My (In)Visible Disability: The Social Stuff
The real truth about my extreme social awkwardness
When I say that socializing can be harder for me because I think differently, some people take the statement literally and think that my feelings and my opinions must be so totally different from the people around me, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Perhaps what I should’ve said is that my social difficulties stem from the way my brain stores, organizes, and retrieves information (more on this here), and yes, these things influence my perception in a multitude of direct and indirect ways. But when it comes to social interactions, my neurological differences affect how I think infinitely more than what I think.
A lot of my social difficulties are effectively surface-level issues. Some things are happening in my brain that makes me appear vaguely and inexplicably off, but I need you to pay attention to what I have to say, not how different I may appear. Yes, I may need you to be patient as I take my time to respond to them or clarify myself, but that’s it. It doesn’t go any deeper than that. I don’t need you to adjust their expectations beyond that or translate yourself to me as though your language is somehow foreign to me. In fact, I wind up feeling more misunderstood and lonely when someone does this. It’s like, they’re think they’re meeting me halfway, but they’re walking away from me instead of walking towards me.
Since there is widespread confusion about what my social challenges are and what they aren’t, I thought I’d hop on here and clarify.
Hindsight is 20/20, and this is especially true for me navigating social situations. I’m pretty quick to read the room, but I might need time to adjust my responses on my end. These processing delays are usually no longer than a few seconds, but a split second can make a big difference in a fast-paced interaction. And when I’m battling a flurry of impulses and distractions, processing can take a few more minutes, rustling in the background and striking me with a realization in a moment of quiet. In the meantime, my judgment is fickle. Sometimes, I misspeak, over- or under- estimating the impact of my words and action — perhaps, enticed by wishful thinking. Other times, I find myself in a fleeting yet disruptive state of fragmentation, where my words and actions take on a life of its own, even as I recognize all the social cues screaming at me to do something different.
Even with a substantial time lag, I arrive to the same conclusion that lots of other people would’ve reached there and then. I don’t consciously talk myself into it: it just hits me out of nowhere, all of a sudden… It’s very much a visceral process. I’ve turned beet red, physically cringed, and cursed while recalling my own conduct from hours, days, and even months ago. I do try to be careful not to let embarrassment turn into the destructive monster that is shame. Usually, I joke about it with my friends, and move on.
Processing delays only make up a small part of why communicating is hard for me. Even when I’m completely sure I what want to do and what I don’t want to do, I’m often stymied by the logistical aspects. It’s hard for me, for example, to come up with topics to keep a conversation going. To boot, a shortage of clever quips and joking remarks makes me come off as far less enthusiastic than I actually am. Even harder is finding buffer material for the sorts of interactions that I’d rather not raw-dog. Though creativity shines through in my online presence, I often find myself struggling to reach the most rudimentary level of creative thinking needed to navigate everyday interactions. I can’t just come up with things on the fly. I need more time, and someone to talk to, when I hit a wall.
Saying that I’m slow has a negative connotation, but it is true in a literal sense — most of my cognitive processes are time-consuming, if not laborious. I need lots of time to do a lot of things, and social communication is no exception.
And as a non-linear thinker, putting my thoughts into words is harder than many of the other things I’ve mentioned. The hardest part of verbalizing, for me, isn’t guessing how my words may be received by others. In fact, that’s a no-brainer. It’s incredibly obvious to me, for instance, that replying no problem in response to being thanked has a different insinuation than saying uh huh or it’s my pleasure. The real challenge is scrambling through my mental repertoire to find the right words. Even when I’m writing, I always have Thesaurus.com open on the next tab to remind myself of all the options. In a quick conversation, I will blurt out the first words that I can think of, even if it doesn’t sound quite right as it falls out of my mouth.
My difficulty planning and organizing doesn’t doesn’t end at my workspace and carries over to the way I communicate. I don’t have a functioning queue for all the things I mean to say, and all too often, my words come out haphazardly, like jammed paper grinding out of a printer. I stumble over my words, ramble erratically, and even repeat myself over and over. Sometimes, the chaos in my head is so unmanageable that I leave out crucial pieces of information or mix up the order of my sentences in a way that I completely change the subtext (the constructive feedback sandwich is a good example of why order matters).
Many people use body language as a stand-in when they can’t find the words, but that hasn’t been easy for me, either. I don’t have this sense of physical synchrony that everyone else seem to possess. My facial expressions are limited in range, and my voice sometimes slips into a monotone splutter, leading some to think that I don’t percieve the subtle distinctions of nonverbal communication — a theory backed up by my apparent inability to read social cues. In reality, I understand facial expressions and vocal tones the same way most other people do. What you’re seeing is just an extension of the same physical clumsiness that makes dancing, team sports, and braiding my own hair difficult: my body doesn’t always get along with my mind.
