Social Assumptions: On Common Ways Aspies are (Mis)Interpreted
One of the core deficits Aspies have is a weak theory of mind, also referred to as mindblindness. That is, because we have a limited social imagination, we often don’t understand what others are thinking or feeling. Not only do we not understand it, but we also often don’t pause to imagine it at all. It doesn’t occur to us because we are dealing with the intensity of our own inner worlds. Our patterns of thought tend to be detailed, complex, and focused. When we aren’t focused on these, we’re trying to filter out invasive sensory inputs. Since our brains aren’t built to filter these, and since we tend to feel them more strongly, this can take a lot of energy. Socializing with others also takes a lot of energy. We have to do it consciously and self-consciously, so we often don’t attend to it — and this is not only because we’d rather put our energy elsewhere, but because we don’t feel a sense of reward when we do due to how are brains are wired. However much humans have evolved, we remain animals who are motivated largely by the stimulation of reward centers in our brains.
Although this Aspie deficit is often discussed, what isn’t often talked about is the deficit that many neurotypical, or naturally social, people have in understanding us. Too often, they make the mistake of ascribing conventional social and psychological explanations to our behaviors and utterances. These assumptions often directly contradict the fact that Aspies are not inherently socially motivated. I will give a few examples to demonstrate and hopefully enlighten.
Instance 1: Attention Seeking: Recently, a self-described NT male wrote to the main Aspie subreddit, which I follow, to complain about an Aspie woman who has stalked him for years. She posts about their “relationship” in social media and spends time analyzing him and his behaviors there. He believes she does this out of a desire for others’ attention. This seems a misguided notion to me. Aspies tend not to be motivated by social interest. We are not attention seekers in that way.
So why is she posting to social media? It is much more likely that this guy and her relationship with him have become a fixed fantasy, which is rooted in our tendency to obsess about our interests. She does have strong feelings about him and her “relationship” with him in the context of this fantasy. By asserting this fantasy in a social space, it becomes more real to her.
She may also be seeking agreement with her point of view. We Aspies love proving that our view of a system is accurate. It is not likely that she herself wants to be the center of attention (an alpha female or diva) or to promote a particular status for herself as an important person in the social world (in this case, a female victim wronged by a man). This is common in the behavior of some NT users of social media.
Usually, aspies are drawn to social media or other social venues for sharing interests to promote the interest rather than ourselves, although I acknowledge that through identifying with the interest we may be gaining the same kind of emotional satisfaction that a neurotypical might gain through others attending to them directly. As another example, I primarily use my own Twitter to share articles that I believe are interesting and have value. I share them because I want others to be interested in them, too. I want my interests to rise in importance in the world so that others follow them, fund / support them, and contribute to our knowledge about them. I do not share these on Twitter to promote myself or to alter the opinion others have of me. That could be an effect of my behavior, but it would not be an intended one.
Aspies are not usually interested in advancing ourselves ahead of others because social status, and social roles in general, do not produce much feeling in us. To feel that, we would require a social imagination and an attachment to it. If and when we are arrogant, it is because we value competence and knowledge, and our ability to exhibit both; we sometimes devalue others who can’t keep up (immature of us, but there you are).
If Aspies do want a particular social identity to stick, it is that of expert in our areas of interest. We want and expect our expertise to be respected. When others don’t respect our expertise, the feeling is often one of irritation because the exchange of knowledge (often felt as a flow of information) is interrupted. We have to take the time to establish how we know what we know so that we can focus on the interest again rather than the social context around it. To us, this seems a waste of time; it only produces frustration.
Instance 2: Attachments: When my son was in kindergarten, his well-meaning teacher harmed him without realizing it. He had a strong attachment to his best friend, a girl who was also in his class. This teacher was concerned that they played together almost exclusively. They did not reject other children from their play, but they didn’t actively include them or attend to them, either. The teacher finally reacted to this concern when their bond upset another little boy in class, who was also my son’s playmate but did not get along with the girl (he was jealous of her relationship with my son). The boy’s parents were going through a divorce, so he was especially needy at the time. The teacher wanted my son to help the boy deal with his emotional needs through being extra attentive to him. She began to regulate when my son could play with his best friend, so that the time they spent together was limited, and sought to stop them from any play in which others were not present. This led my son, when he understood what was happening, to feel that he was not allowed to spend time with his most important daily person, which took away an emotional resource, and that something was wrong with the way he felt comfortable relating to others, which reinforced the feeling of difference he had already begun to develop.
What my son’s teacher had failed to understand is how Aspies bond emotionally with others. We tend to develop bonds with a very few other people and those attachments run deep. In Aspie culture, we often refer to them as “our people.” If we lose one of our people to death or a breakdown in the relationship, we can experience profound grief. We meet almost all of our emotional needs through pursuing our interests, but what remains we meet through “our people,” and not through relating to other people or to people in general. We have difficulty developing such deep, intimate relationships because of the energy they take (we are rarely willing to expend it), the barrier in emotional understanding with most people (they don’t get us and we don’t get them), and the need to compromise on a regular basis (most of us have difficulty wanting to meet the needs of others, but others have trouble understanding that we have certain needs on which we are unable to compromise without harming ourselves, even though these can have to do with things that seem unimportant to others). There may also be some kind of chemistry, and not necessarily a physical one, that enables us to find the person so interesting that they become one of our interests; it doesn’t always happen when and as it seems it should. We can experience loneliness, but that is when we have an absence of this kind of relationship in our lives.
