I spend too much time thinking about how I should act around other people.
I won’t say that all of us on the spectrum have this characteristic, but it often plagues those of us who have been labeled by neurotypicals as “high functioning.” Putting those labels aside, I think socializing, in general, is difficult for all of us on the spectrum. Speaking for myself, I loathe being in a crowded room where mingling and small talk are not only expected, but are the norm. It’s not that I don’t want to interact with other people, it’s just that I can’t seem to get out of my own head.
Let me explain.
When I know I am required to fraternize with the masses, I try and prepare myself by rehearsing a number of conversations in my head. All of these conversations involve some type of small talk. I have to put together these types of chit chat because small talk doesn’t come to me naturally.
I have never possessed the ability to discuss random topics such as the weather or the latest neighborhood gossip. I would much rather discuss something I want to talk about that has more depth and meaning. Now you might think I’m a narcissist. If that were the case, which it is not, (although narcissists don’t think they’re narcissists ?) then most of the population of those of us with autism would be narcissists. Ok, enough about narcissism. What I mean to say is, we are not trying to be self-focused in social situations.
When we get nervous, we often revert to discussing our favorite topics.
It might be history, science or the make and model of every vacuum cleaner ever produced. I have learned over the course of my 46 years on this planet, that the majority of people aren’t interested in discussing, at length, my fixations or perseverations. Therefore, I have had to teach myself how to perform small talk. It really is a performance, because I’m not being my authentic self.
My small talk is based on what I have observed in previous social situations. I know I should talk about the weather, sports or current events. I know women like to chat about celebrity gossip, hair products and their children. I don’t know if people can tell that I have stressed about these topics for the hours leading up our “chats.” I don’t know if people think I seem robotic, fake or rehearsed. By the way, I also stress about what people think of me after I walk away from a conversation. This is not because I think I am an extremely important person. I worry because I don’t know if I had the right kind of small talk appropriate for the situation.
What if I said the wrong thing?
What if I talked too much or too little? Obviously, it would be inappropriate for me to ask someone if my small talk was okay. Although it would be great if just once in a while, someone gave me a thumbs up or smiley face sticker for good conversational skills.
This may seem ridiculous to a typical adult. I mean who really spends time thinking about how they act around others? The key word is act. I’m acting around most people because I feel uncomfortable and out of place.
Social situations can be loud and overly crowded. I am usually in some form of sensory overload after spending only a few minutes in any public outing. For many on the spectrum, simply doing everyday tasks like grocery shopping and going to the bank are socially overwhelming. This doesn’t mean we want to be alone or socially isolated.
What we really want is understanding and compassion.
We may not always say or do the most appropriate things in public, but we are making a huge effort to fit in. I often talk way too much when I get nervous. I often don’t realize that the other person wants the conversation to conclude. My wonderful husband has learned to give me a subtle hint that I need to end the conversation. Okay, it’s not that subtle…he tugs on my hand or gives me some other obvious clue. Sometimes I still don’t take that hint, but I am learning.
Let’s try to create a more welcoming environment for everyone. Lots of people freeze up in social situations. Remember to always be kind. You never know what the other person is experiencing. If nothing else, maybe an occasional thumbs up will do.
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