Social Influence

I was looking back at some writing I did for my social psychology class last spring, and found some thoughts I wanted to share and expand on here. The subject in question was conformity and group influence, and specifically the classification of influence into two types: normative influence and informational influence.

Normative influence is essentially when you follow what others are doing in order to fit in. This might manifest as peer pressure, but also things like following the ways of a different culture when visiting. Informational influence is when you follow what others are doing or saying in order to get things right. When you don’t trust your knowledge in a given situation, you might go along with the crowd if they seem to know what they are doing.

As I was reading about this, I kept thinking about how these concepts apply to autistic people. I don’t think we’re immune to social influence and the pressure to conform, but our relationship to social interaction is often so different from the typical population that we may respond to them in different ways.

For example, the textbook mentioned that people often respond to normative influence without realizing it; they pick up social cues and adjust their behavior accordingly to fit in. It’s a sort of unconscious conformity. But for an autistic person who may not intuitively notice or understand those social cues, what often results is not unconscious conformity but unconscious nonconformity. The social rejection that often follows is then completely baffling.

Personally, I think many autistic people blend informational and normative influence to a large extent: we absorb the social “rules” through an informational process of studying others and learning what we’re “supposed” to do. We may then follow those rules for normative reasons, but we got there through an informational process. There was an example in the book where the author was in an audience where people rapped on the table instead of clapping, and I found this to be a good illustration: due to normative influence, the author didn’t want to be the only person clapping, and he learned what to do instead through informational influence. I think this is fairly typical of the way autistic people use the two to try to fit in.

I also, however, experience a strong aversion to some forms of normative influence; in many cases, I just don’t care to do what everyone else is doing. If something seems nonsensical to me, I’d rather simply be elsewhere than follow along to fit in. (This likely underlies some of my problematic relationship with groups, as mentioned in last week’s post.) I also tend not to privilege group consensus over my own research or perceptions when it comes to factual matters. I’ve seen both of these attitudes in a lot of other autistic people, too, and it really makes me wonder what would happen if some of the classic conformity studies were repeated with autistic participants.

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Isolation and Belonging

I was really struck by a recent post on Sonia Boué’s blog, titled The art world is Social. In it, she wrote about how even organizations centered around artists with disabilities emphasize the need for collaboration and sociality in the art world in a way that doesn’t acknowledge the difficulties facing people with social disabilities. And when the social world is disabling for you, it isn’t helpful to be told that you must be social in order to do art properly.

It’s a great post, and I urge you to go read the whole thing. But this line in particular hit me really hard:

“It’s inappropriate to advise against isolation to a group who can’t help it – for whom it can be both a feature of creative life and/or a consequence of their disablement.”

I have felt so frustrated in the past for exactly this reason, both in relation to creative aspirations and in other areas of my life. So often, I have encountered the advice—rarely phrased as advice, actually, and more often as an unbreakable rule—that I must connect with others in order to truly reach my potential. I must join groups, network, and collaborate. I must find a community to connect with (and online doesn’t count).

And it’s not like I don’t want to connect; I very often do. I’m also a damned fine contributor when I’m on a team or in a group, if I do say so myself. But it doesn’t come naturally or easily to me, and simply telling me it’s a necessity for real creativity/spirituality/humanity just makes me feel excluded. I need to have it recognized that my participation in a group will also require breaks from that group, and it would be nice to have some kind of support to help me make the initial approach.

But groups have another problem for me, and that is that I never feel fully comfortable anywhere, or at least not for long. I’m always suppressing some parts of myself in order to share other parts, and while this can be a valuable social skill that is pretty much expected of everyone to some degree (acceptable behavior and conversation in the workplace, for example, is much more restricted than while relaxing with close friends) it becomes a strain when it’s required in a situation where openness is expected. If I’m in a group where I’m expected to allow myself to become known, but there are several important aspects of myself that I don’t think will be understood, I end up stressed out and hyper-vigilant, trying to manage what information I reveal and conceal, while at the same time trying to be relaxed and friendly. Eventually, the cognitive dissonance gets to me and I have to leave.

As VisualVox pointed out in a recent blog post on a similar topic, “fitting in” by masking and blending is often enough to make others feel comfortable, and to give them the feeling that we belong in the group, but that’s not the same thing as being comfortable ourselves. And many of us are just not suited to clear-cut affiliations and easy-to-grasp labels.

