And On Into 2019

Happy New Year! I’m still here, although apparently I didn’t quite manage to post anything to this blog during the entire fall semester and beyond. (Looking back, I see I even said in my last post that I was hoping to get back to a more regular blogging schedule soon. :facepalm:) BUT! I am still here, so…here I am.

The semester went well! I took a sociology class called Social Inequality, and a class in statistics for the social sciences, and thoroughly enjoyed them both. The Neurodiversity Club I helped to found got off to a good start as well, and we have plans for a few different kinds of events for the spring. I also made a lot of progress playing the mandolin, kept up with work, and maintained a steady spiritual practice. It was a bit of a mad dash to the end of the year, but I made it through the holidays and now have a few weeks off of school before the spring semester starts.

During that time, I need to finish up and submit my application to graduate school, which is very exciting. Everything’s almost in order; I just want to take some time to go back over the paper I’m using as my writing sample and make sure it all still looks good. One of my former professors had some great suggestions for potential improvements, and I want to try to work in at least some of them. (Some will have to wait for another time, for various reasons; they were very good ideas, but I’m not sure they’re best suited to this particular paper.)

For the spring, I am registered for a class in the sociology of gender, and one in research methods for the social sciences. The sociology professor also approached me about potentially doing an original research project as part of the gender class, and presenting it at one or possibly two events late in the spring. So I’m going to be thinking more about that over the next few weeks as well, and try to come up with a project I can reasonably do in the timeframe I have. And of course I’ve loaded myself up with a whole bunch of reading I hadn’t been able to get to while I was doing classwork, so the concept of “time off from school” is perhaps a little misleading. 😉

In any case, I also plan to do some thinking about how I want to proceed with this blog. I don’t want to promise a more regular posting schedule (again) because I know things are going to get busy. But I do want to give some thought as to how I might generate some future topics for blog posts, possibly correlated with things I am reading and thinking about for school. After all, if I do get into the program I’m applying for, I’ll be diving even deeper into academia for a good long while. It would be great to have a place to share some of what’s going on with that, both in terms of the actual content of my research and my experiences as an autistic academic. Any ideas? Anything in particular you would like to hear about?

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On Masking

I’ve been thinking about the concept of autistic masking, sometimes also called camouflaging. This is the act of concealing or suppressing one’s autistic traits in order to appear “normal.” Masking may include the suppression of “stimming” movements or sounds, putting up with sensory inputs that are painful, forcing oneself to make eye contact, or following previously-practiced social scripts in order to blend in and appear non-autistic.

Such masking takes a toll on multiple levels. As Laura Hull and her co-authors found in “Putting On My Best Normal,” camouflaging is frequently experienced as mentally and physically exhausting, due to the constant vigilance required. Masking one’s autistic traits can also lead to a lack of support (or a lack of diagnosis altogether) because one’s struggles aren’t evident. Lastly, it can make one feel inauthentic, even to the point of losing touch with one’s own identity. And if you can never truly be yourself, all the connections you make with other people feel false as well.

Now, most people wear masks at least some of the time. Sociologist Erving Goffman wrote a foundational book about this back in 1956, called The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. In it, he discusses the self as a performance: we try to manage the impressions others have of us by presenting ourselves in a certain light, hoping this will lead them to treat us the way we want to be treated. To do this, we choose what information to present about ourselves, and what to conceal.

This “impression management” is, essentially, masking: we reveal and conceal different parts of ourselves in order to be accepted and seen in the best possible light. Consider, too, how we present different aspects of ourselves in different contexts; the self we present in the workplace or classroom is not the same self we show to our friends at a party. (Theoretically, at least, if you go to parties.)

So, to some degree, masking is a universal phenomenon, and it can be a valuable social skill to have. Then why is autistic masking so often draining and even damaging? I believe the key lies in that opening phrase: to some degree.

Autism is such a pervasive difference in our “wiring” that masking it is a constant effort; it’s not like simply not mentioning some embarrassing incident, or making sure you don’t have spinach in your teeth. It’s more like trying to maintain strict control over every natural instinct you have in terms of how your body wants to move, how you express yourself, and how your mind works. So in trying to appear “normal,” autistics may need to mask a lot more than someone just trying to present themselves “at their best.” So of course it ends up being much more draining.

