Mixed Messages

When I was young, I received constant messages that I didn’t belong. I was weird, and I said things others didn’t understand, largely because I was making intuitive leaps that they couldn’t follow, or because I was working off of detailed information they didn’t have. I didn’t grasp that at the time, of course. I mean, I was a little kid and they were grownups — of course grownups would know more than I did! But when it came to my interests, they often didn’t. They weren’t the ones spending long afternoons reading the encyclopedia, after all.

Perhaps because of things like this, I also began receiving messages that I was gifted. I was praised for being very smart, and for picking things up faster than other kids did. I was admonished for getting impatient with other people, and told that not everyone could learn as quickly as I did, or remember as much, or connect as many dots. Essentially, I was told that I couldn’t expect everyone else to keep up with me.

So I started trying to incorporate this perspective into my understanding of the world. Instead of assuming other people had all of the knowledge I did, I would share some of what I knew as part of making my point. For this, I was called a know-it-all. When someone asked me if a math test had been easy, I would say it had been easy for me but I didn’t know how it was for other people. For this, I was told I was conceited and that I shouldn’t act superior.

I’m sure I did come off as pedantic at times, especially before I learned how to moderate the level of detail I included in conversation. Most of the time I was just excited to talk about something cool I had learned. And I know lots of people saw me as aloof, maybe even condescending, but the truth was I felt anything but superior. There was still that constant drumbeat of judgment, telling me I was weird and wrong and no one could understand me. But trying to acknowledge that I wasn’t like other kids never seemed to help, so I learned to stop even hinting that I was anything special.

BUT.

All through my life, right up to today, when I try to generalize from my own experiences to suggest what other people might need or want or enjoy…I am told that I’m an exception, that most people are not like me. This happened just a couple of weeks ago, and it’s happened my entire adult life. If I act like I’m different, I’m being egotistical. But if I assume I’m the same, I have unrealistic expectations of other people.

Has anyone else out there experienced these kinds of mixed messages?

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It’s All Already Strange

Apparently I love sociology. I’ve never formally studied it as a discipline before, but I’ve read a lot of sociological writing, so I expected to like it…but I am loving this class. And it has occurred to me that it is specifically because I am autistic that I love it.

I’ve always seen patterns in things, and sought to understand other people’s behavior by looking for the patterns in that. Finding those patterns helped me to figure out social expectations that didn’t come naturally to me. So the idea that we are not only individuals, but are also shaped by social forces external to us (the “social structures” I wrote about earlier) makes perfect sense to me. And then taking the time to actually tease out what those structures are and how they work, using the scientific method? My analytical, connection-making mind is in heaven.

Beyond that, I have always felt like I was on the outside looking in when it comes to social interaction, a position that will likely sound familiar to other autistic people. But this is exactly the right vantage point from which to study it! My professor suggested that the role of sociology is to “make the familiar strange” by pointing out the things in society that most people take for granted — but often enough, they’re already strange to me, and it is glaringly obvious that these things have an influence most people overlook.

It is also glaringly obvious to me that these structures are not necessarily inevitable; in other words, they do not have to be the way they are. I think most people believe social behavior patterns are inevitable because they just seem “natural,” so they don’t realize that they’re just so ingrained that they’ve come to feel natural. But a lot of these things don’t feel natural to me, so I naturally (heh) want to look at them in a more analytical way.

So, I love it. And there are huge benefits to studying something that is already a “special interest.” For one thing, I am excited about the reading assignments for each class, and tend to finish them early. For another, class participation is fun — it doesn’t make me nervous, and I actually look forward to discussion times. I wasn’t sure how I would feel being back in a classroom, but at least in this case, it’s a breeze.

Social Structures and the Socially Awkward

And now for a few sociological thoughts. 🙂 The primary reading this week was about the notion of social structures. These are the collective societal arrangements that shape our behavior and ways of thinking. They have two prominent features: they are external to each of us as individuals — they would exist without you or me being here — and they constrain our actions by sanctioning behavior that goes against them.

That’s pretty abstract, I realize. Examples of social structures include institutionalized things like laws and organized religion, but also more fluid things like cultural norms and fashion trends. They all constrain us to one degree or another: when we break a law, society can sanction us with jail time or fines, and when we make a social faux pas, people will look at us funny or even ostracize us. You could think of them in general as social obligations. You can break them, but you’ll incur some kind of backlash if you do.

