Too Much and Not Enough

Boston skyline with trees in the foreground and blue sky above it.
The view from the balcony at dinner.

I’m still processing some feelings about my 25th college reunion this past weekend, and how it relates to moving forward into graduate school this fall. I want to write more about that later as I figure it out, but today I want to unpack the most stressful aspect of the reunion, which was the class dinner on Saturday night.

I met up with a friend for the reunion, and this was the only scheduled event we had registered for, and it kind of dominated the whole day. We drove in early to attend an alumni memorial service (and to beat the traffic), so the day stretched very, very long before dinnertime came around. (It would have been harder to take a break and go back to the hotel than to stay on campus, due to the traffic and numerous other events going on in the area.) It didn’t help that I had slept very poorly the night before, due to the unfamiliar hotel bed.

We did have lots of time to walk around, take pictures, do some shopping, and have lunch, but all of this meant that I was pretty worn out by the time dinner rolled around. Then it started with a cocktail hour, with very few places to sit. The venue was pretty, with a nice view of the city, but standing for an hour after walking so much was very tiring. And while most of my day had been filled with one-on-one conversation with just my friend, now it was expanded to small groups. At first this was ok, because while it was more to keep track of, it also meant that I could just listen to some parts of it, without feeling the need to reply to everything.

I was happy to hear when dinner was ready, both because I could finally sit down and because I was getting pretty hungry at that point. Walking into the dining room, though, I found it disappointing that a) there wasn’t much of a view from that room, b) the tables were packed in pretty close, and c) dinner was a rather underwhelming buffet. I was expecting better food for the price of registration and the (admittedly vague) description of the dinner as “upscale.” Once things got going, however, these were very minor issues compared with the overwhelming nature of the social and sensory environment.

Reflecting back on it after the fact, it’s interesting to note that I didn’t have any issues with social anxiety that whole day. Instead, what came to a head during dinner was a combination of two separate, but related, issues: sensory overload and social overload. In terms of sensory overload, there were a few hundred talkative people all seated in the same room, plus a string quartet or something (I didn’t get a good look) playing in the corner. The noise level was overwhelming, especially all of the voices coming at me from all sides. People sometimes describe noise like that as a roar, or a wave of sound, but for me it doesn’t blend together. It was all separate, and never stopped. Eventually my head felt fuzzy, like my brain had been shredded into fluff by all of those individual needles of sound.

This was bad enough, but it really exacerbated the social overload that was also going on. This had already started, of course, given that I had spent the past twelve hours in near-constant conversation and interaction. So by the end of the day, the addition of more people to all of that interaction really started to take a toll. And with all of the noise, it was extremely difficult to understand what people were saying to me if they were more than about a foot away, and of course people were trying to talk across the table. So it required more and more focus just to follow what people were saying, and often I had to ask people to repeat themselves. And asking just increased the amount of interaction required, so it didn’t take long before I was starting to shut down.

I was able to get up and leave the room once I had finished my dinner, and there was a nice balcony with a view of the Boston skyline. It was quiet out there, and cool, so I was able to recover a little bit. I headed back in when I felt better, but if anything the room seemed even louder after taking a break from it. I didn’t last very long this time, and let my friend know I couldn’t take any more. To be honest, all I could really manage was something like, “I can’t do this,” while shaking my head and getting out of my chair. I fled back into the next room, where I found a table and sat down.

My friend followed me a few seconds later, along with another friend of hers we had been sitting with. They asked if I was ok, and at first all I could say was, “No,” but then I explained that I was overloaded and done being in the dining room. My friend was ready to leave, too, so we said goodbye to her other friend and headed out. I was extremely tired, but I think I was still really wound up from all of it, because even after we got back to the hotel I couldn’t relax enough to get to sleep. (I also needed to stay up a bit to eat some of the snacks I had brought, because I hadn’t really eaten enough dinner.)

The whole experience was both overwhelming and underwhelming at the same time, and the underwhelming nature of the dinner itself made it really not worth dealing with the overwhelming social/sensory aspects. Other than wearing noise-canceling headphones (which were all the way back in my car and would have made me extremely self-conscious), I can’t really think of anything I might have done to improve the situation. Sitting in a different location in the dining room might have helped, but it was very unclear where the best place would have been. Even around the edges of the room, it was hard to find a spot that wasn’t close to one of the buffets, or a busy doorway, or the musicians. Short of filling my plate and taking it outside to eat, I couldn’t really have taken more of a break from it—and at first I was really enjoying the conversation, so I didn’t want to just bail on my whole table right off the bat. Mostly I was disappointed by the whole situation.

