A fragmented view of affairs
So, I have been thinking about autism and communication a lot lately and I have come up with some sort of explanation that might demonstrate how autism can work in social situations. Feel free to comment about your own experiences or your own views on this subject, as it's not set in stone and just a brain fart of mine.
Communication between people exists on multiple plains. For instance, there's verbal communication, non-verbal communication and then there's context. Of course, there are many more things that make up communication, but let's stick with the three main ones for the purpose of this story. It is said that non-verbal communication makes up for 30% of the communication between people. The other 70% is non-verbal. Together, they form 100% of information regarding the communication between people. And then there's context. Verbal or non-verbal communication can be interpreted in different ways, depending on the context of the situation you're in. For example, 'I just peed my pants' means something totally different in a situation where (a group of) people are laughing really loud compared to a situation where someone is waiting in a long line of people to get to the toilet.
Are you still with me so far? Great.
Autistic people often have a fragmented view of the world. This means that separate elements in a certain situation are not necessarily coherent in the eyes of an autistic person. For instance, telling someone with autism that dinner needs to be cooked and that you feel tired, doesn't mean that they will put those fragments of information together and come to the conclusion that you are asking for help. It simply means that dinner needs to be cooked and you are feeling tired, whatever that means... (I mean, what kind of tired are we talking about here?)
Next to that, as I've mentioned before, autistics are often very theoretical thinkers and in theory, anything is possible. Do you see a handsome stranger smile at you in the grocery store? Maybe he's flirting. Or maybe he's having a good daydream (I certainly would). Or maybe he's just remembered a funny conversation he's had earlier that day? Maybe he just wants to show off his pearly whites? Maybe he's smiling at someone behind you? Who knows! According to the autistic brain, anything is possible, which makes our world very unpredictable.
So, autistics do not (or have a hard time to) pick up on non-verbal communication and context, as it could mean anything and our brains don't naturally put the puzzle pieces of a given scene together. This means we really only have a small percentage of information to work with in a social situation, compared to neurotypical people.
Let me clarify this with a beautiful example that I daydreamed up: Let's say you're invited over by a friend. You have known this person for a while and you get along, so all is well. You get there and you notice that the lights are dimmed, he/she's poured some wine, there's soft music playing, etc. He/she leans in close, touches you in acceptable but more intimate ways that usual and is making more excessive eye contact than usual. Your friend says to you: 'Let's watch a movie on the sofa.' So, you get comfortable, have some wine and start watching the tv screen together.
Now, if you're neurotypical, you might know what's going here. To you, it might be very obvious your friend wants to be more than just friends. That's because your brain has puzzled the pieces together and your instincts are letting you make the correct assumptions about this situation. This isn't just a friendship and you're not here to watch a movie, your friend wants to be intimate with you and move the relationship to the next level.
Now, consider you are autistic. Your brain is not all that into puzzles. Instead, it sees every item in its own and tries to give meaning to that particular thing. Let's talk about context:
- Dimmed lights might mean your friend is trying to be environmental friendly, or his or her electricity bill is running high, perhaps his or her eyes are hurting, and you are not certain about any of these assumptions.
- A glass of wine might be a representation of your friend's favourite vintage, maybe he/she wants to get druk of maybe he/she is under the assumption that you might appreciate a glass of wine after a long day. Again, there are no certainties.
- The soft music is certainly confusing, as your friend said he/she wanted to watch a movie, so you have no clue what's up with that.
Then, there's the non-verbal communication:
- Leaning in close? Is he/she afraid you can't hear each other? Is there a secret that needs to be told? Is he/she cold?
- Touching you? Each touch could mean anything, but never mind that, your sensory issues are spiking right now, so you don't even have the brain power to process all of this information.
- And eye contact? How uncomfortable.
So, to the autistic eye, your friend is acting weird!
The autistic brain is not putting the fragments of the situation together. Instead, all the phenomena remain unrelated and incoherent and you are trying to make meaning of this situation by reviewing the only reliable information you have: 'Let's watch a movie on the sofa.' Imagine the surprise once your friend starts kissing you. You would have never seen it coming.
This is just one example of a social situation most autistic people will misinterpret at least once or twice in their lives, depending on their level of social skills and expertise in masking and compensating. It is this fragmented view that gets us in trouble in many situations and I think it works the other way around too. When you don't pick up on context and non-verbal information, you tend not to be aware of your own actions in relations to your environment. Telling someone about your passion for small breed dogs might be appropriate at a birthday, it is less appropriate at a funeral.
Or so they say... ;-)