Most people equate these behavioral characteristics with an inability to get it. It, being the unspoken social codes that govern our everyday interactions. Expectations are built with the bricks of symbolic gestures, rather than literal meanings. Like, when someone asks you how are you?, a one-sentence summary or just “good“ is enough, before you continue: how about you? At this stage, they’re not expecting to hear the finer details. Ugh — I’m trying to come up with a more sophisticated example, but I can’t think of any right now. That’s because I don’t consciously keep track of social rules, unless it is to explain to my readers, like I’m doing it right now. They come naturally to me, just like they would for a vast majority of people. And I know that this begs the question: if all of these things come so naturally, why do you act like this?
Enter the Handwriting Analogy, which is one of the favorite things I’ve written, in regards to my disability:
Assuming that I don’t understand simply because I struggle to express myself is no different than assuming that someone can’t read just because their handwriting is crappy.
When it comes to the social stuff, I understand most, if not all, of the same concepts my non-disabled peers can. The only difference between them and me is the ability to reliably demonstrate this understanding, in a way that most people can recognize. If you spend enough time with me, you’ll come to recognize the little things I do that says, I got you. If you get to know me well enough, you won’t have to wonder if we’re on the same page.
So, we’ve established that I’m pretty good with social cues, social dynamics, and basically, a lot of the social- stuff that most people would (understandably) assume would be difficult for me. I use these skill sets to find my way, when my other mental faculties short-circuit, leaving me vulnerable in an awkward situation. Intuition is such a powerful thing.
I can catch a communication breakdown from a mile away, and even with the obstacles posed by my disability, I’ve learned to reroute — kind of like how a GPS will update your suggested shortcut after you makes the wrong turn. It’s actually kind of cool.
If something I say Comes Out Wrong, I’ll find a way to sneak in a clarification without making a big fuss, and if I find myself skip from Point A to Point Z too fast, I make a point to retrace my steps out loud, letting the listener in on why I made the connections I did. I also utilize electronic communication to enhance, rather than replace, face-to-face interactions: for example, I send follow-up texts to tie up any loose ends after a tough conversation.
Through all of it, I practice self-compassion. I can adapt my way out of most social missteps, but occasionally, I run into ones where I can’t: one wrong move, and the rest of the interaction is irredeemably fucked. I suppose it’s a bit like those long division problems you learn in sixth grade math. One miscalculation is all it takes to turn the solvable unsolvable, to make what was supposed to be single-digit quotient into a never-ending decimal. Inevitably, you hit the perimeter of your worksheet, and you give up. Of course, social interactions, at least to me, are innumerably more intuitive than math, but they both share a cyclical nature.
One such interaction occurred in the my junior year of high school during gym class. It was probably one of the worst ones I’ve had in my entire high school career. I was alone in the corner of the exercise room, attempting to dribble a flacid basketball, when I saw a group of girls walk by me. I perked up, hoping that I could join them.
“Are you guys playing catch ball?”
“Oh, we’re just talking,” one of them replied. I recognized that this was her way of saying we don’t want you here, but my brain was on overdrive.
“Yeah that’s cool, can I join?”
“Uhhh, sure?” she recoiled.
The damage was done, and there was no way to correct course. Instead, I was faced with two very unenticing choices: join them anyway, and make them even more uncomfortable, or dip my head and walk away with a target on my back. Gritting my teeth, I trudged along with them, hoping that I’d never have to see them again.
I always joke that I can easily top the most cringe-worthy tales from Seventeen’s Traumarama. I think that I can let myself feel embarassment without falling into a spiral of shame. For some my friends, my stories serve as a source of perspective.
The truth is, a little discomfort or embarassment won’t kill anyone.
I’ve found myself in some of the most awkward exchanges you could imagine, and I’m still alive. No one likes the sound of an awkward silence, but don’t let that fear stop you from living your life, you know?
It wasn’t until I began my sophomore year of college that I realized just how well I’d been adapting. I was never going to fully pass as non-disabled, but that didn’t mean that I was trapped by this beastly exterior that made me unapproachable. Some of the workarounds I used for my limitations were a bit unusual, but I was better off with them then without them. I had to give myself some credit.
The realization was bittersweet, because it made me realize that so many people had been avoiding me, not because they genuinely found it difficult to interact with me, but because they had preconcieved notions about me. Once, a former classmate e-mailed me an apology for their dismissive attitude towards me, after reading an article that I wrote. “I didn’t recognize that you had a rich, complex inner world,” they admitted. It was dissapointing to see that, yes, people actually thought that about me, but I felt immense gratitude for their honesty. I’ve always yearned to be seen, not oogled, and to mark my presence as a strong, intelligent woman without becoming the elephant in the room. That’s why I do what I do. That’s why I tell my story. That’s why I write.
Whenever someone asks me, what can I do to support you? I feel my face light up. It means the world to me that they care enough to ask me about my disability.
In a true Asaka fashion, I’m still working on my answer, but I think the main thing that I don’t need you to actively do anything for me, as much as I need you to believe in me.
At the risk of sounding like a Facebook documentary subject: just give me a chance.
The rest, we can figure out later.