I am, as this blog’s title implies, quite eclectic. I have a number of different interests, and a broad range of knowledge (as well as strong opinions) across several areas that don’t translate well into soundbites and often leave me in a weird place with respect to different people who share some of my views but not others. I also like to learn new things, and I tend to grow and change in ways that sometimes alienate me from people who knew me earlier. So I don’t really expect to find a community that perfectly matches all aspects of me with my ever-changing, eclectic interests and my autistic neurotype and my odd sense of humor and my unconventional perspectives. I don’t really know what I do want, to be honest. I just want to find some balance between solitude and connection, in some way that feels like actual belonging.

Photo of a racoon at the edge of a pond, looking back at the viewer with its "hands" in the water

Short Post, With Snakes

I’m tired. I’ve had a busy week with a lot of frustrations, and every time I start writing something I keep second-guessing whether I really want to say that, and wondering if it will invite conflict that I am not up to dealing with. And it’s not just events in my life that have exhausted me this week; it’s also the endless drumbeat of bad news and worse news and downright horrible news that keeps filling my inbox and my podcasts and my social media feeds. So many people are marginalized and under attack, and it just feels…relentless.

At the same time, I don’t want to completely disengage, because I want to stay informed and able to contribute, in whatever ways I can, to the efforts to make things better. I have also realized that I am fascinated by the research I have read around prejudice and stigma, and while my main focus for the paper I am writing is the stigma surrounding autism, I am drawn to read more broadly about stigma. This doesn’t make my reading list any sunnier, of course, but there is something about approaching this subject in a systematic, sociological way that helps me think more clearly instead of feeling like there’s nothing to be done about it. Understanding a problem is the first step toward addressing it.

So I am going to dive back into that for now, and leave this blog post short. And here’s a photo of a nice little garter snake I met today—snakes are stigmatized, too, after all.

Slender garter snake next to a small rock on a dirt road, in mixed light and shadow

Of Gears and Brain Goo

I had a few hours of hyper-focus heaven today while I worked on my research paper, and now my brain is pleasantly fried. I do, however, want to get a blog post written today as well, and that means a) getting my brain to spin back up again, and b) getting it to switch focus to something new. Hah! That meant ten minutes of staring at a blank text editor window while every idea I’ve ever had for a blog post mysteriously went missing.

That switching gears thing is tricky, isn’t it? On the one hand, I can actually get through a flurry of simple tasks in rapid succession—but spend some time on something that requires more focus, and it’s like my thoughts get physically stuck to it. It takes effort to pull them away, and some still get left behind, lingering on the previous project like sticky gray goo. That leaves me with less to apply to the new project, and a nagging sense that I’ve left something incomplete, even if I haven’t.

So that’s where I am right now. I figured I could at least write about this difficulty from the midst of it, but my brain’s still pretty stuck. I do have a couple more things I want to get done today, including more writing on yet another project, but at least that one has some momentum behind it. I think I can at least jump on and see where it takes me. Bye for now!

Autistic Memory

Today I am thinking about memory. There seems to be a growing body of research into difficulties (or at least differences) with autobiographical memory in autistic people, especially when it comes to episodic autobiographical memories, which are recollections of specific events in your own life. (This is in contrast with semantic memories, which have to do with remembering knowledge about the past, like your old phone number or high school locker combination.)

I’m not familiar with every aspect of this research, but I’ve come across several references to it lately and it got me thinking. I do feel that I have less-detailed autobiographical memories than many people I know, but I wonder whether this is due more to actual differences in memory mechanisms, or if it is a matter of attention and emphasis.

I remember getting back together with a high school friend after we had both graduated from college, at least five years after high school. She could rattle off all sorts of events that had happened to both of us going back to when we met in third grade—class field trips, school assemblies, things individual classmates or teachers had said and done. She remembered people’s names from way back, too.

Me? I barely remembered anything she mentioned. High school (and everything before it) was blessedly behind me, so why would I remember it? None of the incidents or names my friend brought up had any relevance to my life anymore, so I rarely thought about them. A lot of things did come back when she brought them up, and most of the rest at least rang a bell, but even that didn’t jog much else loose from my own memories.

