Learning to Act Human

In my research into my son’s autism, I came to realize a great many things about myself. For example, I have in many ways spent a great deal of my time “learning to become human” — or learning to “fit in” with normal human beings.

Most of the time, when I talk to a person, I am either looking all over the place or looking at the person’s mouth. I have had enough people complain about these things that I have trained myself to look a person in the eye. However, to do so takes quite a bit of concentration. If I think it is important to keep eye contact with you, I can, but it requires mental work to do so. As a result, though, I am almost certainly not paying as much attention to what you’re saying as you would probably like, and I’ll probably have to ask you several times to repeat yourself. Maintaining eye contact is, of course, natural for most people.

In one of his stand-up routines, Chris Rock observes that when you first start dating someone, you are not actually dating that person, you are dating their representative. This is not just true of dating, but of any initial social interactions. Again, this comes natural to people. Everyone understands you are supposed to present an edited version of yourself to others. This is innate. But not for me. I literally had to read somewhere that you should not put forward all aspects of who you are when you first meet someone, because it’s off-putting. This was seriously news to me. I saw the validity of what the person was saying, and put it into practice. My dating life improved considerably — as evidenced by the fact that I am now married. That this took a while is evidenced by the fact that I am 46 and I only got married 11 years ago. My first actual girlfriend? When I was 26. Who knew that you shouldn’t present yourself exactly as you are when you first meet someone? Well, most people, apparently.

I am sure there are many more, but these are the ones that stand out to me.

I still haven’t figured out how to engage in small talk, though economist Peter Boetkke’s observation that in order to get tenure you have to subtract what he calls the “lunch tax” — which is any off-putting (typically, political) discussion — has benefited me greatly of late (keep all political views on the down-low, at least until you feel out the person you are talking to; keep any controversial beliefs to oneself; etc.). This is really a variation of the previous observation, just applied to work. But, again, I had to have it explicitly pointed out to me.

What this suggests to me is that there are a set of behaviors that are more natural for others that simply have to be learned by me (and, I would guess, others like me). I have often not even realized there is something atypical in my behaviors until they are pointed out — either directly, by friends (or people who don’t like me), or indirectly, by reading. Or perhaps, these behaviors are all learned by others, only my tendency to separate myself from other people resulted in my missing those lessons from life. This would be consistent with the intense world theory of autism.

In any case, there are a number of aspects of life which I have had to learn, which were not instinctual for me. The problem is that one cannot learn anything about which one is fully ignorant. I cannot know to learn about gene regulation proteins, for example, until I learn that there are gene regulatory proteins. There are obviously a great many facts like that which we all must learn — and learn about to know we need to learn them. Now imagine that that included social behaviors. Most people learn social behaviors like we learn language — we learn the specifics of a given culture, but we learn then innately because we are born with a “language instinct.” But I do not. I learned most of my social behaviors like I learned molecular biology. Well, that’s the story of my life.

Learning social behaviors only after I have had people point out that I was not doing them. Since such things are instinctual for most people, the assumption is that they are instinctual for me as well, meaning when I am not doing them, I am being rude, a jerk, etc. However, when I learn what I was doing was wrong, I have typically tried to change, to normalize my behaviors. It’s not that I don’t want to engage in typical social behaviors — it has typically been that I didn’t know about them in the first place.

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