A focused interest in people?

Posted: July 2nd, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Autism | No Comments »

My therapist made an observation last week that I’ve been rolling around in my mind trying to decide what I think about it. I was discussing a question I was asked in another counseling session, “What would it be like for me to let myself just react naturally?” (That’s paraphrased, but it was something similar.) It arose when I was trying to describe just how much I’m constantly processing and monitoring and evaluating every single social interaction, everything said, every expression and other non-verbals, tone, inflection, and every other aspect. I’m trying to understand the other person correctly as I’m also trying to manage everything about my own affect to try to communicate what I actually want to say. Part of that is conscious, but a lot of it is deeply ingrained and semi-automatic. Most of all, it never stops. A portion of my mind is always reviewing past interactions, preparing for future ones, or trying to manage one in which I’m currently engaged. Sometimes, it’s doing all three things at once. In that context, I guess it made sense for someone to ask, why don’t you just react?

And so I tried to explain that I have absolutely no idea what that would even mean, much less how I could I do it. I began training my voice (using tapes I had my mother get for me), practicing expressions in the mirror, and consciously working on body language when I was 8, 9, and 10 years old. I became good enough at it that I was able to more or less interact with others on a level that came close enough to their expectations that they didn’t perceive me as too different and reacted much less negatively. I have continued to work on that process my entire life. I’m 52 years old. I haven’t reacted spontaneously and without thought in a social context since I was 7 years old. I don’t know that I could shut off that part of my brain even if I wanted to do so. And I have even less idea what it would mean if I somehow did.

But I objected to the interpretation that some people make that my reactions and interactions are somehow inauthentic or fake as a result. People take the fact that I consciously or semi-consciously manage social interactions and that I rehearse them in my head as though I am not reacting naturally. I began to point out to my therapist that absolutely everyone wears different “faces” in different contexts. It’s a normal part of being human. And I described how I see it everywhere all the time. I watch expressions and body language. I listen to variations in tone of voice. I can see even small changes when I’m not involved in the interaction and can devote myself to analyzing instead of participating. I’ll see myriad subtle shifts in body language, expression, and affect as a person moves from one context into a different one. Sometimes things will shift when someone new enters an ongoing social interaction. People shift and modify the face they display all the time. They just do it without thinking, so they assume they are being “natural”.

And I described again some of the ways I practiced and learned how to do something similar. It’s never entirely automatic for me, no matter how much I practice. I can easily get thrown off by the unexpected. I’m still learning new unwritten and unspoken social rules every year. And I often do more suggestion and leading in my performance, allowing others to fill in the gaps (a technique I learning from acting) because I have to devote much of my mind to the actual communication itself. (It doesn’t help if I get my expression and body language right, understand their nonverbal attitude and realize I have no clue what they actually just said.) So my faces are typically incomplete, but often just good enough for the given context and setting. While they are never natural and automatic, they are no less authentic than the faces everyone else uses without thinking. In every instance, my faces are a part or aspect of who I am. I am trying to communicate in ways that will be received as I intended them to be heard rather than misunderstood. I am being no more fake than someone trying to speak a second language that doesn’t come easily to them.

My therapist’s reaction was unexpected. Of course, she acknowledged and restated the truth in everything I had described. I am trying to do pretty much exactly what everyone else does automatically and without thought. And the fact that I have to think about it or practice it doesn’t make what I’m doing any less authentic or real. But then she paused for a moment. I’ll have to paraphrase what she said, but I think the following is more or less accurate.

“It’s not uncommon for autistic people to develop a focused interest in something. And when that happens, they tend to learn everything they can about it, in far more depth and more comprehensively than most people do about any subject. And while everything you say about communication and social interaction is true, the thing that stands out to me is that you saw and understood enough about it to begin practicing on your own when you were as young as eight years old. I think instead of trains, which is one of the stereotypical autistic interests, you were interested in people. You’ve described observations about human interaction that many adults never consciously make. You must really study people and you’ve apparently done so your whole life.”

It was one of those moments where everything goes out of focus, shifts, and comes back into focus in a different configuration. Even with everything I had read about autism and “special interests” that possibility had simply never occurred to me. But once it was said, it made perfect sense. And yes, I do study people. I can sit and watch people in public settings for hours without tiring. I closely watch the people I care about and try to understand their unique particular reactions, expressions, and ways of expressing things. I always have mixed results. I remain utterly inept at reading people’s attitudes and intent toward me, and am forced to rely purely on their words and actions. And I still struggle immensely applying even what I do know in real time interactions.

I’ve expressed in other posts that I appreciate my ability to at least approximate expected social responses most of the time. I’m sure the effort exacts a toll on me, but it’s not one I regret. I need that ability in a professional context. I’ve been desperately poor in the past. I appreciate the stability and structure a consistent, reliable income brings. But it also matters to me socially. I like to generally get along with people and have our social life in the community go smoothly. And when it comes to closer relationships, I have so very few people. I desperately want to communicate to them in ways they understand and which accurately conveys how deeply important they are to me. That’s worth however much energy and effort it takes. And I still fear I fail more than I succeed.

Obviously, autistic people who develop passionate and focused interests can and do develop more than one. And those can also change over time. I’ve described elsewhere some of my interests. But I never thought of ‘people’ as one. Yet when I heard my therapist’s words, they rang true. Another person’s perspective can sometimes be revealing. The other can see things about you that are hidden to you. I think this may very well be my oldest, deepest, most focused, and most passionate interest. People do fascinate and intrigue me. And there’s no end to their depth and variation.



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