Many social structures do also enable, or at least streamline, our behavior. A shared language allows us to communicate. Shared currency facilitates financial transactions. Traffic laws allow us to drive on the same road without all running into each other. We’re constrained by each of those structures, but that constraint can help us.

We’re also constrained by social structures even if we’re oblivious to them; ignorance of the law doesn’t mean you can break it, for example. That got me thinking about how one can also be oblivious to the social sanction that follows breaking one of these obligations — autistic people, for example, may miss the nonverbal cues that indicate social disapproval. That made me wonder if, in that instance, the sanction is no longer effective. After all, if I go blithely on my way, unaware that I have worn the absolute wrong thing to a party, then the social structure has failed to coerce me into conforming, right?

Not necessarily. I may be unaware that I have been socially sanctioned, but I will likely become aware that I am no longer invited to such parties. (Oh, the horror. Parties are a bad example, at least for me.) If I unknowingly break other social rules, I may find myself unable to get a job, or get a date. The social structure in question may have failed to change my behavior in any way, but I am still constrained by it. I will feel the effects of those structures, I just won’t know why.

And I think that’s precisely why autistic people frequently feel alienated, disconnected and misunderstood. We’re feeling the effects of social structures we don’t understand or explicitly reject. Sure, we may not catch the hints, the looks, the facial expressions that people use to pressure us to conform — but we still end up out in the cold, wondering why we can’t connect.

Back to School

I started classes toward my human services degree this week. I’m taking Psychology 101 online, and Sociology 101 on campus. Psych started off a bit slowly for the first week, but the in-person sociology class got right into it with some interesting reading and discussion. I’m going to write a second post today with some of my thoughts from that, and I’ll probably write quite a bit more in the future about the things I’m learning.

But first I want to reflect a little on the experience of going back to school in the first place. I’m starting to relax a little, but that first day was nerve-wracking. Reading through the syllabus and expectations for the online psychology class got me anxious about meeting those expectations, plus I had to figure out what I wanted to say in my introductory post. I spent a while figuring that out, but ultimately felt really good about it.

Sociology met that afternoon, so I drove in to the campus early to make sure I could find the room ok. I was dismayed at first because the desks were arranged in clusters, but it turned out to be a fairly small class, and people spread out. It was all very quiet and awkward while we waited for the professor; no one seemed to want to smile or say hello when someone walked in. (Marvel at the fact that I was the one trying to be friendly and social…)

Over the course of the class people grew more relaxed, and I really enjoyed the teacher’s low-key manner and dry humor. And the overview of the course material — we’re reading academic papers and chapters from academic books, rather than using a single textbook — got me very excited about the class. Social structures, modes of control, the formation of identity, social stratification, gender, class, and race? I’m so there.

So I’m feeing really good about both classes at this point. I have an appointment next week with the office of disability services, too. I’m not actually requesting any academic accommodations, but since I plan to be open about being autistic — after all, the whole reason I’m there is that I want to work with other autistic people as an autistic person — I wanted to make contact. And it’s probably a good idea to have something on file in case I find that I do need some accommodation made in the future.

What Are My Interests?

I never know how to answer that question. Granted, I dislike open-ended questions in general, but I find I particularly freeze up at that one. And when it comes in a context related to autism, I feel doubly awkward about it, because I find people expect me to have a narrow range of obsessive “special interests,” but I’m just not like that. As the name of this blog implies, I’m…eclectic.

At the highest level, I’d say that I like to learn things, and I like to create things. A look at my shelves will show numerous books related to:

  • psychology and sociology;
  • history;
  • politics;
  • religion and spirituality;
  • martial arts;
  • mythology;
  • nature: birds, mammals, insects, trees, minerals, climate, astronomy, and more;
  • technology and programming;
  • arts & crafts;
  • gender;
  • physics;
  • and of course, autism.

Considering that many of those are umbrella categories, in which I have multiple sub-interests, that’s really just scratching the surface.  And that’s not counting the science fiction, fantasy, thrillers, poetry, and comic books I enjoy.

My creative endeavors end up spread out all over the place, so even I forget about some of them. I recently wrote down a list, though, because I was brainstorming how I could bring all of my creations together, and where I might do that. The list includes:

  • writing fiction, poetry and essays;
  • photography;
  • increasingly, videography as well;
  • making jewelry, mostly chainmail and beads;
  • crochet, including amigurumi;
  • drawing (still rather rudimentary, but improving);
  • making music;
  • programming;
  • cooking increasingly delicious meals;
  • and miscellaneous crafts (leatherworking and woodburning, for example)

So what are my interests? How can I possibly answer that question?