Autistic Behaviour has a Purpose: –

Or How Being a Social Skills Holdout Resulted in a Richer Life.

It feels like I have been warning people against eliminating autistic looking behaviour for the sake of it without recognizing it’s functionality for many years now. I wrote about it over 12 years ago even but had spent several years cautioning parents about choosing therapies that had this as a central premise. a The drive to value being indistinguishable from peers over being functional has dominated the market that is autism treatment for far too long. Autistics behave as they do for similar utilitarian reasons that “normal” people do. Behaviours have a use for the way our brain is wired.

Today someone posted Which for the holy grail of social skills treatment- eye contact actually demonstrates this. Granted the subject pool is a bit small but I would guess anyone thinking about their thought process can do a micro-experiment and get similar results.

Autistic people need more processing time on a lot of situations that are “easy” for the typically wired. It would then make sense there was more gaze aversion overall. If your face tells me nothing useful about what I am processing looking there is a waste of available processing capacity.

Eye contact is something I have refused to fake. If I feel comfortable with someone and the situation is not overly taxing it will happen. If not it won’t. I have never been cooperative with those helpful hints to look at the forehead and so on and since I spent 6 years studying psychology I have enough of a neuroscience background to know that those hints – often complied by educators and job coaches don’t make good sense on a neurological level.

Not a single time has my lack of eye contact been an issue unless I have been with the kind of professional type person who really cares about eye-contact in i’s own right. I have never not gotten a job I interviewed for. Granted one of those jobs was in university where my autism was not exactly a well kept secret but my lack of eye contact has not had the impact darkly predicted. People do tend to trust me and not once has anyone ever expressed concern about it beyond medical types. I recently even asked some people why and most responded along the lines that I had some other hard to describe qualities that conveyed a sense of honest and decency to a high degree. I suspect indeed that were I inclined to force myself whatever is coming through to the relevant people might be compromised.

For all the years I was ashamed of my autism I still wasn’t very tractable when it came to certain things. Before I made an uneasy peace with it (I say uneasy only because while I have come to terms with my autism, I am not always at terms with it’s sometimes catastrophic impact on my life) I still routinely told people why they were wrong to include some things in their social skills programs. My biggest one wasn’t eye contact though. My huge burning autistic behaviours that shouldn’t sought to be changed were a lack of social lying and self stimulatory behaviour. Because stims are a big topic of more interest to the average person than social lying I will save that for it’s own post or posts and let myself write about the big issue in my own mind.

My BIG, issue is the whole social lies as useful, teachable and desirable. This is such utter bologna. If one stops to think how much more confusing and labour intensive polite, lies make the world I am really shocked more people don’t stand up and say to heck with all our ritualized niceness. It would be an autistic paradise if one could be certain you were getting an honest response to some enquiries on the first go at it.

If you are neuro-typical think about how many times people who don’t know you or care about you ask how you are. If you are North American and complying with social norms you probably say fine. In all European countries I have been in there is some variation in the ritual but a range of socially acceptable answers all the same. Indeed in Europe the ritual is slightly more informative as there is more than one answer considered normative, a range is technically okay here but fine is very dominant as the correct answer, the more interesting issue is why are random people asking? Why do we engage in this ritual that strips sincere enquiries by actual friends of the liklihood of getting useful information?

My transformational I am absolutely never even going to pretend to go along with this ritual happened in my 20s. I passed a good friend on the street. I already was strongly inclined to only ask if I cared and considered the data I got back to be valid. This encounter would change that.

I had been in group therapy with this particular person. In that, especially aggressive form of therapy they even discouraged the use of the dreaded “fine”. As a result of being considered socially isolated I had been allowed to break one of the cardinal rules of the group which is while friendships were normally discouraged in mine they were encouraged. That made me a handy person to be friends with I guess as only by doing so could you have permission to carry on hanging out with others you got along with. So for a surprising number of years afterwards a group of about 8 of us met regularly for cards and similar activities. I became quite close to a few of them and the person in this encounter was one of my closer friends at the time.

I asked her how she was and she responded fine. I took that as valid information and carried on towards my bank. I heard her call my name. I turned to see her burst in to tears, clasp her face, and exclaim, “I can’t believe I just said that.” It turned out her mother had killed herself that very day.

