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.

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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.

Impatient for Change

No, really. I am.

I have been itching to try new things, learn new skills, begin new ventures. But I’ve been trying to temper that with the knowledge that I am already about to do all of those things, because I am starting school in a month. I’ve still been spending time with online classes and beginning new projects, but I keep having to remind myself that my available time will be dramatically impacted by two college classes, and I have no idea how much.

Will coursework just replace the existing time I spend on self-directed reading and learning, or will it be more? Will I get frustrated not having all of the time I currently have for those self-directed projects, or will I find new areas of inspiration from doing my coursework? How will it feel taking classes that actually have deadlines and consequences, rather than free or inexpensive online courses that I can dip in and out of as I want? How will it feel to be studying social work/human services as an autistic person who really wants to help people but finds social interaction awkward?

I won’t know the answers to any of those questions until I start, and I’m getting really impatient to do that. Actually, I was already impatient back in — holy cow, it was February; how time flies — when I enrolled, but now that it’s only a month away I am really ready to get started. I’ve got my textbooks, a spiral-bound notebook for each a class, and I’m ready to do this thing!

But I still have a month. So I’ve been trying to set goals for this month that will get me ready to really get started — I want to make sure I am relaxed and rested, and I want to establish some new habits that I can hopefully keep going. One of those new habits is committing to a weekly blog post, of which this is the first. (Yes, it’s Sunday so it took me all week, but I’m hoping to get some momentum going!) Another is establishing a daily spiritual practice that is sustainable and can help keep me grounded as I move forward. But as much as I’ve been wanting to try new things lately, establishing new habits is really difficult.

Some of the difficulty probably comes from trying to adjust my existing routines. I don’t really have a rigid daily routine, where I have to do things in the same order or at the same times, but there are certain segments of the day where I feel like some things fit and other things don’t. For example, while I take walks multiple times during the day, other forms of exercise really only feel right in the morning. So does spiritual practice; if I want to establish a daily routine of meditation or prayer, it needs to be in the morning. But then, both of those get disrupted quite easily if I have a bad night’s sleep and don’t wake up as early as usual, or if I have something else going on that day that breaks into that time. I feel a lot of resistance toward simply doing them at a different time that day, and unfortunately once that habit gets broken it’s very difficult to reestablish it.

So I am relying on lists, reminders, and a new journal (with sections for yearly, monthly, and weekly goals) to keep me on track this time. And I am allowing myself some flexibility in just what I do for my spiritual practice; it doesn’t have to be the same thing every day, or take the same amount of time. Same with what I focus on each day for this month — there are some things I’d like to finish up before I get busy with school, but I also want to avoid putting too much pressure on myself in this last month of summer break.

Because things are going to change soon. And I can’t wait to get started.

Taking Steps

So. I have been Taking Steps.

(When I put it in caps like that, I feel like a Terry Pratchett character — which isn’t a bad way to live a life, frankly.)

I mentioned last month that I was considering going back to school, in a totally different field compared to my bachelor’s degree, but I didn’t explain what that new field was going to be. That was partly because I was still weighing some options, but also because I was still mulling over this whole course of action, thinking about what it would be like. But as I said above, I have been Taking Steps. I have enrolled at my local community college. I have transferred credits from my bachelor’s degree. I have taken placement tests in math and English. I am getting ready to select (and meet with) an advisor. I have picked out classes for the fall (and am getting really excited about them). So I guess I’m doing this.

But what am I doing, you may ask? I am getting ready to start studying in the field of human services, with an eye toward working — in some capacity — with other autistic people in a supportive role. That may eventually lead to a master’s in social work and clinical certification, or it may lead in some other direction; I’m not sure yet. All I know is that something needs to change in the way that autism is seen by those in the helping professions, and I want to be part of that change.

I want to help older adults learn to make sense of a late-life diagnosis. I want to help younger adults transition into independent living. I want to help autistic children and their parents understand that children on the spectrum learn and grow, and they can do so in ways that honor their differences instead of erasing them. And I want to help educate teachers, doctors, therapists, and other professionals to understand what autistic people need…and what we don’t.

