangers? When two of my three daughters were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, one of the screening questions asked about eye contact. I had to give this question a lot of thought. After going through my mental notes, I determined that neither of my daughters made eye contact with others.
Not knowing at the time that I am also on the spectrum, I didn’t understand why I was asked a question about eye contact. Since we were diagnosed, I have paid a lot more attention to social correctness. Society says one should:
- Make good eye contact
- Have a firm handshake
- And, make socially acceptable small talk
Social Norm 1: Let’s start with eye contact.
Eye contact is extremely personal. Many of us on the spectrum do not like to look people directly in the eye. For me, it seems awkward. If I attempt to make consistent eye contact when I am talking to another person, it seems very obvious I am trying too hard to make eye contact.
Social Norm 2: Moving on to handshakes.
Handshakes are another polite norm that people often use when meeting a new person. Many of us do not like direct physical contact with another person, particularly strangers. I have always found handshaking to be uncomfortable. I feel a lack of control. When are we supposed to stop shaking hands?
Social Norm 3: And then there’s small talk.
Of all of the polite things one is supposed to do when interacting with others, small talk is something I would rather not attempt. I have never really understood why people want to talk about things like the weather. I would much rather talk about something in depth than chat about the latest gossip. Like many autistics, what interests me most are intensely focused conversations on a specific topic. I love history so I let’s skip the small talk and talk about history!
Conforming can cause extreme anxiety.
When you try to put all of these social expectations into the mix, it can cause extreme anxiety for those of us on the spectrum. Socializing is an important part of society and the human experience. So, what is an autistic to do when encountering a new social situation? We all must interact with people sometimes.
Here are a few tips I have learned over the years:
- Eye contact is overrated, but necessary at times. You do not have to look directly into another person’s eyes. Pick a point somewhere just beyond the person’s head and focus on that instead of direct eye contact.
- I have learned to tolerate handshakes over the years. If you absolutely cannot shake another’s hand, keep your hands in your pocket and bow slightly when meeting someone new. No, not a full on to the floor bow. You can also try bumping fists. If none of these feel appropriate, just simply say you prefer not to shake hands. It is not as uncommon as you think to tell someone you don’t want to shake hands.
- Small talk is what makes me the most uncomfortable in new situations. I have a few rehearsed phrases I use regularly. You can come up with your own scripts to use in social situations. You might ask about the weather or sports teams.
Most of all, do not make yourself overly uncomfortable. Do what feels right to you. Sometimes the best approach is to let others know that you are on the autism spectrum. With autism awareness becoming more prevalent, many people may already know some characteristics of autism. Be proud of who you are. Just be wonderful you!
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