It’s also important to note that many aspects of masking can cause stress directly. Making eye contact is very uncomfortable, even painful, for many autistic people, but many of us do it to meet social expectations, or to make others more comfortable. Stimming movements such as rocking, finger-flicking, or tapping are often a way of relieving stress and/or burning off energy that has nowhere else to go, so restricting those behaviors then causes stress to increase in an already-uncomfortable social situation. Similarly, forcing oneself to put up with—or even pretend to enjoy—a sensory situation that is causing distress (but which no one else seems to mind) will increase stress as well, and can easily lead to a meltdown or shutdown later.

There is also a difference between voluntary masking and coerced masking. When someone is making a choice about how to present themselves in order to appear at their best, this is a voluntary decision. Sure, it’s stressful to put on your best social presentation during, say, a job interview, but that’s a choice you make to give a good first impression. When, however, you have been told over and over (explicitly or implicitly) that who you are is not acceptable, and yet you still wish to be accepted, your subsequent masking of those unacceptable traits is essentially coerced. In other words, when not masking is met with ridicule, bullying, and ostracism, you end up masking out of fear. So of course this will have negative effects.

This kind of coerced masking can even be completely unconscious, as it was for me before I learned about autism. I simply grew up absorbing the norms other people expected me to follow, even though they were often painful to follow (and when I was younger I probably didn’t follow them very well). Eventually this caused some serious burnout, because the exhaustion and constant vigilance mentioned above were just as real even though I didn’t know I was masking anything. Scratch that: I knew I was masking something, I just didn’t know it was autism. Ultimately, I was simply masking myself.

It’s really hard to get out of the habit of masking, though. For one thing, it does get to be a habit, especially after decades of doing it. For another, it’s sometimes hard to know the difference between the well-adjusted sort of social presentation that everyone does in order to keep good boundaries and maintain professionalism, and the self-negating camouflaging that capitulates to social norms that see autistic traits as inherently deficient. It’s a tricky position to be in, especially when you also want to be able to navigate the non-autistic world while still being true to yourself. And I don’t have a ready answer for how to do that; it’s still a work in progress.

Attribution Errors

My last couple of posts have been drawn from brief essays I wrote for a social psychology class I took last semester. When Laina Eartharcher shared the second one on her blog Laina’s Collection, she commented that “What I get out of this is that we’re not as “weird” or “disordered as much of the medical profession makes us out to be. Maybe we’re just more aware of it, and it might be heightened for us through our wiring, but it might not be so “wrong” after all.”

It turns out that’s exactly what I wanted to get across by posting some of my thoughts from that class. 🙂 I had that experience all the way through, in fact: I’d read some section of the textbook and think, “Ok, so everyone (in aggregate, at least) has this experience. So why is it so pathologized in autistics?”

Consider how we interpret and explain other people’s behavior; this is often wrapped up in the so-called “theory of mind” that autistic people supposedly lack (but don’t really). The way it is presented, autistics have difficulty taking the perspectives of others, and understanding what is going on inside their heads. However, people make decisions all the time when interpreting others’ words or behavior, and they don’t always get it right; one prominent example in our textbook was of a man misinterpreting a woman’s friendliness for flirtation. In order to interpret the meaning of behavior, we need to attribute it to something, and in this case the friendly smile is misattributed to sexual interest.

Our attributions are also affected by how much we know about what the person in question is going through. Let’s say someone gets impatient while waiting in line, and snaps at the person ahead of him. If you know he’s been under a lot of stress and is maybe on a tight schedule, you might be more understanding and cut him some slack. This is called a situational attribution; you are attributing his crankiness to his external situation. If, however, you don’t know this person at all, you might be more inclined to assume he’s just a nasty person with a bad attitude. This is called a dispositional attribution; you are attributing his snappishness to his personality, or disposition. We assume his hostility is due to his personal traits rather than adverse circumstances.

With me so far? These two things combine into the idea of the fundamental attribution error, which is the tendency to downplay the effects of circumstances and instead attribute behavior to personal traits…when it comes to other people. When we justify our own behavior, though, we tend to point to the situation for an explanation. So if someone else is late, they’re lazy and inconsiderate. If we ourselves are late, we were held up in traffic, or had a last-minute emergency that we couldn’t avoid. (But of course, if we do something noble and good, that’s all us, and not circumstantial at all. 😉

There are several potential reasons for this fundamental attribution error, not least of which is the fact that we have a lot more knowledge about our own circumstances than those of other people, so we can put our own behavior into context more easily. Plus we want to feel good about ourselves, so if we make a mistake we look for external reasons why we might have slipped up. There are cultural influences, too; individualistic cultures like the US are more likely to attribute things to a person’s individual traits. But they all add up to a tendency to interpret other people’s behavior differently than we want our own behavior to be interpreted.

