So, I never talked about it on here, but I wrote a guest post for the amazing Katherine May (author of The Electricity of Every Living Thing) about how online communities provided an outlet for me to socialize and be myself, especially when growing up (and nearly just as much now). It’s essentially a safe haven for me to interact with other people, especially through voice chat (I also love typing but my wrists start hurting at some point). Voice chat allows me not to worry about whether I’m faking eye contact “okay” or whether the person I’m talking to is bored by what I’m saying or upset. You just say the things. Sometimes you’ll get a response, sometimes the conversation will move on. Sometimes you misunderstand a joke and resolving the conversation is found to be a hilarious misinterpretation. It’s really all in good fun.
My internet interactions remind me of a recent (and wonderfully done) journal article that came out about autistic people’s social interactions with each other. Essentially, the authors state that autistic people would keep saying different references and lines until something sticks with the other person, and they then reply and then have a conversation about it. If they don’t understand something, no one is absurdly shocked or surprised. If something the other person said doesn’t resonate, they simply don’t reply, and the conversation moves on. It’s not that they are trying to ignore the other person, they probably (in my opinion) just don’t have anything to say in response to that sentence. That doesn’t mean they’re being rude. This study was specifically recording social interactions while autistic people played video games together. Most of my social interaction online is while playing video games. It gives you something to talk about when you don’t have much else to say, and like they said in the study, if you’re in real life playing the video game, you’re focusing on the screen in front of you, and you are not required to look at the other person, even if they were neurotypical. I know for me, this makes auditory processing easier and frees up more resources to think of what I’m going to say next.
They bring up a really important point in their research, essentially saying that misunderstandings were smoothed over rather quickly because the autistic person would simply switch topics or move on to a different topic, and would not be offended or upset by the previous misunderstanding.
I think that autistic people may even be more forgiving than neurotypical people exactly because we are constantly misunderstood all the time via body language/social cues/tone of voice. We are probably more likely to be understanding when there is a miscommunication and more used to moving on with the conversation, as this happens with neurotypical conversations all the time. I think we’re more likely to give each other a break. And I also think we are more likely to assume that other autistic people have good intentions, even when there is a misunderstanding. I often read autistic people’s writing and notice that I would phrase something the same way, but see how that may be misinterpreted by a neurotypical person. I think we understand that everyone else is trying just as much as we are to form friendships and connections, and that autistic people’s neurotypical-based social skills don’t correlate to effort. We know we are always trying even if it doesn’t look like it to other people. I would be very interested to see how neurotypical/autistic interactions occur in this same video game environment.
It’s really exciting to think that in the next few years (and this year!), there is literature out there supporting the positive interactions autistic people have with each other. That when interacting with each other, we do not show “impaired” communication or “impaired” theory of mind. In fact, it seems like we are likely much more understanding than the neurotypical people who interact with us. I hope this information gets out to neurotypical people at some point, and this language about “impairments” is changed to reflect the current research.
When I tried to look up this research paper on google (googling “autistic people’s social interactions with other autistic people”, with the google search suggesting I put in “autism and social interaction problems”), all that came up were articles about the “impairments” we have with social interaction and that even “high functioning autistic adults” have problems with social interaction and difficulties with theory of mind.
I hope that in a few years, there will be other results to choose from.
Heasman, B., Gillespie, A. (2018). Neurodivergent intersubjectivity: Distinctive features of how autistic people create shared understanding. Autism, 1-12.