Doesn’t Feel Like Spring Yet, But…

My spring semester starts on Thursday of this week. I’m taking two in-person classes this time; I didn’t really like the experience I had with an online class last semester, and I found two I wanted that meet back-to-back on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I’m really looking forward to both of them, for different reasons.

The first one is Introduction to Human Services. I’ll admit this initially sounded a bit bland to me, but it’s the prerequisite for most of the other degree-specific classes I’ll need, so I wanted to take it soon. And I figured that at the very least it would give me a wider overview of the field I’m potentially looking to move into. But after I met with the professor and saw the syllabus, I started to get really excited about it. He’s got some very interesting projects incorporated into the coursework, and I think I’ll really learn a lot.

The second class is Social Psychology. After falling in love with sociology last semester, I was psyched (hah) to see this on the schedule, because it feels like a logical complement to that. (Does it make sense to say something “feels logical”? Makes sense to me, but it just occurred to me that it’s an odd formation. But anyway.) According to my preliminary understanding of how they relate, sociology focuses on the large-scale social structures that exist outside of the individual, while social psychology looks at how the individual navigates that social world. Both are particularly interesting to me as an autistic person, because the social world has never made intuitive sense to me, but studying it analytically has helped me understand it better.

I also think that being autistic is actually an advantage in this area of study, because I think I take less for granted as “just the way things are.” The “way things are” often strikes me as utterly bizarre and nonsensical, and therefore I treat it as something that needs to be analyzed and explained, rather than taking it for granted. I think most people navigate social norms like the proverbial fish in water—it’s a comfortable, familiar environment, but also entirely invisible. In that case, it can take some work to learn to see the details of that environment, much less question why they are the way they are. But I feel like I’ve been questioning aspects of social interaction all my life, which is why the systematic study of social life has really appealed to me.

That’s got me seriously wondering which direction I want to be moving in. I went back to school with the idea of eventually getting a Master of Social Work degree, with the aim of working with other autistic adults in a professional capacity. There is such a disconnect between the lived experience of autism and the attitudes and beliefs about it held by most clinical professionals, and I am interested in helping to bridge some of that disconnect. But there is also a disconnect between the autistic experience and the attitudes and beliefs of autism researchers, and that is also a possible direction for me. My previous scientific training would assist me in that realm, too.

But, for now, I am continuing onward with these two classes. I think they will combine well as a way to continue to test the waters to learn what I might like to do; one will give me an expanded sense of the options available in the human services/social work field, and the other will continue my education in the social sciences to see if my education should bend in that direction instead. To be honest, I kind of expect I’ll end up with some hybrid approach; I never have been able to decide “what I want to be when I grow up,” mostly because I have never wanted to be just one thing. I’ve gotten to be comfortable with that, though, so for now I’m willing to just keep studying and see what happens.

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Three Things On My Mind

I started three separate topics for a blog post this week, thinking I could use one or all of them, but frankly none of them is really coming together. For each one, I started to expand upon my observations and draw conclusions…but then things just fizzled and I couldn’t find the point. So here’s just a glimpse into some of the things swirling in my brain at the moment:

1. I’m done with my school semester! I’m very proud of the work that I did in both of my classes, and I’m looking forward to my spring courses, but I also need a break. Luckily, I have a little over a month off — which of course I have already started filling with work on personal projects. I tend to be reluctant to talk about things still in the works, but those are proving very exciting to me, and I’m looking forward to having some time to dive into them.

2. Gift shopping sucks. I spend so much time trying to find something the other person would like, when their interests and tastes are so much different from mine (and screw you, Theory of Mind theorists who say autistic people can’t understand this) that it stresses me out that I might get it wrong. In fact, I get jarring flashbacks to times I was criticized (sometimes quite harshly) for not spending enough, or not choosing the right thing, or some other gift-giving failure. I recognize that this was entirely not ok, but that doesn’t make it easy to shake off. So gift shopping sucks…but at least it’s done for this year.

3. I’ve made some new friends this year, and reconnected with an old friend I hadn’t spoken with in a long time — but I’m wary. So many times I have thought I found a friend who really “got” me, when in reality, I got them. At first that can feel like the same thing, but in the end it’s not. Ultimately, it takes some time to let things build and figure out whether there is some mutual understanding building, or if it’s more uneven. But that’s what makes me wary.

So yeah, just a few things pulling my thoughts about (and of course there are more, in all sorts of directions). But overall I am heading into my long weekend feeling ready for a rest — which for me includes lots of reading, writing, programming, and crafting, now that I have a little “down time.” Hah!

Putting In The Effort

I’ve written before about how much I’ve been enjoying my sociology class, and that enjoyment has continued as the semester has progressed. There are only three weeks left of classes, and while I’m looking forward to having a break, I’m going to miss this one. The readings were well chosen, and we’ve had some great discussions about them.

I haven’t liked my psychology class as much, but I attribute that primarily to the structure of it as an online class, and to frustrations with the textbook. It’s also a little too basic, given my earlier familiarity with a lot of the material; a psych class in high school got me hooked on learning about how humans work, and it’s been a fascination for me ever since.

That’s mostly because explicitly learning about this stuff has really helped explain so many things that didn’t make sense to me intuitively. I feel like I’ve always been something of a social scientist, making observations, forming hypotheses, and testing out different approaches. Other autistic people have expressed similar feelings; perhaps the most famous is Temple Grandin’s description of herself as being “an anthropologist on Mars,” trying to figure people out. Many of us analyze our every interaction, looking to crack the code.

The thing that strikes me most about that right now is how much effort we put into this whole human interaction thing. And it really is a ton of effort: the amount of processing that goes into even casual social interactions can be exhausting, and the mental strain that results is often a big factor in autistic burnout. Plus the time it takes to get things “right” can easily lead to social anxiety, as the cumulative weight of failed interactions starts to add up.

So why is there still a pervasive stereotype that says autistic people are not interested in social interaction? Certainly, some of us aren’t; we’re a varied bunch, after all. But as a generalization, it falls far short of the reality, and I think the sheer volume of effort we put into every interaction gives an indication of how short it falls. And given that some new research shows that neurotypical people are less interested in interacting with autistic people based on superficial first impressions and social judgments, it’s past time we stopped placing all the blame for social difficulties on the autistic side of the interaction. We are putting in the effort. I think we should get some credit for that.

Still Flowing

Well, it’s going to be another short-post week this week. I said last weekend that I expected this week to feel long, even though the workweek was short, but it actually flew by, and the weekend was no exception. I got almost everything done that I wanted to do, but now that it’s Sunday evening I don’t have a whole lot of brain space left for thinking up a blog post.

I’m actually really looking forward to Thanksgiving week, because my husband and I stay home, and it’s a nice long weekend to catch up on things. Things usually get hectic again after that, and now I’ve got end-of-semester stuff to look forward to, on top of holiday preparations, so…yay?

But for now, things are still flowing. Onward!

Water swirling down a waterfall and past bare rocks in late-afternoon autumn light.

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.