Now, I am also Taking Steps toward doing what I can without a formal education in the field, but the education piece feels very important to me. It’s not just about getting a piece of paper that other people will respect, but about learning more about how to be a good source of support. A combination of study and practice seems a good way to do that.

That, and reading more Terry Pratchett, of course.

Returning, Restarting, Reframing

I am thinking about getting back into martial arts. I am also thinking about going back to school. These two things are strongly related in my mind.

I have a black belt in a martial art that doesn’t really exist anymore; it was a single-school system, and the instructor isn’t teaching it anymore, and neither are any of the other black belts who had been teaching there (including me). Part of what this means is that I can’t maintain the same rank when I start at another school. The skill I built up while earning that black belt is still real (if a bit rusty right now), but the “credential” doesn’t really apply anywhere else.

Now, that’s totally fine with me. I’ve been a white belt (beginner) again twice since earning that black belt — and before that point, I had been a white belt several times over as I switched styles. I always let new instructors know about my previous experience — it’s usually something they ask of new students — but I make it clear that I’m not expecting to start anywhere but at the beginning. Knowing about my previous experience is helpful to them, because it explains why I often pick up techniques very quickly (if they’re similar to what I’ve done before), but also explains why there might be small details that will take some time to retrain (if a technique in the new style is close-but-not-quite-identical to a technique in the older style).

I had one teacher who was really weird about it, though. He actually offered to let me retain my black belt, but it made no sense to me since I didn’t know his curriculum. The rank would not have been an accurate representation of my skill in that style. So he let me learn at a bit of an accelerated pace instead — but constantly pointed out to the other students around my current rank that I was “really” a black belt, and that’s why I was learning faster. It made things awkward, and I think it gave the impression that I was somehow bragging, even though I was never the one to bring it up.

So I’m looking at starting a new style yet again, at a small school not far from my house. The instructor has a good reputation, and the style — though not one I’ve been particularly drawn to in the past — shares a lot of elements with past arts I’ve studied. (And I’ve definitely found that specific style matters much less than having a good instructor.) But I don’t know how this past-experience thing is going to play out this time, so it makes me a little nervous.

The going-back-to-school impulse carries some similar issues, as it happens. I have a bachelor’s degree already, so I think most people would be looking at graduate school programs as the next step. But I don’t think that’s the right step for me, and it’s similar to how I didn’t feel right coming into a new martial art and wearing the black belt from my old one. That’s because I want to start studying a completely different field, and to me it seems like studying something at a master’s level kind of implies that you’ve trained up to that level in that field (or a related one).

I know many people do change fields between their undergraduate and graduate work, so it’s not impossible. But when I look at master’s degree programs in the field I’m interested in (I’m going to be vague for now and write about it in more detail later), it looks like there’s a lot of ground work that I haven’t done. I could do that coursework first, I suppose, but to me it makes more sense to start at the beginning.

There’s also the question of the cost of education, and for me that includes the logistical costs of getting to classes while also continuing to work — so the availability of programs within a close driving radius was a big factor. And frankly, I’m really not sure whether this area of study is going to give me what I need for the plans I have, so starting small seems to make more sense, too.

So what I have come up with is the idea of working toward an associate’s degree at my local community college, as a way of getting my feet wet. That way I’ll get a lot of preliminary exposure to this new field, and afterwards I’ll have a basis for transferring into a bachelor’s degree (or combo bachelor’s/master’s degree) program. It’s close, it’s affordable, and the program I’m looking at has a lot of cool classes.

But I’m curious as to how the previous-experience question will play out there, as well. And not just at the school, but among my family and friends. Most people seem to think of education as a ladder of sorts, with the only valid path being further “up.” They would see my plan as a major step backward — but I look at it as a natural process of starting over as a white belt again. I still acknowledge the strengths that my past training has given me (and I will take advantage of course credits that can be transferred), but I am fine with being a beginner again in a new field.

I’ll be writing more about both of these (potential) new starts in the future. But I thought it was interesting how clearly related they seem to me, and I wonder how my growing new understanding of myself as autistic will affect how I proceed.