Surprised that even a person who had had so much conditioning towards good communication I had to take action. I engaged in a couple year process of experimenting with the whole “How are you? I am fine.” ritual. I experimented with leaving out any answer at all over 2000 times to determine to a high degree of certainty that people actually usually respond as if you have said fine. You don’t even have to voice it. Most people either hear it or at the very least automatically respond with the next line. (It would taint the spontaneous experiment to question which so I still don’t know) I haven’t performed any recent studies on it but I suspect it is not that different. For the benefit of the few people who would notice and be uncomfortable with the lack of answer I experimented with humorous but still true answers. Overall simply omitting any answer at all moved things along faster. Perhaps my humour was geared a little too much in the direction of science but if the goal of a forced, ritualized encounter like at the grocery store, or bank is a fast return to the business at hand simply not replying worked best.

The problem is all around you are people like my friend. If you actually care about them the habit of an automatic fine response and other similar socially done, sometimes nonsense scripts is they generate an invalid response by default. Since I only ask if I actually care I don’t want to have to ask really. I sure don’t want to have to ask that a second time, yet for the most part if my question was motivated out of a concern I do. Asking a third time gets annoying but is still sometimes useful. If I care about keeping a friendship I eventually have to spell this out to people. I want to be a good and caring friend but the switch in my brain is a bit stuck on literal and since by virtue of being my friend I expect you to know that I will only dig around so much before I go back to either considering your answer valid or not asking if you want me to actually be a good friend then you should comply with the expectation that you return good data. It’s not blatantly lying to participate in a prolonged exchange where you fail to get a real answer but it is not something I want to encourage others to do or to participate in myself.

It’s the same with the classic social skills story line about say Aunt Edna. You are shopping with your somewhat massive, entirely hypothetical, Aunt Edna and she asks you if the pants she is trying on make her look fat. In reality your aunt is actually fat, the pants have nothing to do with it but the pants in the scenario are not helping matters. The taught social behaviour tends to either be to reassure her they don’t or to compliment some other aspect of the pants. “That shade of blue looks good on you.”

Pretend you are Aunt Edna. (It cracks me up that the people who come up with these programs test out normal on the empathy scale and I get a 3 to 4 depending on how I interpret the questions any given day – I don’t think they are actually measuring practical empathy) If you are Aunt Edna you probably know you are overweight. You actually do want to do the best you can with the clothes you buy to emphasize your good points. You have just received bad data about these pants. You may act on that data and buy them and wear them. People will think they are hideous on you and so on. How is it more caring of your hypothetical aunts feelings and experience to encourage her in this folly? Obviously it’s not, yet scenarios very similar to this one abound. (I know because even at my ancient age the occasional very keen person tries to get me into a social skills program)

The Aunt Edna situation where your “white lie” is used to spare someones feelings is the usual explanation given to kids about when you can lie. What a slippery slope. I would think so especially for people who tend more towards seeing things in black and white which I have no problem admitting I do. (Honestly who cares to deal with shades of grey anyway? Aren’t they just confusing and annoying in pretty well every situation where an obvious answer doesn’t exist?)

Look beyond autism even. We have a society where the routine thing to do is lie. You will if you are an average person who works in an average workplace probably participate in more meaningless, devoid of good data chatter in a day than real authentic exchanges. What does that do over the long term to what we view as okay? We expect people in certain professions to basically be liars and corrupt. One of the biggest places we expect that is in government. Hmm… Is there a chance if everyone treated honesty as a binary situation we would have better communities? If we didn’t desensitize people to lying by expecting it and teaching those without a typical sense of social norms how valuable they are. Could we actually attract and keep honest politicians on board? What kind of society could we accomplish if we expected and tolerated nothing but the truth?

I live like this. I refuse to be anything but honest. Like eye contact none of the disastrous consequences in the rationale for teaching social lies happen to me. I am typically viewed as polite not rude. (With a tinge of abrupt I can’t quite get away from because I sometimes have to terminate an exchange before I lose key skills) People seek my opinion out more than normal not less. They don’t get hurt by doing so because I suppose they self-select. You learn to ask other people when you want a dishonest answer I guess. I don’t seek to hurt people so I nearly always remind people that they will indeed get an honest opinion. The result has never been a withdrawal of having sought my input. More and more often I am told that’s why they ask me. The only “bad” side effect from my point of view is that the circle of people who will seek my opinion extends past the usual rings of acquaintanceship. This would not be viewed as bad really overall. I don’t even view it that way most of the time as I am fully aware being a hermit isn’t healthy. So people make it a point to come to me because unique among sometimes a large number of known people they could ask they trust me to be honest. In literature about developmentally delayed children an option parents are given to encourage friendships is to make it attractive for children to seek our your child. (Cool toys, better than average snacks and so on…) Have I hit upon an adult equivalent out of sheer obstinacy? Well okay obstinacy combined with ethics and a value placed on logic that makes behaving inconsistently with those values not something I can tolerate.

