Adjusting behavior may be difficult because you have established a social interaction style/approach that you have crafted after years of trial and error. Small gatherings might involve an activity that maintains everyone’s focus and drives the conversation. Larger gatherings might be avoided all together with polite excuses or last-minute cancelations. If you cannot opt out, you may take a trusted plus one who makes you comfortable, works the room for you, and acts as a conversational crutch. If a safety net is not available, you may find yourself hanging out with the dog/cat or engaging in deeper conversation with one person at a time.
“I’m definitely that person at the party who always ends up hanging out with the dog or cat; and that’s only on the rare occasion that I get talked into going to a party.”
Perhaps you find it difficult to adjust to social hierarchies such as one finds in the workplace. You had to learn the hard way that you can’t speak to the boss the same way you speak to your coworkers, and you shouldn’t speak with your coworkers the same way you speak with your friends. Within the family hierarchy, you struggle to understand who knows what “gossip” in the extended family or with whom you can express your political opinions.
“Certain situations will always be mentally/emotionally exhausting for me such as family gatherings where I’m expected to “act normal” and “be social”. These always lead to a migraine and needing 2 days rest with no social interaction.”
Contextual cues that drive behavioral adjustment may also be difficult. Frustrations with movie goers who talk though the movie may “ruin” your experience. At home, your loved ones have learned to “be silent”; the general public has not, and likely, does not care to adapt. Consequently, you are forced to adjust your “no talking” rule or stop attending movies. In the workplace, you may find it difficult to adjust your behavior to the setting, such as work versus home, being around your coworkers during a staff meeting versus a lunch hour, or going out for drinks after work versus a company party.
“At work, almost everyone speaks very loudly, even indoors. I think this is terribly rude (and distracting) but no one else seems to agree with this “rule”. I just put on my headphones and deal with it, since I’m the only one it seems to bother.”
Childhood play likely followed a formula. Maybe you recall reenacting scenes from movies, books, or real life. These retellings involved scripted words, actions, and actors, with the introduction of any changes by interested parties viewed as intrusions or as unwanted social challenges. Or, you may have enjoyed building from instructions or creating replicas of real-life examples.
“I wasn’t very interested in stereotypical “girls toys” like Barbies. The play involved (playing out Barbie’s latest crush or Skipper’s latest gossip) was too inherently social.”
Likely, you avoided cooperative activities as much as humanly possible. Perhaps your parents enrolled you in tee ball, soccer, or flag football not because you expressed any interest in these activities, but rather because these activities seemed like childhood rites of passage. Eventually, you either avoided sports all together or opted for individual endeavors like running or swimming. Other common childhood activities, such as scouts or 4-H, were too chaotic, overwhelming, and socially challenging for you to fully enjoy. Your resume of traditional childhood entertainment is fairly sparse.
“I only played tee ball for a couple seasons. I hated it and I was awful at it. I panicked anytime the ball came near me, missed more often than I hit it, and preferred drawing in the dirt in the outfield. Team sports are NOT my thing.”
Perhaps you were a collector of action figures, stamps, rocks, cards, stuffed animals, or comic books. You played with your collections by organizing and reorganizing them, researching additional pieces to add to your collection, and memorizing all the relevant information you could find. Some of these interests and collections grew with you through adolescence and into adulthood, as you learned to not talk about them quite so much, to not spend quite so much money on that rare piece to finish a collection, and to display them in tasteful ways that elicit compliments rather than ridicule.
“I’ve liked horses my whole life. As a kid, I had figurines and stuffed animals. In high school and college, I rode on an equestrian team. Currently, I am an equine vet. Horses have ruled my life.”
This is the diagnostic bugaboo for most would-be autistic adults. If they are married, have children, or can name people to whom they consistently talk, the diagnosticians seem to feel this criterion cannot be met.
The tools autistic adults use to develop relationships fall into some predictable categories. Some rely on “time”, having one best friend made early in childhood and enduring to present; this friendship seems to be maintained out of obligation, habit, or proximity. Others develop friends from hobbies or activities of intense interest, which take place online, at local game shops, or through spouses/friends. Still others are “adopted” by a person or a group with limited intention by the adult of befriending the person or group.
“I didn’t “make” friends in school, so much as get “adopted” by friends. I had friends, usually the fellow oddballs that didn’t fit into any particular clique.”
Autistics adults care deeply about their friendships but maintain their relationships in ways that may appear odd or downright negligent to neurotypicals. They may not “check in” or call on a regular basis just to “chat”. Exhaustion from tackling the responsibilities of the neurotypical world can leave autistics depleted of emotional energy, time, or desire to contact friends. Despite caring for their friends and their wellbeing, autistic adults can forget, or may not understand that you need to check in periodically with friends to see how they are doing.
“My best friend and I are both autistic. We may go a couple months without seeing each other. We may go a couple weeks without talking. We still love each other dearly, but we don’t need to talk every other day to express that.”