Having grown up autistic, I like to say that my social skills began at a lower level than non-autistic people, but through a lot of work on communication (most of it necessary to survive), my social skills now surpass most people’s. What I’ve resisted self-examining, however, is how the ongoing self-perception of my social skills as “less-than” has impacted my adult relationships.
When you grow up autistic, you internalize that you are the problem for being different, and even more importantly, that you are the one who needs to change in situations of conflict. That is something that I learned early on, and I have carried that mentality with me into adulthood, particularly with social relationships. When there is a conflict, miscommunication, or even just an anxiety that I feel about/within any kind of relationship, my immediate assumption is to assume that I am at fault for it. I always believe that there is something that I should have done differently, that there was a cue that I misread, or that there was just something about my behaviour that repels people. I have spent countless hours over-thinking and over-analyzing social situations that didn’t go the way that I wanted, trying to understand what I did wrong and how I can change and improve upon myself for the future. This mentality has had its positives and negatives which are inextricably linked to each other.
On one hand, believing that I am the problem in any conflict has led me to a place where I have little ego on topics that I know I don’t understand, and even with topics that I’m knowledgeable on, I’m always receptive to new tidbits from others. This mentality has made me intelligent, curious, thoughtful, self-aware, and able to accept critique. (It has also led me to develop self-care practices where I can accept critique well.) On the other hand, consistently believing that I am the problem has been very damaging when my brain reflexively strains away from thinking that other people may have done the wrong.
For example? When you don’t get a text back from someone that you thought you hit it off with at a party, you assume that it’s due to something you said or did, and it makes you doubt yourself and your social abilities. When someone responds to a message that after an event where you had some pleasant conversations, only for them to inform you that they had felt uncomfortable, you instinctively assume that you missed something that others would find obvious, and you blame yourself so hard that you want to retreat into your shell and never come out.
As you can tell, this mentality has come up in ways that are often destructive to me. I meet someone that I find attractive and assume that they have the same or higher levels of confidence and consistency than me. The reality that I don’t see is that they do not have those qualities. Consequently, they’re not as willing to be open, and I, not understanding their shyness, wonder what I’m doing wrong that they won’t open up to me. Another one – I have a big conflict with someone about them not giving me something that I need in a relationship when they don’t believe I need it. I assume that they know more about it than me and the self-doubt and gaslighting creeps in.
The reason I’m writing all of this is that I had some drop-in counseling today and I realized that I need to give myself more credit, especially with the amount of self-work that I’ve done in the past two months. Just over that period, I’ve worked hard on understanding and respecting boundaries, and I’ve worked on not taking out my social-justice rage on individuals. Hell, the amount of work that I’ve done in the past two months is more than most people perform in years. The amount of work that I’ve done in the 24 years I’ve been alive is probably more than others might perform throughout their entire life. Essentially, I am a goddamn powerhouse of self-work.
With the counselor today, I talked about a handful of recent encounters that didn’t end the way that I wanted and how I believed they were all my fault. The counselor reflected and pointed out that my level of self-awareness doesn’t match up with this perception that I have of myself as socially “less-than”. I realized that this mentality ingrained from childhood, the idea that others simply know better than me, is no longer the truth. Yay, epiphanies!
What this new understanding of myself translates to in real life is that I can’t go into a new relationship expecting other people to have the same level of self-awareness as myself – whether it’s about their desires, their communication and attachment styles, their level of security, their self-care abilities, and their overall knowledge of themselves. I need to recognize that because of the work that I’ve done, I will almost certainly outstrip them in every one of those aspects. I need to be recognize this, and I need to not blame myself for things not going the way that I want.
So now I’ve learned: Someone didn’t text back? Maybe they weren’t as certain of what they want when I got their number, or they need more time to re-energize after the party I met them at because their self-care isn’t as consistent. Someone ghosts me? Maybe they didn’t know what they wanted when we began talking, or they weren’t secure enough to assert their differing desires, so they just stopped responding. Someone tells me that I made them uncomfortable despite my well-developed practices around consent and boundaries? Maybe they were afraid of hurting my feelings, or maybe they simply lack the ability to communicate with clarity in person (the latter happened to me very recently). I’ve learned that my abilities, knowledge, and skills will often surpass people that I meet, and I need to be patient with them so that they can catch up to my level of openness, confidence, and security. On the other side of the same coin, I need to know when I would be doing myself a disservice by trying to wait for them to do that, and when to let go of those people (had to do that last night).
I’m still autistic, it’s not something that one outgrows. However, I have transcended the popular myth of the autistic youth who doesn’t meet conventional standards of communication. I am autistic, AND I am an amazing, empathetic, and considerate listener. Allowing the mentality that I’m not those things to continue is wrong and unfair to myself. I can see how this experience could be analogous to the autistic experience, so I’m sharing this in hopes that it will resonate with others and allow them to find healing as well.