It also means that, by ignoring situational influences, people misinterpret others’ intentions all the time. So why are autistics particularly singled out for having “theory of mind” deficits when we have trouble with social interpretation?

In the end, this relates back to what Damian Milton calls the “double empathy problem.” In this way of thinking about it, social communication “issues are not due to autistic cognition alone, but a breakdown in reciprocity and mutual understanding that can happen between people with very differing ways of experiencing the world.” Of course, when you’re autistic, and interacting primarily with people who do not share your way of experiencing the world, things like misinterpretations and misattributions may indeed be more frequent. But that’s not an autistic deficit, that’s a deficit of mutual understanding.

So yes, in addition to finding social psychology fascinating, I went through the entire class thinking, “Hey, that’s a thing autistics get accused of “struggling with” all the time, but in reality the human as a social animal is just…kinda bizarre.” At least we have people out there studying these things to try to make sense of them! 😉

On Alert

Here’s another bit of writing from my social psychology class last semester. We were reading and discussing the influence that groups have on our level of physiological arousal, and how being in a group tends to heighten our sense of arousal, which can be experienced as excitement or as stress. There was one section that broke out a few different reasons for this increased arousal, which I found interesting in light of my tendency to feel overwhelmed or anxious in the presence of others.

The first one was evaluation apprehension. When you feel others are judging you, you feel “on alert.” An obvious example is the way most people feel nervous about public speaking, or performing a solo musical piece for the first time. Everyone’s eyes are on you, and you worry about how you will look to them. But the same goes for informal social situations, especially if you have been teased or ostracized in the past for being socially awkward. You start to feel as if every social occasion will involve evaluation and judgment, and this breeds anxiety.

The second factor was distraction. When you are performing a task as part of a group, it’s easy for your attention to become split between doing the task yourself and looking to see how the rest of your group is doing, especially if you notice someone else faltering. For example, I used to sing in a small choir, and it was very hard to stay focused on my part if another member shifted position, or stumbled on the timing, or otherwise drew my attention.

The last factor mentioned was the “mere presence” of other people. This didn’t seem well-explained to me, just thrown out there as a catch-all to say that people (and non-human animals) still get aroused by the presence of others even if they aren’t distracted or competing with each other. But for me it did connect with a third factor that comes into play, which is sensory overload from the presence of other people. This could just be considered a part of the distraction factor, because it is often sensory input from a group that causes distraction for me, but it’s also there as an unconscious influence even if it doesn’t distract me at the time. So yes, the mere presence of other people—especially in large numbers—definitely has an effect on me as well.

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.

Isolation and Belonging

I was really struck by a recent post on Sonia Boué’s blog, titled The art world is Social. In it, she wrote about how even organizations centered around artists with disabilities emphasize the need for collaboration and sociality in the art world in a way that doesn’t acknowledge the difficulties facing people with social disabilities. And when the social world is disabling for you, it isn’t helpful to be told that you must be social in order to do art properly.

It’s a great post, and I urge you to go read the whole thing. But this line in particular hit me really hard:

“It’s inappropriate to advise against isolation to a group who can’t help it – for whom it can be both a feature of creative life and/or a consequence of their disablement.”

I have felt so frustrated in the past for exactly this reason, both in relation to creative aspirations and in other areas of my life. So often, I have encountered the advice—rarely phrased as advice, actually, and more often as an unbreakable rule—that I must connect with others in order to truly reach my potential. I must join groups, network, and collaborate. I must find a community to connect with (and online doesn’t count).

And it’s not like I don’t want to connect; I very often do. I’m also a damned fine contributor when I’m on a team or in a group, if I do say so myself. But it doesn’t come naturally or easily to me, and simply telling me it’s a necessity for real creativity/spirituality/humanity just makes me feel excluded. I need to have it recognized that my participation in a group will also require breaks from that group, and it would be nice to have some kind of support to help me make the initial approach.

But groups have another problem for me, and that is that I never feel fully comfortable anywhere, or at least not for long. I’m always suppressing some parts of myself in order to share other parts, and while this can be a valuable social skill that is pretty much expected of everyone to some degree (acceptable behavior and conversation in the workplace, for example, is much more restricted than while relaxing with close friends) it becomes a strain when it’s required in a situation where openness is expected. If I’m in a group where I’m expected to allow myself to become known, but there are several important aspects of myself that I don’t think will be understood, I end up stressed out and hyper-vigilant, trying to manage what information I reveal and conceal, while at the same time trying to be relaxed and friendly. Eventually, the cognitive dissonance gets to me and I have to leave.

