• Shannon Hughes

Autistic or Just Introverted and Lazy?

I’ve been called a people person and have been complimented on my “soft skills.” You would think that would negate the whole “social deficits” criteria of an autism spectrum disorder. I don’t have a lot of stimming behaviors, can carry on a conversation, can empathize intensely when I’ve been through something like what a person may be struggling with. Am I autistic?

I wasn’t diagnosed until I was an adult and, when I’ve asked my mom about what I was like as a kid, she’s always told me, “We always knew how smart you are, so we never worried about you.” I have a lot to say about how intelligence and ability are very different things and how a high IQ is only one mitigating factor when it comes to managing life with an autism spectrum disorder. That said, when it comes to reading people and interacting with them on a superficial level, a high IQ can be enough to allow a person with autism to pass as completely normal.

Like many introverts, I do an exceptional impression of an extrovert and then go home afterwards where I need solitude and quiet to recover. You might say that’s just an introvert thing, not autism. Like many people who don’t feel like they could be accepted if they were completely relaxed and “themselves” in public, I have personas that I adopt to navigate social and work situations. You might say that’s shame and insecurity, not autism. And there are times when I would be capable of social interaction, but its energy I can’t justify expending. That could be depression and/or anxiety, even disinterest in socializing, not autism.

So, what’s the difference? The biggest difference is that my social skills are largely cognitive and I spend a big part of most interactions with people identifying the emotion they are expressing by watching their facial expressions closely and listening carefully to their choice of words. Like choosing an appropriate outfit for a restaurant, I’m referencing a mental catalog of appropriate responses I could have which would allow them to feel empathy or recognize that I understand what they’re saying. And I can’t stress this enough – I do feel empathy and I do understand what people tell me, but not without effort.

And if I responded with what came naturally to me, they would never know that I care. In order to understand people, I have to focus intently; in order for them to understand me, I have to exhibit emotional responses that are a translated version of what I’m aware of feeling.

So, when I go home after an office meeting or after doing a lot of training and supervision, I don’t just need to chill for a little bit. I enter a nearly catatonic state that, once activated, is very difficult to exit. I can spend an entire weekend in it. And I don’t just feel like who I naturally am would be off-putting or unacceptable – I know so. And, finally, when I can’t justify expending the energy to interact socially, it’s because I know I’m spending the energy that I will need to do other things that require mental focus like pay attention to my bank balance and school or work assignments that have to get done – even if I have all the time in the world, the mental energy that I spend interacting socially can make taking care of myself impossible.

I know that it often seems like people with autism don’t have any interest in or empathy for the people in their lives. I think that’s one of the biggest and most destructive assumptions about us. I personally have accepted that there are people who will assume I don’t care about them because I don’t call very often or, when they call me, I’m never available to go out. I hate it, but I accept it. And if I know that they will perpetually be irritated or frustrated with me for that, and that they will never cease to take it personally, then I would rather not be the person who makes them feel badly about themselves on a regular basis.

If you know someone who identifies as on the spectrum, but doesn’t seem autistic to you, and you wonder if it’s an excuse because they don’t want to spend time with you, please believe them. If they regularly use their quota of social interaction to spend time with you, even if it’s rarely and for short periods, please know that you are very special to them. If they show up late to a party you planned and leave early, consider that it took a lot of mental preparation for them to come and definitely some recovery time after they went home. Don’t assume they didn’t enjoy themselves, and please don’t assume they wouldn’t want to come to the next one. If you have a friend on the spectrum who doesn’t call, but always answers when you do, you may be one of the most important people in their life.

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