When I was a child, no one had any idea that I was (possibly) autistic. I don’t think people knew a lot about Autism/Asperger’s back then. My parents and teachers considered me socially awkward and emotionally immature, but it was assumed it was because I was an only child. They thought if I were around other children more, I would gain the social skills I was lacking.
So, I was forced to join Brownies, gymnastics (wow, was that ever a bad fit for me!), and various church groups. I hated all of it. To this day I hate group dynamics and group activities. I usually like being with people one-on-one but I loathe being with people in groups.
After there was talk of having me skip grades and it was determined that I lacked the social maturity to be with older kids, my mom considered home schooling me so that I could advance academically at my own pace without being held back by my peers. She ended up deciding not to because she thought if I stopped being around other kids at school, I would never learn those all-important skills.
As it turned out, I never got better at social skills by going to school or participating in extracurricular activities. It was by taking the initiative to read self-help books, and then once the internet came along, by reading posts in discussion forums which helped me learn how other people think. I learned more that way than you would expect. For example, someone would post something like, “Help, there’s this creepy girl at school who wants to be friends with me!” And from the description of what the girl was doing that was so off-putting, I learned what not to do. It was very enlightening, and if it weren’t for the internet, I probably never would have been able to “eavesdrop” on conversations like that and mine them for clues about how to correctly interact with people.
I know there will be people reading this thinking, “You can’t learn social skills by reading!” But I really did. Reading is the way I learn, and it works well for me because I can do it in a non-overstimulating environment. If I’m overstimulated, which I always am when there’s a lot of people around, I absorb nothing.
TV also helped.* When I was a kid, there were a few years where my parents had determined that TV was evil and was poisoning young minds, so we didn’t have one (and then later when we did, we lived in a rural area where there was no cable and we could only get two channels). I feel that really set me back. Not only had I lost one of the only areas of commonality I had with other kids (leading me to ask questions like, “Who are the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?!”), but I lost that window to the world and that opportunity to observe people interacting from a safe, non-overstimulating place. Not that TV always depicts the world or people’s interactions accurately, of course, but without it, and before the internet existed, a kid like me was almost completely cut off from the collective consciousness. If you’re already weird, it’s a great way to get even weirder, because you have nothing to compare yourself to. I couldn’t compare myself to the kids at school or in groups, because I’m unable to be observant when I’m overstimulated.
I’m an avid TV viewer now, and combined with the internet, it keeps me in touch not only with pop culture, but also with societal norms and values.
I think I am far more socially skilled as an adult than I was as a kid, and I think most people who know me would agree. (Unfortunately — and this may seem like a contradiction — I am also more socially anxious now. In other words, I perform better outwardly, but I feel worse on the inside. Perhaps that could be a topic for a future post.) I think I appear normal to most people. It’s not until they start asking me questions about my lifestyle and interests that they find out I’m weird. I’m not entirely sure if appearing normal is a great thing though. It just causes people to have expectations of me that I can’t live up to.
I think I’m one of those people who you either love or you hate. The small number of true friends I’ve accumulated over the years think I’m the nicest person they’ve ever met. I’m a good listener, I’m accepting, loyal, and I never expect people to be anything other than what they are. I’m horrified by the thought of hurting people’s feelings and even though I sometimes blurt out the wrong thing, especially if I’m overstimulated, I try very hard not to. Even then, my friends often tell me they value my honesty.
The people who don’t like me, loathe me. They think I’m an unfriendly, lazy, oversensitive, overemotional, stubborn oddball and who knows what else. I can only go by the things people actually say to me (I’ve been the recipient of an insane amount of criticism over the years).
I actually have less interest in sociability now than when I was a kid. Back then, I may have hated groups, but I did like people and want friends. Now, other than my desire to spend time with my long-time friends, which I can’t do because they live too far away, I almost don’t care anymore. I find it too exhausting to meet new people. Starting over from scratch with someone and having to answer all their questions and participate in all their social stuff just doesn’t feel worth it. If I found people I could really connect with like the friends I already have, I would love it. But the people I might have the ability to connect with are probably hiding somewhere like I am.
I find them on the internet sometimes. In Texas, in England, in Sweden. It seems I have to comb the world to find people I can relate to.
*Just to clarify, I’m not saying TV is always a positive thing for everybody. There might be people for whom TV shows become an unhealthy obsession and obscure reality, leading to absorption in a world of fantasy. But I’ve never been that way with it, and for me it’s been a positive thing.