To return to the opening example in Instance 1, sometimes, those people to whom we become intensely attached do not reciprocate. In cases of Aspie dysfunction, we don’t require this reciprocation. This is why Aspie have some elevated tendency to exhibit stalking behaviors. Since we live in our heads, we’re able to attach to the fantasy to the detriment of a relationship with the actual person who has inspired it. It’s to the detriment of ourselves, too, since this kind of social naivete can lead to being deceived, neglected, and abused. Most Aspies can probably think of a relationship in our lives in which their intensity of attachment was not reciprocated, even if it did not lead to actual stalking. We can probably also all think of relationships in which others have been much more attached to us than we were to them. Although neurotypicals also experience these things, they tend to be more common with us and more pronounced.
One thing that disturbs neurotypicals in getting to know us better is that we sometimes do not establish these kinds of bonds with the people to whom we are supposed to have them, given cultural norms (parents or siblings, peers with whom we hang out, people with whom we’ve worked for many years). For example, I have rarely experienced the sensation of missing any other person over the course of my life; I am able to leave a school, workplace, or group, and many individual relationships without that feeling either soon after or years later. That may seem a deficit. However, with the very few people to whom I have bonded, this is different. I prefer to interact with them daily. The world is not the same without them (and they may include other animals — such as a dog or cat — rather than only humans). My feeling of missing them does not diminish over time.
That said, for some years now, I have used Facebook as a way of connecting people from past times and places. I have attempted to change, to take an interest in people with whom I have enjoyed interacting in the past. I have found that this is surprisingly pleasurable, so perhaps we are able to grow in this area of emotional and social reciprocity as we are in others, such as in advancing our capabilities in theory of mind through observation and study (as I have — an important motivation for my studies of psychology and literature).
Instance 3: Group Bonding: When I joined the student counseling center staff at a major university (as a communications and IT manager), I felt a sense of difference from the social norm particularly strongly, because that work environment, as part of the Student Affairs division, had a culture in which a kind of student pep atmosphere dominated. We were asked to wear matching shirts for certain days and events. We were expected to be highly social, to want to participate in group activities, and to identify with the team. I could not produce those feelings. What is more, the emotional bond with the team was all the more important because of the special stresses of that work. Although the clinicians were trained professionals, the daily wear of clients’ emotions and the occasional wrenching crisis (a student suicide, criminal victimization, threat to self or others, or arrest) had an emotional impact. Without a strong sense of team, and of the social norms in expression and behavior that went with that team, trust was compromised and additional stress was introduced into the organization’s working atmosphere.
Although this was an unusual organizational experience, it’s nevertheless common that when I enter into a group experience, I often find an expectation that members will bond to one another through forming a shared bond to the group. This is an alien emotion; I am unable to feel it. My discomfort at the counseling center thus had a basis in Aspie “nature.” As a rule, we are not joiners. We can have a strong sense of duty toward causes to which we belong: a workplace, a social mission, a profession, and we can emotionally bond with that idea of service to something larger than ourselves. We often identify with our interests and enjoy interacting with a community of people who share our interests, but our focus tends to be on the interest rather than the people themselves. One Aspie guide I have on hand describes us as “thing people” rather than “people people.” It’s reductive, and I prefer the term “systems people,” but not inaccurate. We tend to rate higher than neurotypicals on indexes of altruism and idealism and to value reason over emotion.
At the university counseling center, my sense of attachment was to the mission of providing counseling services and outreach to university students. I felt a passion to ensure that their development was supported so that they could pursue their educational goals and go on to live happy, fulfilling lives. This sense of mission was personally important to me (psychology and higher education are two of my interests), and I identified with it. I had a sense of duty toward students, since I continue to identify with the profession of college teaching, even though I rarely teach these days. I felt something for it and about it. But I could not feel something directly for the staff as a social group to which I belonged. I could admire individuals and enjoy interacting with them around our shared interests, but the group as a whole produced no fellow feeling. When this was expected of me, I felt uncomfortable, as if it both threatened to swallow me and spit me out.
This is not unique to me. Aspies tend to hold social groups at a distance, and the more negatively impacted or less self-aware among us may come to believe that social groups are the ones holding us at a distance. We are most comfortable either in a leadership position or at the fringe. The middle is fraught with energy-draining embarrassment and confusion. The more an organization promotes conformity to a social behavior or dynamic, the more we begin looking for ways to opt out. This is not anti-social in Aspies, as it would be in neurotypicals; it is better described as asocial. However, this response and its manifestation are often (mis)understood by neurotypicals as antisocial.