When you’re on the autism spectrum it’s inevitable that you’re going to have a lot of socially awkward moments. Learning social skills and trying to figure out how to behave in a socially appropriate manner can be very frustrating for people on the autism spectrum. Often when you try to fix one social deficit you end up committing another social faux pas in the process. Allow me to give some examples from my own life.
My parents complained that when I was introduced to new people I did not talk to them or engage with them. Therefore when I was introduced to my uncle’s new girlfriend I decided to engage with her by telling her about the time my uncle let out a big smelly fart that made the whole car stink and the time he clogged the toilet so badly that my father ended up having to carry trash bags full of his poop. Unfortunately I was not praised for engaging with my uncle’s girlfriend by telling her funny stories. I was told that it was not appropriate to share stories like that about my uncle because they were embarrassing to him.
As bad as I was about talking to people in person I was even worse when it came to talking on the phone. I usually didn’t bother to answer the phone. When I did answer the phone the things I said were not very interesting or helpful. One day when the phone rang I decided to answer it. “Hello, is Daniel there?” the voice on the other end said. I recognized it as the mother of Daniel, the boy who was currently playing with my brother in the backyard. I helpfully answered her question with “Yes” and hung up the phone. A minute later the phone rang again. It was Daniel’s mother again and she once again said “Hello, is Daniel there?” Thinking she had not heard me the first time, I once again answered “Yes” and hung up the phone. A minute later the phone rang for a third time and for a third time it was Daniel’s mother. This time she sounded rather angry as she said “Hello, is Daniel there? And can you please not hang up the phone this time? I need to talk to him.”
I learned from that experience. When a teacher informed me that my shirt was on backwards I realized that just like Daniel’s mother was asking if Daniel was there because she wanted to talk to him, the teacher was informing me that my shirt was on backwards because she wanted me to fix it. So I fixed it but that caused the teacher to exclaim “You can’t take your shirt off in the middle of the hallway!”
As bad as I was at interacting with adults, I was much worse at interacting with my peers. A babysitter of mine often wondered why I did not have any friends. One day when the conversation with my babysitter had shifted to a topic other than my social incompetence she told me about the time she broke her wrist by sitting on her father’s feet and having him catapult her across the yard. Unfortunately the message I took away from her story was not “I better not try something like that because I’ll end up breaking my wrist” but “That sounds like a lot of fun! I think I’ll try it.” And sure enough I ended up breaking my wrist.
Many children on the autism spectrum are bullied by their peers. Fortunately I wasn’t bullied much by my peers. I was mostly just ignored by them. The day I came to school with a rainbow cast on my wrist I got a lot of attention from my peers though. When they asked me what had happened I replied “My Daddy flung me.” Unfortunately when you phrase it like that it leads nurses and social workers to question you about child abuse.
Aside from some spanking, my father has never physically abused me and he has never sexually abused me either. It’s just that while my dad has never been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum, like me he engages in some socially inappropriate behaviors and has a poor sense of social boundaries. When you put a socially awkward parent and a socially awkward child together disaster can result. One of the worst disasters occurred when I said “Daddy, can you give me a massage?” and he replied “Sure, Princess, take off your clothes.” Fortunately for me my mother does recognize social boundaries. She walked in to the room and exclaimed “This is not appropriate!” Unfortunately for my dad my mother used that incident to convince a judge that my father should not have split custody of me.
Since my relationship with my dad was strained at times and my relationship with my peers was non-existent, I was lucky to have my brother. I have to give my brother a lot of credit. Since I was on the autism spectrum and had abysmal social skills it would have been very easy for him to be cruel to me and torment me constantly. He was usually nice to me though and was only cruel on a few occasions. I’d like like to say I was always nice to my brother and was never cruel to him but that’s not true.
Take my brother’s piano recital for example. Before his recital my parents urged him to practice but he assured them that he didn’t need to practice because he had the material mastered. When his turn came to perform at the recital he messed up twice. The second time he messed up he slapped his hand against his forehead and exclaimed “Doh!” While the rest of the audience sat in sympathetic silence, the sound of my laughter could be heard echoing throughout the auditorium. To be fair, I imagine many neurotypical children would have had the same reaction to their sibling’s misfortune.
To be fair to myself again, all of these incidences of social ineptitude occurred when I was a child. I’d like to think that as an adult my social skills have improved. Sometimes I still feel the impulse to behave in a socially inappropriate manner but I restrain myself because I recognize that that behavior would be socially inappropriate.
For example the other day my niece, my nephew and the son of my father’s girlfriend were all sitting on a bench at the dinner table when all of sudden the bench toppled over and they crashed to the floor. While everyone else was scrambling to make sure they were okay my first instinct was to laugh but I did not laugh because I recognize that it is not appropriate to laugh when people fall down.
Yesterday I told my mother that I did not want to sit outside at Starbucks because the sun is evil. Some black women sitting at the the next table laughed at my comment. I wanted to pull up my shirt, show them my sunburned torso and say “White girl problems” but I did not do that because I recognized that it would be socially inappropriate.
I was afraid I had committed another social faux pas last night when I went on to the deck to inform the people who had been eating dinner that their cat had just had explosive diarrhea all over the rug. They replied with “Well, I guess we won’t be having dessert.” I realized I had actually done them a favor though by saving them from inadvertently stepping in the cat diarrhea and by giving them the opportunity to remove the cat diarrhea before it permanently stained the rug. Unfortunately I did commit a social faux pas later that night when the man who had invited me over for dinner called my name and I said “What?” in a rude and irritated tone but I was so lost in my own world at that point that I wasn’t really conscious of what I was saying.
I will fully admit that I continue to engage in other socially inappropriate behavior. Sometimes I pace, flap and twitch in public. That often gets me stares. When it happens in the bookstore, I’m tempted to walk up to one of the bookstore employees and within earshot of the people who are staring at me passively aggressively say “Excuse me but can you show me where the autism books are? I’m especially interested in books on dealing with people who are insensitive about autism spectrum disorders” but I don’t do that because I recognize that it would be socially inappropriate.