It has taken me a day or so to recover; I didn’t sleep well again that night, and then I had to drive home in the morning. My body bounced back from the hours of walking, but my brain was still fried. Ultimately, I think having a larger venue so the tables could be spread out more, perhaps with smaller groups of people clustered in different areas, would have helped immensely.

And, of course, better food.


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.

Culture and Community

I attended a conference last Friday put together by Autism Connections, an autism services provider based in western Massachusetts. The event was organized around two keynote speakers, Steve Silberman and Al Condeluci. I may write more about the conference itself later, but for now I just want to pull out two strands of the discussion that have been intertwining themselves in my head ever since. They have to do with culture and community.

Steve Silberman, the author of the influential book NeuroTribes, The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, gave a two-part talk about the history and the future of autism—or I should say, the history and future of how autism has been identified and defined. As is reflected in his book, he advocated moving from a pathologizing medical model of autism and toward a more inclusive, neurodiversity-informed model, and during the “future” part of his talk he spoke a bit about the development of autistic culture.

One thing that stood out to me during this part of his speech was his experience attending Autreat (a retreat put on by autistic people for autistic people) as a neurotypical. He said that by the end, he had acclimated to autistic culture to the point that the NT world seemed very harsh by comparison. Listening to him, I was reminded of how much I have really longed to be able to attend something like Autreat, to experience that kind of autistic-friendly environment for myself. I feel like it could hit a sort of “reset button” inside me, to counteract some of the acclimation I have had to do to navigate NT culture.

The second speaker was Al Condeluci, who has done a lot of work related to supporting people with disabilities and creating ways to increase community involvement. In his talk, he spoke a lot about building social relationships that include people with different disabilities, rather than excluding them and isolating them in institutions or special programs. He pointed out that relationships are built on similarities—we seek to bridge the differences between us and find commonalities in order to relate to one another—after which we can begin to appreciate our differences.

At one point, Al talked about the process of helping someone build relationships in the community by seeking out groups that share common interests. He used the example of someone with Down syndrome who enjoys photography, and said that instead of looking for (or creating) a photography-focused social group for people with Down syndrome, it would be better to find a photography-focused social group for everyone, and introduce the photographer with Down syndrome to it in a way that made it accessible and welcoming for her. This not only allows this particular individual to build relationships within the broader population, it also increases visibility for people with disabilities instead of isolating and segregating them, as often happens.

Now, as part of a writing project I’ve been doing, I’ve been reading a lot about the Contact Hypothesis, which essentially states that positive contact between groups can (if done correctly) reduce intergroup prejudice and anxiety. There is a lot of research backing this up, and it’s one reason why it’s important to me to speak openly about being autistic. If people don’t know any autistic people—or don’t know they know any autistic people—it may be easier for them to buy into various stereotypes about us. So I am fully on board with increased inclusion and visibility for autistic people and people with all sorts of other differences and disabilities in society.

But the thing is, we also need our own spaces. This is where these two strands of thought become tangled for me. I do believe that building a more inclusive society requires more inclusive involvement, and it is clear that greater contact with minority groups can really change attitudes. (This has been studied with regard to racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities, and probably others.) But events like Autreat, or even just small get-togethers among just autistic people, can serve as a powerful reinforcement that, as a minority, our ways of being and interacting are just as valid as others.

I also think it’s important to keep in mind that, when it comes to approaches people use to reduce ingroup/outgroup tensions, members of the majority (or otherwise dominant) group tend to prefer it when everyone becomes subsumed into a single, more-encompassing ingroup—in other words, when “us” and “them” become a unified “we.” It’s sometimes called “recategorization,” but another common word for it is “assimilation.” This approach de-emphasizes everyone’s differences and, at least rhetorically, insists that we are all the same because we are on the same team; you’ve probably seen this done with appeals to a national identity to unify different ethnic subgroups.

