One of the key stereotypical aspects of autism/aspergers is the inability to read the finer points of social interactions. It’s true of most people I know with an ASD diagnosis, and like any autistic feature it presents differently in each individual.
There is, I’ve discovered, a secondary issue that comes with this lack of social awareness that develops as autistic children become autistic adults. It seems to be more common in those with an internal presentation, but who am I to say I know what goes on in anyone’s head?
The problem is this: we are aware that we have social deficits in reading situations, and overcompensate.
Deeper understanding of an interaction isn’t natural to me. It doesn’t arrive in a neat little package at the time, I don’t listen to someone’s words and thing ‘they mean something else’ or ‘this is definitely genuine’.
Instead, I take in the information and react to it on face value. If someone says they’ll do something, I nod and agree–yes, they will do it. If someone delivers a back-handed insult, disguised as a compliment, I’ll take the compliment first. Perhaps I’ll get a small inkling that there was something else going on… but I won’t know instinctively what the person was actually saying.
Not until later.
Deciphering the ‘true meaning’ of an interaction is more like wading through a literary text and picking out the themes and symbolism to work out the author’s message. It’s time consuming, inexact, and based on the premise that the other person put as much effort into coding the message as you did to decode it.
Everyone does a little of this after-process, especially after odd interactions. For me, it occurs after almost every conversation. It keeps me up at night, trying to work out what cues I may have missed and how I should have interpreted a situation differently. It’s an active process that requires quite a lot of brain-power to complete.
And it’s the basis for oh-so much anxiety.
Because here is the problem. I am aware that I have an impaired ability to decode situations on the fly. I also have thirty years experience in social interactions, and learnings from those that can be applied to analysing new situations.
My tendency isn’t just to miss the meaning of an interaction as it takes place, but to read too far into interactions when I analyse them later.
I find myself critiquing word choice, stance, tone, level of distraction–all things that I know academically can communicate extra bits of information. I look back to past interactions with that person and try to match up the similarities like a forensic investigator.
So I’ll get offended by throw-away lines that I decided were ultimately an insult because of how the person ordered their words; my default setting is to err on the side of caution and look more for threats I may not have seen.
Sometimes I get it right. Sometimes I even see things that those gifted with intuitive understanding of interactions don’t see. My process is based in logic and prior learning, so if human beings were rational things it would always be spot-on.
This compensatory method of deciphering interactions after the fact is a dual-edged sword. On one hand, it allows me to mask my lack of understanding by providing me with the information I missed at the time. On the other, my awareness that I miss things drives me to look for more than is actually there.