Long Week

Time for another blog post! And…I’ve got nothing. Seriously. My mind is blank.

Actually, it’s more like my mind is full, too full of schoolwork, work work, household tasks, and miscellaneous reading, to the point where nothing coherent is, um, cohering. It’s been a busy weekend after a busy week, so now I am going to take the dogs for another walk on this gorgeous fall day, and then play video games before starting all over again with another Monday.

Hope you’re having a good one!

Advertisements

Needing to Be Right

I was at a meeting of an autistic/Aspie support group a few weeks ago, and one of the other members asked if others shared the trait of “needing to be right.” This is a trait commonly attributed to people on the spectrum, so it made for an interesting conversation.

My take was that I like being right, but more important to me than needing to be right is the goal of getting things right. When I share factual information, I want it to be right. When others around me share factual information, I want that to be right as well. In both cases, it bothers me to think that people are being given bad information, and so I want to correct it.

Now, if something sounds not-quite-right but I don’t know enough about the subject to argue with it, I will be highly motivated to investigate and learn more. That means I probably won’t be satisfied to take your word for it. If I do know enough to disagree, I will do my best to provide evidence for my point of view, and I expect you to do the same. And if I turn out to be wrong about something, I will adjust to include the new information — but again, I’ll need evidence of the accuracy of that new information before I accept it.

Part of this likely is due to being autistic and having the sort of logical, analytical mind that is common (though not at all universal) on the spectrum. But part of it is also rooted in my scientific education. Arguments by assertion or appeals to authority are not valid evidence, so although in the short term I might let the matter drop, moves like that are not going to change my mind.

So yeah, I probably come across like I need to be right all the time, but really it’s just that I want the information to be right. Is that so wrong?

Outside My Comfort Zone

I’ve been wearing my MIT class ring again lately, as a reminder to myself that I Can Do This. And by “this,” I mean…everything. Everything has just been a lot lately, including a lot of new things and new challenges that I have taken on. So a little reminder that I have met some pretty big challenges before has been welcome.

And to be honest, I need that reminder in part because I have a tendency to underplay my past accomplishments, especially if they don’t have a direct and obvious impact on my present circumstances. Yes, I have a physics degree from MIT, but I’m not really using it right now, so it’s almost like I forget about it. And it’s not even completely true that I’m not using it; no, I’m not working in the field of physics, but I use that education every day. I use it when I employ critical thinking, and when I confidently dive into a new learning experience. That degree taught me how to think, and (being me) when am I ever not thinking?

Similarly, I have a black belt, but it’s from a school that doesn’t exist anymore, and I’m not actively training right now, so I almost forget about that, too. I think of myself as someone who has been a martial artist, not someone who is one right now. But the fact is, my experiences in the martial arts have shaped huge parts of who I am and how I move through the world, and I do still use the lessons from it that go beyond the physical training aspect. It is part of me.*

So this post is to tell myself that I can remember these things when it seems like a big deal just to leave the house and deal with people, or to make a phone call, or when I am waiting on pins and needles for a reply to an email that might not have been received well. I can take on new challenges with the knowledge that I have met challenges before — and when I have days where everything is too much of a challenge, I can take a day off without feeling guilty.

And lastly, when someone sanctimoniously suggests that I “just need to step outside my comfort zone” on one of those days where things are just too much, I can reply, “Whelp, I live outside my comfort zone. Why don’t you try that for a while and tell me how it feels?”

* Also, I am about to try out a new karate school just opening in my town! I am very excited, because it’s a style I have enjoyed in the past, and the instructor is happy to let me just learn without worrying about rank, since I have that black belt from a related style and have trained in his before. I am really hoping it works out, because I would love to be training again in a way that makes me happy.

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?

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.