As VisualVox pointed out in a recent blog post on a similar topic, “fitting in” by masking and blending is often enough to make others feel comfortable, and to give them the feeling that we belong in the group, but that’s not the same thing as being comfortable ourselves. And many of us are just not suited to clear-cut affiliations and easy-to-grasp labels.

I am, as this blog’s title implies, quite eclectic. I have a number of different interests, and a broad range of knowledge (as well as strong opinions) across several areas that don’t translate well into soundbites and often leave me in a weird place with respect to different people who share some of my views but not others. I also like to learn new things, and I tend to grow and change in ways that sometimes alienate me from people who knew me earlier. So I don’t really expect to find a community that perfectly matches all aspects of me with my ever-changing, eclectic interests and my autistic neurotype and my odd sense of humor and my unconventional perspectives. I don’t really know what I do want, to be honest. I just want to find some balance between solitude and connection, in some way that feels like actual belonging.

Photo of a racoon at the edge of a pond, looking back at the viewer with its "hands" in the water

Autistic Memory

Today I am thinking about memory. There seems to be a growing body of research into difficulties (or at least differences) with autobiographical memory in autistic people, especially when it comes to episodic autobiographical memories, which are recollections of specific events in your own life. (This is in contrast with semantic memories, which have to do with remembering knowledge about the past, like your old phone number or high school locker combination.)

I’m not familiar with every aspect of this research, but I’ve come across several references to it lately and it got me thinking. I do feel that I have less-detailed autobiographical memories than many people I know, but I wonder whether this is due more to actual differences in memory mechanisms, or if it is a matter of attention and emphasis.

I remember getting back together with a high school friend after we had both graduated from college, at least five years after high school. She could rattle off all sorts of events that had happened to both of us going back to when we met in third grade—class field trips, school assemblies, things individual classmates or teachers had said and done. She remembered people’s names from way back, too.

Me? I barely remembered anything she mentioned. High school (and everything before it) was blessedly behind me, so why would I remember it? None of the incidents or names my friend brought up had any relevance to my life anymore, so I rarely thought about them. A lot of things did come back when she brought them up, and most of the rest at least rang a bell, but even that didn’t jog much else loose from my own memories.

Similarly, I will forget about things that I have done that were really important to me at the time, even things I did for years. Oh, right, I sang in a community choir for three years. Oh, yeah, I spent a year attending a study group learning Scottish Gaelic. Sometimes these things will just pop into my head, as when I recently remembered the months I spent playing volleyball on two different teams in an adult recreational league in my mid-twenties. And when I hear someone else recount an experience that triggers a similar memory, I can bring it back up, as when I worked with another Air Force veteran for a while and we regularly swapped training stories. (But I will tell you, if you ask me an open-ended question about anything, including my past, my mind will reliably go blank and not serve up any answers at all, even if they’re in there.)

So the fact that they do sometimes pop into my head indicates that the memories are there, they were formed, they’re just not at the front of my mind. And that’s why I think the issue isn’t so much that I have a deficit when it comes to autobiographical memory—I just don’t feel the need to dwell on my own past. Compared to all of the other things I could be thinking about, my past history isn’t all that interesting to me; I’ve been there, done that, you know?

(As an aside, this does lead to funny conversations at times, when I bring up something I used to do because it came back to mind during a relevant conversation, and the person I’m talking to is stunned that they never knew I did that. It just…hadn’t come up before. I mean, I’ll acknowledge that I’ve done a lot of interesting things, I’m just not interested in listing them off for people.)

I guess there is an assumption that just because I was there, it should be important to me. But memories of people and social events are not privileged in my mind; they get pruned like anything else. People forget all sorts of things when they don’t need to remember them—a fact I have been painfully reminded of as I work through a math review for the GRE—and autobiographical memories are no different.

Think of it this way: given how intense autistic interests can be, and how often we can end up coming to know (and remember) all sorts of fascinating facts and info about our passions, isn’t it possible that we just don’t want to devote a whole lot of mental energy to storing and recalling information about people and events that aren’t in our lives anymore? That’s how it feels to me. I’ve got better things to think about than who my fourth-grade homeroom teacher was.

(P.S.: I think there is a lot more to be said about memory in autistic people, and there is definitely a lot of variation in how much or how well people remember. It even varies wildly for me, because I will sometimes get a very vivid flashback of something I thought I’d forgotten. So all of the above should be taken as one person’s random musings on the subject, which may or may not be generalizable.)