Members of minority groups, however, tend to prefer it when integration into a single group is done in a way that allows for each subgroup’s individual differences to be preserved. Working together on the same team is still valued, but instead of “the team” being seen as one big, homogeneous group defined solely by team membership, people are seen as having dual membership in the team and their particular subgroup. (And in reality, we all have multiple group memberships that overlap and intersect, but for now I’m trying to simplify.)

So this is how I see the resolution of the issue I’ve outlined above: I want autistic people to be visible and included (and appreciated) in the larger society, and I want us to have our own spaces where we’re not constantly pressured to accommodate the expectations of neurotypical communication. Because right now, if we want to be included, we have to make those accommodations, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

Reference: Intergroup Contact: The Past, Present, and the Future

Reading People (Or Not)

Sometimes I just have to let things go. I find myself going over and over something I’ve said, second-guessing my own reactions and wondering if I’ve inadvertently said something wrong, pissed someone off, hurt someone’s feelings…but I’m not going to figure that out by rehashing it over and over. Either they’re going to tell me so, or not.

The trouble is, people often don’t tell me one way or the other, and therein lies the problem. I can’t help it if people don’t tell the truth about their own reactions, and I can’t be expected to just know. It’s been pretty well established that people with vastly different ways of thinking and experiencing the world have trouble seeing each others’ perspective—we think differently, so…we think differently. Damian Milton calls it the “double empathy problem,” and points out that it’s not a one-sided autistic “deficit,” but rather a mutual disconnect in our understanding of each other.

And I definitely know that my reactions to things have been misunderstood with great frequency throughout my life. I’ve been called selfish while I was actually bending over backward to make someone else more comfortable, and I’ve been called thoughtless when I was actually consumed with concern for someone else. That’s one of the reasons I worry so much about people’s reactions when I say something that might make them uncomfortable, or need to ask for something to change. I have no idea if they’re understanding me, or if they’re reading something into my words that isn’t there.

One problem is that I can’t really trust how I read people, so before I say something that might potentially be taken negatively, I have to prepare for all sorts of reactions. I kind of have to assume the worst, to be honest, just so I don’t get blindsided if and when they jump down my throat. (In my defense, I have also correctly predicted reactions that were all out of proportion to the situation, even when others told me that I was worrying too much, and of course that person won’t react that way. But those were situations where the person in question had previously overreacted and taken things personally, so I had already seen that pattern play out. It’s interaction with less-familiar people that sends me into a tailspin of self-doubt.)

My therapist noted this week that I seem to have problems “owning” my negative reactions to things, and she’s right. It came up toward the end of our session, so we haven’t had a lot of time yet to pick that apart, but a great deal of it is due to all of the above: expressing a negative reaction to things, even a mild one, has so often been punished that I do so only warily. Either it’s misinterpreted as a personal attack, or taken as me asking for special treatment instead of “sucking it up” and getting on with things. And so I’ve learned to be extremely diplomatic in my approach…but I still end up with no idea what the response will be, even when I think I’m being completely reasonable.

At least I can usually recognize what is reasonable and what isn’t, both in terms of my request or statement and in terms of the other person’s reaction. And I get righteously indignant when people react unreasonably. But that still leaves me feeling bruised and vulnerable, and wanting to crawl back into my shell and not engage in situations where I might need to speak up. Because that’s the tension I feel all the time: I can’t not speak up when something is unreasonably uncomfortable or unfair, but I hate speaking up to point those things out.

But you know? The times that I have spoken up, usually about things that other people were silently putting up with, I have always had at least one other person—and usually more—tell me that they appreciated that I said something, because it bothered them, too. I just wish they would take the initiative once in a while, because it sucks always being the one to reach a breaking point first. But I suppose our social and sensory sensitivities make that almost inevitable, like being the canary in the coal mine. The situation is toxic for everyone, but autistic folks are going to feel it first.

Anti-Social Media

I have something of a love-hate relationship with social media. I mean, it’s got the word “social” right there in the name, so that’s probably no surprise. I do use it, but I tend to use it in very specific ways, depending on the platform.

Twitter: I have a few different accounts on Twitter, which I use to organize various streams of information. The one I use in connection with this blog, for example, is pretty much “all autism, all the time.” This is the primary one I post to, while the others are mainly for informational purposes.