Similarly, I will forget about things that I have done that were really important to me at the time, even things I did for years. Oh, right, I sang in a community choir for three years. Oh, yeah, I spent a year attending a study group learning Scottish Gaelic. Sometimes these things will just pop into my head, as when I recently remembered the months I spent playing volleyball on two different teams in an adult recreational league in my mid-twenties. And when I hear someone else recount an experience that triggers a similar memory, I can bring it back up, as when I worked with another Air Force veteran for a while and we regularly swapped training stories. (But I will tell you, if you ask me an open-ended question about anything, including my past, my mind will reliably go blank and not serve up any answers at all, even if they’re in there.)

So the fact that they do sometimes pop into my head indicates that the memories are there, they were formed, they’re just not at the front of my mind. And that’s why I think the issue isn’t so much that I have a deficit when it comes to autobiographical memory—I just don’t feel the need to dwell on my own past. Compared to all of the other things I could be thinking about, my past history isn’t all that interesting to me; I’ve been there, done that, you know?

(As an aside, this does lead to funny conversations at times, when I bring up something I used to do because it came back to mind during a relevant conversation, and the person I’m talking to is stunned that they never knew I did that. It just…hadn’t come up before. I mean, I’ll acknowledge that I’ve done a lot of interesting things, I’m just not interested in listing them off for people.)

I guess there is an assumption that just because I was there, it should be important to me. But memories of people and social events are not privileged in my mind; they get pruned like anything else. People forget all sorts of things when they don’t need to remember them—a fact I have been painfully reminded of as I work through a math review for the GRE—and autobiographical memories are no different.

Think of it this way: given how intense autistic interests can be, and how often we can end up coming to know (and remember) all sorts of fascinating facts and info about our passions, isn’t it possible that we just don’t want to devote a whole lot of mental energy to storing and recalling information about people and events that aren’t in our lives anymore? That’s how it feels to me. I’ve got better things to think about than who my fourth-grade homeroom teacher was.

(P.S.: I think there is a lot more to be said about memory in autistic people, and there is definitely a lot of variation in how much or how well people remember. It even varies wildly for me, because I will sometimes get a very vivid flashback of something I thought I’d forgotten. So all of the above should be taken as one person’s random musings on the subject, which may or may not be generalizable.)

Irons in the Fire

I have a lot of irons in the fire right now. I’m technically on summer vacation from school, but work has been busy, and I am trying to use the summer to get ready to take the GRE and finish up the research project that will be part of my application to grad school. Plus, I am trying to expand the offerings in my Etsy shop (just added new things last week!) and my husband and I are exploring a new business venture that he’s been thinking about for a while. I also want to get back into a regular schedule of posting on this blog, possibly even increasing the frequency of posts. It’s kind of a lot to manage.

(I’ve always liked that expression, by the way: irons in the fire. It feels solid and businesslike, in a hands-on, creative kind of way. It’s a lot more appealing than saying I have a lot of balls in the air, because while I do kind of like the juggling metaphor, I’ve never been very good at juggling, so it makes me feel like all of those balls could come crashing down around me at any minute. No, better to frame them as irons in the fire, as if I were a blacksmith forging pieces of my life.)

Long-term projects are particularly hard to keep up with at times. I start out with the intention to work on something a little bit each day (with wiggle room for off days) but when there are multiple such projects, it gets to be unwieldy. Not only is there often not enough time available once outside commitments are met, but some projects require more sustained attention than “just doing a little each day” will allow. So one thing I started trying this past week was designating a different project for each day of the week; my responsibilities on that day are then to take care of any paid work I am scheduled to do (and any other appointments and such), and then spend at least a couple of hours on that project. It’s like an additional work schedule, but one that I am fulfilling for my own work.

So far I like it. I made a lot of progress on three different projects this week, and being able to really get into a hyper-focused groove with them was highly satisfying. I left one day (Sunday) as a “miscellaneous” day, where I could work on anything that called out to me, catch up on things that hadn’t gotten done due to unforeseen schedule changes, or just take a day off and relax. I ended up doing all of the above today, which left the day feeling very productive but also nicely paced; I didn’t feel rushed to get particular things done, I just did them.

