ABNORMAL SOCIAL APPROACH
Most autistic adults dislike small talk. The topics, the trajectory of the conversation, and the purpose of the exchange are confusing and arbitrary. The anxiety created by initiating or engaging in small talk can be prohibitive unto itself. Most of the time autistic adults would prefer to skip the inane small talk and move on to the meat of the conversation. Small talk feels like a waste of time when you could actually be accomplishing other things.
“I didn’t “get” the purpose of small talk - as a tool to facilitate social communication, or to get to more interesting topics until a few months ago, and that was because I literally saw it explained that way in a presentation about autistic girls and women!”
Handshakes and hugs are common forms of physical contact that autistic adults at best tolerate and at worst avoid or reject. Affective (comforting) gestures like a touch of the arm or shoulder are downright physically uncomfortable for autistics. Due to sensory sensitivity, it can even be painful. As a result, autistics can appear cold, not affectionate, and not loving to family and friends.
“Physical contact is a bit like eye contact for me; quite personal and at times intense. I am ok with touching and being touched by people I know and trust, it can be comforting. But from strangers or people I barely know it feels creepy and physically repulsive.”
Autistics may be unsure how to approach someone and initiate a conversation without feeling intrusive or awkward. It can be difficult to tell if someone is open to conversation or not. When approaching a group conversation, it can be even more confusing because of multiple people talking, or trying to figure out group dynamics etc.
“As a kid I would hang on the fringes of a group and listen to the conversation until I was invited in or found an “opening” in the conversation. Sometimes this led to just hanging around observing for most of a recess.”
Autistic participation styles in a conversation may appear confusing. On topics of interest or expertise, they may monopolize a conversation, speak loudly, and interrupt frequently. If they are uncertain, uninterested, or unprepared for a conversational topic, they may verbally not participate. Their silence should not be understood as a lack of attention/listening.
“In a group conversation, people don’t understand that I am listening and paying attention. The discussion is just so overwhelming; all those people talking, interrupting, being so loud, I don’t even know where to start! By the time I get my thoughts together, everyone has changed subjects three or four times already!”
Autistics validate and empathize in ways that many appear egocentric. After listening to a friend or coworker discuss a problem or share an achievement, they may relate their own similar experience without specifically asking questions or expressing comfort. The autistic response is misunderstood as an attempt to talk about themselves.
“Sharing a story of something similar that happened to me is how I show empathy; I don’t mean it to be self-centered. I’m trying to say “I have gone through this too and this is how I share your path.”
Autistics are often criticized for “going on tangents”. These comments appear loosely related to the topic at hand, yet get off track rather quickly. They may relate to the person’s special interest or field of expertise that they want to share out of excitement or desire to share their knowledge and be helpful. They may also be stream of consciousness rambling that goes unfiltered in the heat of the moment because of the desire to keep a spot in the conversation.
“People say I go on tangents but I’m only trying to be helpful by sharing information. Like if I know something about a topic that people are talking about and it’s accurate information, I just think it’s helpful to share it, you know? I don’t mean to be rude or anything. If it were me I would want to know the correct stuff so I don’t say the wrong thing.”
REDUCED SHARING INTERESTS, EMOTIONS, AFFECT
Much attention has been given to the struggles autistics have with idioms and figurative language. Though initially challenging, such phrases can be learned. Sarcasm, joking, and teasing present far greater conversational challenges due to contradictory intent and purposefully mixed emotional messages. These tools are heavily used by nonautistics for emotional connection and thoroughly confuse autistics.
“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 struggle recognizing and describing their feelings (alexithymia). This impacts their ability to share their emotions and to recognize emotions in others. This does not mean they lack empathy; instead, their visceral experience of these feelings without the ability to label them is confusing and overwhelming. Generally, autistics have learned throughout their life that expressing emotions leads to negative consequences, be it punishment or labels like “dramatic” or “sensitive”, because they express these emotions “incorrectly”.
“I never have any idea how to answer the commonplace ‘how are you?’ because I rarely know. So, I just say ‘okay’ or ‘good’ because I might be.”
Autistics tend to share interests less for a variety of reasons. Primarily, they have learned that they share “too much” information and not many others share these interests. As a result, they seek out communities dedicated to their interests where all members “nerd out”.
“My special interests are things like neurology
nd psychology and I’m not into popular TV shows. When people at the office are talking about the latest episode of the new hot show, I can’t exactly pop in with “I watched this great neuroanatomy lecture this weekend!”; It really kills the mood. So I keep my interests to myself.”