I’ve been engaging with it less lately, however. I find Twitter to be both valuable and problematic; the short format makes it easy to skim posts to find things of interest, but it also does something…scattering to my brain. The short format also seems to lend itself to statements that are absolute and unequivocal, which tend to rub me the wrong way. Overall I tend to come away from it feeling on edge, if not outright pissed off.

Instagram: I use this to share my photography, and to follow other people’s photos from around the world. I follow both people I know and people I don’t on this one; if you follow me and your postings look interesting, I will follow you back. If you’re posting all selfies and pictures of food, I probably won’t.

Pinterest: Honestly, I don’t really use Pinterest in a “social” way at all. I use it to unwind and look at beautiful pictures related to several of my many and varied interests. I save images of potential craft projects, as well as pictures related to nature, animals, and geekiness. I think I’ve followed one person I know on there; otherwise I use this to connect with images and ideas, not with people.

Facebook: I use Facebook primarily with people I know. It allows me to keep in touch with relatives and friends in a way that I otherwise wouldn’t, given my aversion to frequent gatherings and dislike of phone calls. It’s ironic, though, because on the one hand this is the platform where I connect with people who actually know me in person, but on the other hand, it’s also the one where I feel the most constrained when it comes to sharing my opinions and activities. I have learned over the years that I DO NOT like long comment-conversations on Facebook, even if they are positive and not contentious. (If they are contentious, I will literally lose sleep due to stress.) And frankly, I have never seen a Facebook conversation actually sway someone’s opinion. I’m sure it happens, somehow somewhere, but I have only ever seen people dig in their heels, or just ignore the arguments presented.

And here is where I have a huge peeve with social media. It is true that many of these platforms are perfect for sharing one’s views on current events, and for helping to motivate activism. But that is not how all of us use them (or we might use some platforms this way, but not others). It annoys me to no end when I see people taking others to task for not posting about this or that thing, or equating “not posting” with “not caring.” What I always want to shout back at them is, “Not posting about it here does not mean I am not a) talking about it elsewhere, b) deeply concerned about it, and/or c) actually taking concrete action about that thing.”

So…I don’t know. I have thought several times about disconnecting from social media altogether, but I keep having second (and third, and fourth) thoughts. I really do feel the need to reach out to people sometimes, to share things going on in my life and see what’s going on in theirs. But I also know that it stresses me out, and it’s often just a distraction when I want to be focused on something else. And then there are the privacy issues, media manipulation, and deliberately-addictive qualities of social media outlets that are just flat-out problematic. Am I talking myself into quitting them now? Maybe. Let me go see what my Facebook friends think.

Keeping My Cool

Snow-covered hemlock trees with the morning sun behind them

I hate conflict. Really, seriously dislike it. I always end up feeling terrible after (and during) an argument, even if I feel that I was completely in the right. Part of it is that I always do want to consider other perspectives; I want to be fair, and hear the other side out. But what this feels like internally is this: I absorb the other person’s viewpoint, and really take in what they’re saying. It can even feel like I am adopting their point of view, “trying it on” to see if it makes sense to me. But then I end up getting defensive, because it feels like my own perspective is being overwritten, and I’m afraid of losing my own viewpoint. I feel like I have to claw my way back to my own thoughts and feelings, and that can be scary.

On top of that, I generally don’t feel like the other person is doing the same thing, so I end up feeling like I am losing ground, wavering in my conviction by even pausing to consider the other point of view. But I really do think this ability to take on other perspectives, to suspend judgment for a moment and really try to see where they’re coming from, is a strength, and that society would be a lot better off if more people did this. So it’s not that I want to close myself off and stay dogmatically attached to my own opinions — but I do want to avoid that feeling of defensiveness that arises.

What I try to come back to is this: people are free to disagree with me, and I am free to disagree with them. I don’t need to convince everyone to agree with me, and in the end it’s not possible to get everyone to agree on everything. This is freeing to remember, and allows me to step back from seeing an argument as a battle that can be won or lost, and instead think of it as an interaction that might show me something interesting.

I’m not always able to remember this, but when I do, it calms me down immensely. I am not responsible for single-handedly “fixing” the world, or for changing everyone’s minds. Even when the issue is something I consider extremely important, even vital for people’s well-being, this is still the case. Often it’s just not the time or place for a particular argument to be accepted, but I also know that very often people hear and dismiss things that they later come back and reconsider. So maybe I’m planting a seed that will bear fruit later — I may never know. The only thing I can control is how well I make my case; whether that changes the other person’s mind is up to them.