It helps that I really enjoy working on these projects, so spending most of the weekend being productive in this way doesn’t leave me feeling like I never get a break. Researching, writing, crafting, and reading are all things I look forward to doing, so having a whole weekend to pursue them does feel like a break. But I suppose I’ll have to see how it goes in the long run.

On the practical side, I drew up a weekly schedule on my home office whiteboard, and added recurring reminders to my to-do list for which project to focus on for each of the days. That way the schedule is constantly visible to me when I am in my office, and I get a reminder each morning when I look at my list of tasks. Both of these things are really helpful as executive function supports, as well as general memory aids; I’ve been using Todoist to manage my project to-do lists, and I’ve really come to appreciate the benefit of having some things be more visible by using a whiteboard. My husband and I have a household whiteboard on the wall at the bottom of the stairs, where we see it all the time. This has really helped keep both of us on track with things that need to be done, especially one-off or time-sensitive tasks that could easily fall through the cracks.

My main concern with this plan is that there are some days when I am just not in the right frame of mind to work on a particular project; if I didn’t sleep well, for example, writing can become hugely difficult. So designating a set day of the week for each project may not always pan out. But if I can remember to be flexible and just swap days with something I can work on, I still think it will be manageable. That already happened this weekend, actually, and I just made use of my “miscellaneous” Sunday to catch up.

So I’ll see how it goes! Just have to keep forging, one iron at a time.

Autism, Sex, and Gender

Over the last couple of days, I watched all of the available recordings from a conference titled “Intimate Lives? Autism, Sex/uality, Gender and Identity.” It was organized by four doctoral students–Marianthi Kourti, David Jackson-Perry, Kirsty Allenby, and Daniel Bendelman–and funded by the British Sociological Association. It took place on May 18 at the University of Birmingham in the UK. Overall I thought the presentations were excellent, and while I’m not going to write up a play-by-play of each one, I wanted to share some of the content that particularly resonated with me.

Preliminary note: I have tried to use the proper preferred pronouns for each speaker, but if I have gotten any of them wrong, I sincerely apologize. Please let me know so I can update the post. In addition, if I have mischaracterized anyone’s statements or opinions, please let me know as well. I have done my best to accurate represent what was said, but misunderstandings happen, and I don’t want to attribute anything to anyone that they didn’t mean.

In “Walking through Treacle: The lived experiences of autistic students in FE and HE,” Deborah Philip talked about research she has been doing into the experiences of autistic students. This wasn’t specifically focused on gender and sexuality, but it was very interesting to hear how her research has changed directions because of her interactions with autistic people. She had initially been interviewing autistic people, parents, teachers, and other professionals, but then she noticed that the autistic students themselves were telling her quite different stories than their parents and teachers were. So she changed her plans and began using only input from autistic people themselves, and focusing on the issues that came up as being important to them.

Deborah brought up the idea of “learned helplessness” to suggest a reason why the students often pretended to agree with what their parents were saying, but then told her otherwise afterwards. (Learned helplessness is a psychological phenomenon that occurs when an individual is repeatedly subjected to painful conditions that they cannot escape. Later, when escape is possible, it is still not attempted because the individual has previously learned that they are helpless, so they don’t even try.) I thought this was a particularly poignant way of describing the experiences of people who are constantly talked over, their own experiences and viewpoints subordinated to other people’s.

One more thing I want to say about this presentation was what Deborah said about person-first language. (If you regularly read this blog, you’ll already know that I’m not a fan.) She said that while professionals tend to insist on person-first language, the autistic people she worked with preferred identity-first language. At one point she also invoked the phrase “living with autism” by saying, “I guess a society that wants to ‘live with’ something, would like to live without it.” I thought that was very powerful as well.

In the second panel, Lexi Orchard presented “Winning at Sexuality: A personal reflection of passing in a hypersexualised world.” They started with an overview of some of the ways in which autistic people attempt to pass as non-autistic, including suppressing our natural behavior, impersonating more typical behavior, and scripting. They also had their own term for another technique, which I found incredibly relatable: they called it “precog.” This involves attempting to foresee all of the possible directions a social encounter might go, following all of the potential branches and preparing scripted routines for each of them. This was so familiar to me, and I love the term “precog” (short for precognition, I presume) to describe it. I actually think this strategy really needs to be talked about more, because it is one of the things that makes social interaction so draining and exhausting for me.

