“You’re so quiet.” Outside of generic pleasantries, it’s easily the most common thing people have said to me throughout my life.
Twelve years ago, I wrote in an email to a friend:
I never talk about myself either, and it’s noticed more than one realizes. A guy I see maybe once every couple weeks for work, just to pick up parts or drop them off, asked me how I was doing right after I’d started eating a cookie. And I just looked at him, and he said, “You never talk much anyway, I figured I’d get the same answer whether you had a cookie in your mouth or not.” It’s weird how much more people blab about themselves, or things around them. The opportunities to do so myself that I never even notice I’m missing. And it’s also funny how everyone says thinking before you speak is such a good quality, and they tell cheesy inspirational stories about god giving people two ears and one mouth, and all these other virtues related to being quiet or thoughtful. But no one really likes the people who are that way.
I had no idea at the time that I was autistic–I may not have even heard the word at that point, and if I had it certainly wasn’t in a context that would lead me to suspect it could have anything to do with me. But I’ve always been aware of being different, especially in social situations.
One of the defining features of autism that most people are aware of now is a difference in the ways and frequency in which we socialize. Of course, this usually isn’t described as a “difference”–it’s more often considered a defect or inability. Therapists, psychologists, and teachers are always ready with studies that claim to show we lack Theory of Mind, empathy, or any number of other social skills or nuanced abilities.
But what if, like so many other aspects of autism, the professionals have it all wrong?
Autistic brains don’t get the same social rewards
My avoidance of social interactions is usually interpreted by neurotypicals in negative terms. They tend to think I don’t like them personally, that I’m “trying to prove something.” If they’re aware I’m autistic, they may feel they’re being generous by assuming I’m unable to.
The real answer is devastatingly simple: I’m not interested.
We all know that NT and autistic minds work differently. Unfortunately, the most common interpretation of this fact results in approaching autistic brains as failed NT brains. But just as women aren’t failed men, autistics aren’t failed NTs, either. We’re just different.
My brain doesn’t get the same happy chemical reaction from faces and social interactions that NTs do; it’s closer to the way you might respond to a geology textbook. Sure, there’s a chance you may find it interesting and want to engage with it to learn more, if something particular strikes you… but more likely you see it and think, “Eh,” and wander away to find something more to your tastes. That’s if you even notice the book at all; it’s highly likely that the text wouldn’t even register to you as an option for interaction.
That doesn’t mean you don’t know what geology is. It doesn’t mean that you’re incapable of opening the book, reading it, and understanding it. If I offered you $1,000 to read the first chapter and answer the questions at the end, you’d probably do okay. With more time to study and maybe some supplementary materials to better understand what you were reading, you’d do even better.
But without that reward? You’d go find other things to do without a second thought.
Autistics generally can socialize, when we want to. Yes, we’re often awkward, and yes, we often miss social cues–but so would you, if you hadn’t been happily practicing since birth.
When I do choose to socialize, there’s usually a more explicit motivation behind it. The person may have information I need, or be someone whose opinion I value when making a decision. We may share a sense of humor, or have similar interests which result in thought-provoking conversations. If I’m employed, I’ve learned that a certain amount of social grease, however painful, is needed to maintain a peaceful work environment. And I of course care for those in my personal relationships, so if they’re struggling or needing to talk about something specific, I’m more than happy to listen and help however I can.
The casual chatting though, catching up with acquaintances about weekend plans or making small talk during shared activities? Going to a party? I’d probably rather be reading a geology book. And sometimes all of the motivations are there, but I just don’t have the energy and would still rather be alone.
Why autistics shouldn’t be forced to socialize
“You mentioned earlier that a lack of practice plays into social difficulties, so doesn’t that mean we should press autistic kids to get more practice? Isn’t that what social skills therapies are for?”
It’s not the worst argument on its face, but it makes a sneaky and dangerous assumption: that gaining NT social skills are worth any cost. There is a cost, and it can be steep.
When we talk about teaching autistics social skills, what we really mean is teaching them to socialize the way NTs do. But we’re not neurotypical, and expecting us to act as though we are leads to stress, low self-esteem, and a lower ability to function in daily life.
Wait, what? Social skills therapy can actually make life harder for autistics? Yep. Let me explain.
Things like dodging small talk and stimming are my natural coping skills for handling the stress of social environments. They help me preserve the energy I need to face things like fluorescent lights, loudspeakers, overhearing conversations, weird smells, and chaotic visuals. My stims help release the nervous energy that’s building up inside of me, and avoiding meaningless conversation helps me preserve my energy for the conversations I actually need–the ones for informational or emotional health purposes.
But far too often, practicing small talk and extinguishing stims are a primary focus of therapies. If my energy is drained by constantly adjusting these trivial things, I don’t have any left for interactions of meaning or importance. I’m going to withdraw from my family and friends because I’ve used up my social energies making small talk with cashiers or responding to a coworker whose name I can’t remember about weekend plans. I’m going to spend a couple hours playing games on my tablet instead of making dinner or cleaning the bathroom.
I’m also going to feel badly about myself both for being unable to pull off my NT-imitation successfully, and for being unable to do all the other things that I’m now struggling to achieve because my energy stores are depleted. If this happened just a couple times it could be manageable, but a daily routine of upending my natural and preferred inclinations in favor of a fake and unenjoyable persona can easily lead to desperately low self-esteem and depression. For many of us, that’s exactly what happens.
And remember, I didn’t want to socialize in the first place. So whose benefit is this for, really?
“You’re so quiet.”
I’ve never heard it said in a flattering tone, it’s never been implied to be praise. At best the voice behind it is confused; at worst, scornful.
Autistics are no different than anyone else in our need to be accepted for exactly who we are. For myself and many others on the spectrum, this means that we don’t often want or seek out many relationships. That’s okay with us. If we’re to get along on any meaningful level, it needs to be okay with you, too.