Interpreting Regulations

When I was in Air Force ROTC in college, we had a month-long training period in the summer between sophomore and junior year, called Field Training. This was roughly our equivalent to boot camp, so it was a fairly harsh environment with a lot of demanding activities and constant scrutiny and evaluation. Strict adherence to regulations was expected.

At the time I went to Field Training, I had very short hair, similar to how I wear it now. This allowed me to stay within regulations without a lot of fuss; if I’d had long hair, I would have had to braid or otherwise bind it so that it stayed above my collar, and given how little time we sometimes had to get ready in the morning, it was nice not to have to worry about that. But somehow I still got into trouble for it.

Now, the regulations around women’s hair are different than those for men, even beyond the fact that women are allowed to have long hair in the first place. Men’s hair has to be trimmed to stay above the top of the shirt collar, whereas women’s hair only has to remain above the bottom of the collar. That’s only about an inch of difference, but it matters when you have a lot of hair that you’re trying to keep up in a braid or a bun.

But I didn’t have to worry about that, right? My hair was trimmed right to the hairline in back, so I didn’t give much thought to keeping it off my collar; it just was off my collar. Or so I thought.

The cadets in Field Training were divided into flights; two flights made a squadron, and all the squadrons combined into a group. (This mirrors the organizational structure of the US Air Force as a whole.) There were cadet officer positions within each of these levels, most of which rotated to give everyone experience with command, but each level was also commanded by an actual commissioned officer who was supposed to provide guidance and discipline while overseeing our training. My flight commander was a woman whose name I can’t quite remember, so I’ll call her Captain Jones.

Capt Jones had short hair, too, although she kept hers longer on top than I did. I recall it as one of those wedge-shaped hairdos with longer, wavy hair on top, and very closely trimmed sides and back beneath. In any case, about two weeks into Field Training, she pulled me aside and told me I had to get my hair trimmed because it was touching my collar. “It still counts if it’s touching the inside of your collar,” she said. “It has to be above the collar, period.”

Now, this was patently false, as I’ve explained above. But there is a far-reaching commandment in the military: thou shalt not interpret the regulations to a superior officer. This includes quoting a relevant regulation to argue with someone senior to you, as well as quibbling with their interpretation of the same. It is considered insubordinate and disrespectful, as well as a form of making excuses.

I really hated this prohibition. If someone was wrong about something, it shouldn’t matter whether they were above me in rank or not: I should be able to (politely, of course!) point out their error to clear things up. Both my memory and my attention to detail were exceptionally strong, and since I worked very hard to make sure I learned all of the rules, I typically knew the regs that applied to me inside and out. So when someone else got them wrong, or (worse) accused me of getting them wrong when I knew I hadn’t, I wanted to be able to correct them. It was a matter of fairness to me, as well as accuracy; if I was actually getting something wrong, that was one thing, but being told I was wrong when I wasn’t was another thing entirely.

So biting my tongue was always hard, but it was frequently expected during my time in the military; strict hierarchies tend to require that. I did find ways to raise issues, however, and it’s a skill that has benefited me in the rest of my life as well. I’ll call it the Question That Isn’t a Question (QTIQ). In Capt Jones’ case, it went something like this:

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” I told her. “Was I wrong that it just has to be above the bottom of the collar?”

See, by phrasing things this way, I can bring up my understanding of the issue in a way that’s not confrontational. The hope is that this will jog the other person’s memory that, oh yes, that is the case, or at least open the door to further discussion that might lead to actually looking things up for clarification. It’s not really a question, because I already know the answer, but it allows me to challenge factual errors that I could not otherwise correct due to power imbalances. It might make me sound like I’m uncertain or timid, but I’ve been in enough situations where I really had to avoid pissing off powerful people, and it has worked well for that.

In this case, unfortunately, it didn’t work to change the situation. Capt Jones informed me that, yes, I was wrong, and I needed to go get my hair cut asap. So there was nothing else to do but say “yes, ma’am,” and try to figure out where the hell the barber was.

But she was still wrong.