Lexi also talked about how masking, scripting, and other techniques are done out of self-defense. They are survival skills that (hopefully) allow us to avoid painful encounters and also get access to social resources. But there are heavy consequences to passing, too: it takes a physical toll, and eventually makes it hard to even know yourself or your own preferences. At one point, Lexi said, “If somebody says, ‘What do you want?’, my brain suddenly goes into this passing mode where I attempt to figure out what you want me to want.” This, too, was painfully familiar.

As part of panel three, Jake Pyne presented “Narrating Autistic and Transgender: Implications for the Gender Clinic.” He talked about the ways in which autism and transgender identity are assumed to be non-overlapping, and the many barriers autistic people face if they want to transition. Jake also brought up the entwined history of applied behavior analysis (ABA) and so-called conversion therapy, which is aimed at gay, bi, and transgender people to “fix” them; Ole Ivar Lovaas and George Rekers worked together as they created these parallel behavior conditioning programs—one to eradicate autistic behavior, and one to eradicate gender-nonconformity. But while conversion therapy is starting to be banned in more and more areas, ABA is still considered best practice for autistic kids.

Olivia Astrid Pountney also talked about the barriers to transitioning that many autistic people face, in “Transitioning in a neurotypical world: A critical autistic analysis on gender identity services.” She talked about the typical narrative expected by gender clinics, and how it doesn’t always fit the trans autistic experience. For example, she talked about the ways in which people are expected to perform stereotypical gender roles in order to be accepted as being “really” their gender, but for autistic people those social norms are often nonsensical. They can also clash with sensory needs, which leads to the dilemma, for her, of choosing between wearing sensory-friendly clothing that isn’t stylish, or wearing more stylish clothing that conforms to gender expectations in order to be accepted as a woman (while being uncomfortable). She pointed out that there is no universal experience of being trans, autistic, or both, and emphasized the need to depathologize both trans and neurodivergent identities.

In “Spanking my sensory needs? An understanding of myself as a human, a sexual being and an Autistic,” Jennifer Layton talked about the ways in which BDSM practices allowed her to inadvertently meet her sensory needs before she learned she was autistic. After a late diagnosis, she was given various recommendations for her sensory diet, and she came to realize that they were things she had always enjoyed through BDSM. For example, she was given the recommendation to wear tight clothing and/or wear a weighted backpack for a feeling of pressure…which is precisely the experience of being tightly bound in rope and/or rubber. Similarly, a recommendation that she swing back and forth was mirrored by her enjoyment of suspension play. Because kink is so misunderstood and pathologized, she had felt ashamed of her enjoyment of it, but she is starting to overcome that, in part through this recognition that it has allowed her to meet her autistic sensory needs before she consciously knew she had them.

The last presentation I’ll talk about is Sonny Hallett’s “To Hug or not to Hug: physical affection at the intersection of autism, culture and gender.” There were several fascinating aspects to their talk, including the experience they shared of growing up partly in the UK and partly in China with their grandparents. The two cultures have very different expectations about physical contact (and eye contact), especially between strangers, and Sonny found their autistic traits more normalized in China. They found the social environment harder to navigate when they returned to the UK, including knowing when physical contact would be welcome.

The main dilemma that Sonny conveyed was that, while they felt starved for physical affection, it was also often uncomfortable, and they didn’t know how to seek it out when they wanted it. On top of that, they mentioned how Westerners tend to sexualize everything, starting at an early age. Casual touching, or giving someone a hug, is quickly seen as a sexual overture, so knowing how people will interpret things becomes important. For an autistic person who has trouble reading social cues, this becomes even more difficult, and Sonny said they eventually ended up taking a passive approach to physical affection. But simply allowing physical contact whenever it comes your way can quickly become dangerous, because you don’t learn how to set boundaries. They described what they called “anxiety confusion thought-cycle paralysis,” which is when you’re trying to read a situation that is getting uncomfortable, going around in circles about what’s going on, and then ending up deciding that you’re overthinking it and not saying anything. This, too, felt very familiar to me.

All in all, this was a great conference, and I don’t want to give the impression that the sessions I didn’t write about weren’t interesting—all of them were, and together they offered a wide variety of research, observations, and personal experiences that centered autistic experiences of gender and sexuality in a way that was very encouraging. I hope to see more events do the same.