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.

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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

Short Post, With Snakes

I’m tired. I’ve had a busy week with a lot of frustrations, and every time I start writing something I keep second-guessing whether I really want to say that, and wondering if it will invite conflict that I am not up to dealing with. And it’s not just events in my life that have exhausted me this week; it’s also the endless drumbeat of bad news and worse news and downright horrible news that keeps filling my inbox and my podcasts and my social media feeds. So many people are marginalized and under attack, and it just feels…relentless.

At the same time, I don’t want to completely disengage, because I want to stay informed and able to contribute, in whatever ways I can, to the efforts to make things better. I have also realized that I am fascinated by the research I have read around prejudice and stigma, and while my main focus for the paper I am writing is the stigma surrounding autism, I am drawn to read more broadly about stigma. This doesn’t make my reading list any sunnier, of course, but there is something about approaching this subject in a systematic, sociological way that helps me think more clearly instead of feeling like there’s nothing to be done about it. Understanding a problem is the first step toward addressing it.

So I am going to dive back into that for now, and leave this blog post short. And here’s a photo of a nice little garter snake I met today—snakes are stigmatized, too, after all.

Slender garter snake next to a small rock on a dirt road, in mixed light and shadow

Of Gears and Brain Goo

I had a few hours of hyper-focus heaven today while I worked on my research paper, and now my brain is pleasantly fried. I do, however, want to get a blog post written today as well, and that means a) getting my brain to spin back up again, and b) getting it to switch focus to something new. Hah! That meant ten minutes of staring at a blank text editor window while every idea I’ve ever had for a blog post mysteriously went missing.

That switching gears thing is tricky, isn’t it? On the one hand, I can actually get through a flurry of simple tasks in rapid succession—but spend some time on something that requires more focus, and it’s like my thoughts get physically stuck to it. It takes effort to pull them away, and some still get left behind, lingering on the previous project like sticky gray goo. That leaves me with less to apply to the new project, and a nagging sense that I’ve left something incomplete, even if I haven’t.

So that’s where I am right now. I figured I could at least write about this difficulty from the midst of it, but my brain’s still pretty stuck. I do have a couple more things I want to get done today, including more writing on yet another project, but at least that one has some momentum behind it. I think I can at least jump on and see where it takes me. Bye for now!

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.)

Irons in the Fire

I have a lot of irons in the fire right now. I’m technically on summer vacation from school, but work has been busy, and I am trying to use the summer to get ready to take the GRE and finish up the research project that will be part of my application to grad school. Plus, I am trying to expand the offerings in my Etsy shop (just added new things last week!) and my husband and I are exploring a new business venture that he’s been thinking about for a while. I also want to get back into a regular schedule of posting on this blog, possibly even increasing the frequency of posts. It’s kind of a lot to manage.

(I’ve always liked that expression, by the way: irons in the fire. It feels solid and businesslike, in a hands-on, creative kind of way. It’s a lot more appealing than saying I have a lot of balls in the air, because while I do kind of like the juggling metaphor, I’ve never been very good at juggling, so it makes me feel like all of those balls could come crashing down around me at any minute. No, better to frame them as irons in the fire, as if I were a blacksmith forging pieces of my life.)

Long-term projects are particularly hard to keep up with at times. I start out with the intention to work on something a little bit each day (with wiggle room for off days) but when there are multiple such projects, it gets to be unwieldy. Not only is there often not enough time available once outside commitments are met, but some projects require more sustained attention than “just doing a little each day” will allow. So one thing I started trying this past week was designating a different project for each day of the week; my responsibilities on that day are then to take care of any paid work I am scheduled to do (and any other appointments and such), and then spend at least a couple of hours on that project. It’s like an additional work schedule, but one that I am fulfilling for my own work.

So far I like it. I made a lot of progress on three different projects this week, and being able to really get into a hyper-focused groove with them was highly satisfying. I left one day (Sunday) as a “miscellaneous” day, where I could work on anything that called out to me, catch up on things that hadn’t gotten done due to unforeseen schedule changes, or just take a day off and relax. I ended up doing all of the above today, which left the day feeling very productive but also nicely paced; I didn’t feel rushed to get particular things done, I just did them.

It helps that I really enjoy working on these projects, so spending most of the weekend being productive in this way doesn’t leave me feeling like I never get a break. Researching, writing, crafting, and reading are all things I look forward to doing, so having a whole weekend to pursue them does feel like a break. But I suppose I’ll have to see how it goes in the long run.

On the practical side, I drew up a weekly schedule on my home office whiteboard, and added recurring reminders to my to-do list for which project to focus on for each of the days. That way the schedule is constantly visible to me when I am in my office, and I get a reminder each morning when I look at my list of tasks. Both of these things are really helpful as executive function supports, as well as general memory aids; I’ve been using Todoist to manage my project to-do lists, and I’ve really come to appreciate the benefit of having some things be more visible by using a whiteboard. My husband and I have a household whiteboard on the wall at the bottom of the stairs, where we see it all the time. This has really helped keep both of us on track with things that need to be done, especially one-off or time-sensitive tasks that could easily fall through the cracks.

My main concern with this plan is that there are some days when I am just not in the right frame of mind to work on a particular project; if I didn’t sleep well, for example, writing can become hugely difficult. So designating a set day of the week for each project may not always pan out. But if I can remember to be flexible and just swap days with something I can work on, I still think it will be manageable. That already happened this weekend, actually, and I just made use of my “miscellaneous” Sunday to catch up.

So I’ll see how it goes! Just have to keep forging, one iron at a time.