I’ve explained why honesty should be binary to a lot of people. I only have one actual neurotypical convert to the cause though as far as I know. Well maybe not so typical if having listened to my 20 minute mini-lecture on it the response was that I was on to something important that he had not given much thought to so he would try it. Who knows? It works for me it, it appears to work for him. It could work for you even. It takes a bit of training of the people around you but less so if you are actually on the spectrum and people secretly fear you are a social skills hold-out. Still even if you are “normal” I suspect you could adapt this with relatively little training to those around you without anything but good consequences. This would be especially true if you love someone with autism. How great it would be to be a person who that person doesn’t have to spend a lot of time and energy trying to decipher. Still I suspect it has payoffs beyond that.

I know this honesty issue is described by some clinicians as part of my deficit. The degree of black and white thinking to fully flesh out the societal implications for going along with a keep Aunt Edna from wearing nice pants model of behaviour is probably pretty extreme but is it harmful? I am a person like other people who has certain values in my case honesty, integrity and rationality. How would it improve my life outcome to try to take me down a few notches there? How does it improve the quality of life of those around me? I think the answer is it doesn’t. The benefit to having me in a social skills program is being able to write in my chart that I am attending one. For those teaching these “skills” to be able to bill my government and so on. The only real benefit to me is satire. Any social skill that doesn’t conflict with my values I already know.

My binary theory of honesty, however black and white is still a conscience choice. I am 44. I could have learned how to fake all sorts of social scripts by now but what would it achieve? A magnitude shift towards insincere illusory closeness with people? I would seem more social and more like other people but it would be entirely artificial. To reject that is a conscious choice. It’s not driven by my “disorder” at all. It may have set my factory pre-sets a bit but I could have chosen to be otherwise to some degree by now if it seemed one bit logical or useful to do so. Ah pragmatics I guess I left out a core trait.

You may think I am deluding myself but as I am honest and do make conscience decisions about living honestly I am also authentic. While around me I see people have goals of being authentic and sincere if one avoids participating in rituals that would subtract from that I would guess it should be a default state. The thing is being real scares people. If you present a false you to the world you have less at stake. A lot of people enjoy Hallowe’en and Purim because the costumes are a concrete expression of the unrealness we live with day in and day out. That polite, insincerity that keeps your innermost thoughts and feelings safely stowed away and hidden under a babble of meaningless scripts and in some ways the world is more manageable. More manageable but not better.

I have a surprising number of very good friends at this point in my life. They all have a strong tendency towards being of the more genuine variety although perhaps not to the furthest extreme. I suspect other kinds of people would be too taxing to interact with in the long run. Even with those friends say at a dinner party my processing delay while I work out if something is a joke is a source of benign amusement. I don’t know why but I have yet to learn to put my tongue on pause while I process the content so I inevitably have responded to the literal content of a joke and then having heard my response it dawns on me that it was a joke. I am not stupid. Depending on how people react I sometimes wind up feeling stupid when this happens. Among my friends they don’t exactly try to hide they find this funny (which is good as that would be insincere) but that is covered for by a genuine affection for me so I can do the unthinkable and be at a party for 14 and realize hmm everyone here is an actual friend. Since I am selective about how I use words like friend that’s a shocker for me and not an expected outcome but I actually do think part of the reason for it is I am who I am.

My autism causes chaos for me at times. I am a great source of stress for my friends and family at those times. But like any real friends they are there for me. Should they need me I am there for them. I understand that is how it is supposed to work and that is the outcome for this totally social skills defiant, black and white thinker who won’t even pretend to humour you on the eye contact issue. Could we really hope for more? Could you hope for more if you changed your opinion on some of the classic “deficits” in autism and instead of teaching that autistic in your life to be more like you tried it the other way around at least for a little while out of fairness?


4 thoughts on “Autistic Behaviour has a Purpose: –

  1. Social skills classes are useless. Because the expectations are always changing, so very few professionals can actually keep up with them. Secondly, there is no one right way to be social. And thirdly, don’t even get me started on “Social Thinking.”

    If there is any good advice for autistics and NTs alike, I would recommend this blog.

  2. Yes when I was doing my undergraduate degree I did a literature review as an assignment. Tens of thousands of research hours had been spent teaching kids to play with their cars the “right way” with the premise that spinning the wheels was a social barrier. It’s almost a non-issue now but appropriate toy play will continue to get funded as if the point of a toy wasn’t enjoyment.

  3. Pingback: Sometimes I cringe: Leaning into my discomfort | Thirty Days of Autism

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