On Saturday, I hosted the second annual family birthday lunch for my husband. For most people, this is probably not a major event, but as someone as easily overwhelmed by social situations as me, it’s a sizable undertaking. Granted, it’s a low-pressure situation because I know all of his family members and grandparents well at this point, but it’s still quite tiring for me to allocate the energy to be so social. Even though everyone was gone by mid-afternoon, I spent the rest of the day quietly lying on the couch to recuperate. Despite the fatigue brought on by a seemingly simple gathering, I had so much more fun than I anticipated. It was great to see so many people around the table who all love Ben as much as I do, and I genuinely care for each of them. My mom also came this year because she also has an important relationship with Ben as well.
When I’m hosting a gathering, I like to cook simple food, as this cuts down on the costs, stress, and work involved in preparing for the event. Because it’s a lot of mouths to feed, some of whom aren’t the most adventurous eaters, Italian food tends to be my go-to. As I told Ben, it’s not about showcasing delicious or elaborate food. People are coming for the company, not an impressive spread of food. One of Ben’s grandmothers offered to bring a cake, so it was nice to not have to trouble myself with baking as well.
There’s something really comforting about sitting with a bunch of people who all love and care for one another and feeling like you too love and care for them and receive that back in spades. It’s an interesting juxtaposition to be autistic in that same situation: in most ways, the boisterous chatter and myriad conversations around and involving you are exhausting, while the emotional comfort carried by having people around you whom you care about is restorative and supportive. One doesn’t necessarily outweigh the other; they are both there simultaneously in a constant push-and-pull. It’s a strange feeling to experience concurrent energy draining and energy replenishing, sort of like inflating an air mattress with a sizable rip; the net state of inflation doesn’t change because the air added by the pump and lost through the leak are equal. This sounds like a highly undesirable condition, and perhaps for most neurotypical people, even introverts, it would be. However, for me, it’s actually an improvement over most social situations, which are heavily weighted toward the draining side of the equation.
I think there’s an important distribution between the dread and fatigue that an introvert who is neurotypical experiences pre-social situation versus that of an autistic person. I was reminded of this when having a text conversation with a good friend before the party. He is also very introverted and doesn’t enjoy most social situations in the way that extroverted people do. They are tiring and stressful for him because that sort of social bravado required by such activities is outside of his comfort zone. I get that and feel that, but still feel like that reaction is many shades milder than the autistic experience. For example, when I told him I was anxious for the party, he seemed surprised that that would be the case given that all the guests are technically family (with the exception of my mom, my husband’s), as if the social pressure, effort, and stress is eliminated, or at least largely minimized, by that connection. That’s not the case for me, and from the conversations I’ve had with several other autistic adults, also not the case for them. Yes, the stress of needing to meet and engage with new people is avoided when you are just with family, but the mental processing needed to reconcile all the social inputs and develop meaningful and appropriate outputs is still there. Participating in any in-person conversation requires a cascade of cognitive processes for an autistic person. It’s not natural for us to read facial expressions, hear and understand tone inflections and infer mood, and even listening and then responding is not an automatic, unconscious process. It’s taxing to take in each of these disparate components of conversation and try and understand them in association with one another. It’s like our brains keep each of these as separate data streams or factors to analyze instead of packaging them together in one inputted message. That means our brains have to read multiple “storylines” at once and hopefully keep the rate of comprehension equivalent among the three input channels so that the message doesn’t get incorrectly misconstrued. Not only is processing a single channel faster than needing to handle three at once, but neurotypicals, with their sole social input stream, are much more protected from the real risk if misinterpretation. There is no chance that input channels will be processed at different speeds. Certainly, misunderstandings of the intent of a message do happen, but they are much less likely. If the brain was imagined as a computer, the RAM needed in the autistic brain to handle three (or more if more than one other person is involved in the conversation) channels is much greater than the demand of one channel with a neurotypical brain. Added to this challenge is the fact that the autistic brain struggles to understand two of the channels coming in, facial expression and tone, even in isolation. It’s like running an incompatible Mac program on a PC—error messages abound.
These factors make social situations mentally exhausting and fraught with potential errors, which is stressful to one’s ego. For me at least, I like to appear “normal” and intelligent. I don’t want to make mistakes or commit social faux pas because of misunderstandings or because I am unaware of some social “rules” that other people readily learn. I can almost hear my brain whirring and trying to keep up in conversations. In writing, I’m fine. One-on-one with someone I know very well, I’m also fairly comfortable because I’m memorized their tones and expressions. I also tend to avoid eye contact and even face contact because I’m so poor at reading faces. By staring elsewhere, and only occasionally glancing at my conversation partner’s face (to follow the social norm of conveying respect and that he or she has my attention), my comprehension improves significantly compared to the same conversation made giving eye contact. My difficulties in understanding facial expressions are so pervasive that a facial expression usually misleads me, making it so I misunderstand the person’s intended message when layered on top of their words; if I can isolate just the sound of our conversation, I’m far more likely to interpret the meaning correctly. I imagine this is counterintuitive to most people, but years of real-life personal data collection has more than verified these results for me.
Anyway, the birthday lunch was not only successful in its goals of gathering family to enjoy a homecooked meal, one another’s company, and the amazingness of Ben, but it was also fun. I hope that I can find similar enjoyment in upcoming holiday gatherings. I think this was major progress, not just a step, but a leap forward!