There is a fairly persistent belief I come across regularly that autistic people are antisocial. I think what people mean by “antisocial” is that the autistic person doesn’t socialise in ways that are considered typical so they assume that the person does not like to be around people, or is not “good” at it.
What is “good socialisation”?
There seem to be two ways a persons social skills are measured. One is simply how often they are around other people, and the other is how well they help those around them feel comfortable or accepted. The first is a strange standard by which to measure the appropriateness of someones social skills, as frequency of exposure to an activity alone does not guarantee skill or proficiency at it by any stretch of the imagination. The second is a little more logical I suppose, but it fails to take into account the subjective nature of the measure, in that generally autistic people who fail to make others comfortable are considered to have poor social skills, but non-autistic people who fail to make autistic people comfortable are still considered to have good social skills.
This belief that people who don’t conform to the majority standard of socialising are somehow deficient at it pervades other areas of society too. You only have to tell someone you are homeschooling your children to see evidence of it. “But what about socialisation?”…..
In the instances of both homeschooling socialisation and of autistic socialisation I have to reply with “why do you assume that there is only one correct way to socialise?”
There are many of ways to access social support and interaction, and there is no one right way.
When a parent of an autistic child, or a professional working with autistic children tells me that a child is antisocial, I can’t help wondering if the child is actually antisocial, or simply not socialising in the way the parent or professional thinks they should. And when I say “I can’t help wondering”, I mean – I’m pretty sure the child isn’t antisocial but has preferred ways of socialising that aren’t typical.
The reason I’m pretty sure is because I’m autistic and I am part of a thriving, healthy community of autistic people who mainly socialise with each other online. We have real friendships, we share common interests, we joke, we share deep – sometimes intimate – details about our lives with each other and give and take support and help. Sometimes we do this one on one, sometimes in smaller groups, some times in larger groups. Just because this doesn’t happen face to face doesn’t mean it is not valid or valuable.
I am also an autistic person who has non autistic friends. The friendships with non-autsitic people that I value the most are ones in which the non-autistic person does not demand a typical level of face to face or group setting contact from me. I have friends who live locally to me that I talk with almost every day, but by text message or social media apps. Some of these friends are my most cherished relationships- people who have helped me through some of the hardest months of my life. I’ve had long vulnerable conversations with them that were only possible because they were ok with doing that with me by text. When I do meet up with them, it is usually one on one, or in a very small group. We don’t go to loud places or do busy stuff, we just hang out somewhere quiet and familiar. And because there has been relationship in which I was able to open up in writing, when I am with them in person I am more easily able to talk and articulate my thoughts with them.
I’m told my way of doing friendship is not typical, but it is the way I work best in relationships. I do not need to be face to face with someone to feel connected with them. In fact, I carefully ration out my face to face time with people so as not to overwhelm my sensory system. I may appear antisocial to some, but I know I am not. I need connection with people. I crave it when I don’t have it. I thrive when I do connect well with others. Doing that largely online and by messages doesn’t make me antisocial.
It’s time to change what we see as antisocial
I’d love to see parents and professionals adjust their thinking here and begin to recognise that socialising doesn’t have to look a particular way to be healthy and useful. I’d love to see online friendships valued and encouraged. It would be great to see so much less shaming of “screen time” and social media use. I’d love to see parents stop forcing their children to be in social skills groups and other contrived social settings to try and make their child interact in more typical ways.
I’d really love to see kids who can socialise in typical ways taught how to be a good friend to someone who needs to interact in atypical ways. Social skills groups for non-autistic kids that teach them how to stand up against bullying, to value diversity, and to get to know people who may seem shy or introverted instead of assuming they don’t want to be friends simply because they don’t jump right into relationships they way others do.
Because who is really the most antisocial when it comes down to it…. the people who crave connection but are denied it because they don’t do it the way most others do, or those who won’t open their minds far enough to see that there is more than one way to be a good friend and make an effort to connect with others who seem a bit different?