Connecting and Communicating on the Spectrum

If you have a verbal child on the spectrum–or adult, for that matter–you are likely familiar with the phenomenon of obsessive interests, and the seemingly intense need for the autistic person to share everything they learned right this very minute. And Heaven help you if you’ve been away a while while they have been learning about their interests, because you’ll be sure to be bombarded with information the moment you see them.

Now, before I address what is going on, I want to make a point by addressing my autistic readers (neurotypicals: keep reading, because this is really mostly for you).

Austistics, if you have a neurotypical person in your life, you are likely familiar with the phenomenon of that person coming home and wanting to share with you everything they did that say and every social interaction they had. While you couldn’t care less about any of that stuff, you need to understand that those things are important to them. They think sharing such information is an appropriate way to create social bonds. While we bond over knowledge, designs, and ideas, they bond over gossip and complaining about what other people do. That is their passion, and that’s what they get excited and emotional about. So please be patient with them about their interests. It may seem silly or superficial to you, but it’s not to them. So let them have their say; don’t try to solve their problems (they hate that and only want to express themselves), even though you will likely come up with a clear and obvious solution; and try to at least feign interest by acknowledging them, asking questions, and demonstrating empathy for their position. The best course, too, is to take their side no matter what, even if it’s clear to you that they are in the wrong, or could be wrong–especially close friends and spouses, coworkers and bosses. Remember, they only want you to listen and take their side; anything else will offend and upset them.

If you do not have autism, this is how you appear to us. You think it’s ridiculous to talk about the application of complex network theory to understanding the economy, designing better slaughterhouses, or blowing up the Death Star, the behaviors of basking sharks, or what happened in Nausicaa (Daniel’s latest obsession); we think it’s ridiculous to talk about what Bob did to Sally at work, that George is having an affair with his boss, and that Mary is being mean again.

The point is that we’re both wrong; neither is in fact ridiculous; both are vitally important to the person; each is desperately trying to connect to the other through their interests. Neurotypical people are primarily interested in people; autistic people are primarily interested in things and ideas. Autistic people, by sharing their interests, are trying to make a connection with you. They are trying to be social. They’re not being social wrong, they are being social different. And when you rebuff them, you discourage them from trying to be social and you hurt their feelings. They then retreat into themselves and are less likely to try to be social in the future.

At the same time, if we were to treat the way you connect the same way, you would consider us to be anti-social, rude and arrogant. In fact, we are often considered to be all these things. This is reinforced by the fact that what we want to bond over is typically intellectual, nerdy, and/or geeky. You think our interests are stupid and annoying, and we feel the same about yours. But it is we who have to adapt.

In short, it is the responses and reactions of neurotypical people to our attempts to bond that contribute as much as anything to any sort of unsocial behavior. When our family sits at the dinner table together and Daniel wants to tell us something, we express interest in the topic, asking questions or otherwise contributing to the topic at hand. As a result, Daniel has been talking more and more. And he’s grown more interested in us as a result. Imagine that! We express interest in him, and he expresses interest in us.

Neurotypical people develop their identities through their interpersonal social networks; autistic people develop their identities through their interests. They identify with their work and interests, meaning if you dismiss their topic of conversation, you are dismissing them personally. That, at leas,t is how we interpret it. It is similar to if someone told you that your friends were all stupid and hateful and they didn’t understand why you would like those people. My guess is that you would distance yourself from that person. Because when they insult your friends, they insult you. For us on the spectrum, our obsessions are our friends. We listen to you talk about your friends; we only ask you listen as we talk about ours.

So that’s why we on the spectrum want to share our interests. It’s how we try to bond with you. In addition to that, we want to share when we want to share because what we want to say is present to mind. That means we can remember everything and communicate it well. If you make us wait, we may not remember in that moment, and it’s likely we will have to search for everything we wanted to say. That means we’ll be full of long pauses, uncertainty, and frustration. Frustration you will probably share since you don’t understand why we’re so hesitant now when we were so enthusiastic before. You need to understand that when the moment passes, it is impossible to recover. And we’ll be likely to forget half our points even as we know we forgot half our points, making us more frustrated–and more determined next time to get it all out.

So now you know why it is that we on the spectrum want to talk about the things we want to talk about, and why we feel such an urgency to do so. Part of the urgency is the way our memory works, but part of it is the same kind of urgency you feel in wanting to tell your friends and loved ones about what the other people in your life did. And that’s something we should both be able to understand.

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