Friday, January 14, 2011

People Who Need People

A post on EA and social interactions and why the two are like water and oil. They can be mixed but eventually they will always separate by Erudite Sister.

Today I wish to discuss my sister and crowds of people. For many of us being around a group of people is hardly a panic inducing, especially when several of them are people we know fairly well. We might not necessarily enjoy the situations in which we find ourselves. I don't like crowds of people and I'd rather be at home with a few people than in some crowded place forced to talk to people I don't know. Neither does my sister. The main difference between the two of us is that I can handle it; she can't.

One such example is the full blown anxiety attack she had at our cousin's wedding several years ago. It was a very nice outdoor wedding at a winery. Granted EA wasn't the only hungry person getting patient for the newly married couple to show up so we could eat. However, she was the only who got physically ill being in an enclosed room with two hundred of her closest strangers.

EA had brought a book to read during the off times during the wedding. The three of us told her to put the book away as it was pretty rude to read at a social function. She didn't exactly agree and became quite agitated when she was eventually forced to put the book away. Erudite Brother tried to reason with her. It was our impression that she was overreacting and being dramatic. EA has been known to be overly dramatic when people just didn't listen to her and see things her way.

Though she is much better at dealing with large groups of people now, at the time she had a very hard time interacting and making small talk with people she doesn't know or know well. What exactly is one supposed to say to the bride's great-aunt who wants to know who you are and how you know her niece? For most of us we put a nice smile and say that we're cousins to the groom and that his mother is our father's sister. We might even say that we don't know the bride well but we've met her a few times and we thought she was quite lovely. We might even make some comment about how lovely the ceremony was and how much we liked the bride's gown and we'd end the conversation by remarking how proud of her niece the aunt must be.

Someone like my sister doesn't get small talk. She would never go up to a complete stranger and just talk to them unless she believed they had something in common. That a complete stranger would come up to her and start talking as if they knew each other is not within her parameters of things that make sense. And so she freezes. She hates small talk, doesn't understand the purpose of it. It's pointless and makes absolutely no sense. And knowing that she is going to be expected to talk to someone's Great Aunt Muriel* about random things is something that is going to cause her a bit of anxiety.

The logical assumption would be that she would feel anxious being around any large group of people, after all, no matter where you go there will always be those instances of small talk. It would also be logical to assume that going somewhere like Disneyland would give an Apsie like EA fits to be surrounded by so many people. The difference is expectation. Different social groups have different expectations.

At our family reunions EA has never had any anxiety attacks. She has a pretty good idea as to who is going to be there and what they expect of her. She knows that her great aunts are going to want to know about her work and love life and she has answers ready for them. She knows that her cousins are going to ask about her job and her love life and she has answers ready for them too. And then she has outs. She knows that she can escape when it gets to be a bit too much. And she does. No one expects her to be front and center all day every day. And if she chooses to sit in a corner and read the day away no one is going to accuse her of being anti-social. Someone might come and talk to her, make her play a game or two of cards but she knows that she can escape.

Similarly when we go somewhere where there are just gads of people, she knows that she doesn't actually have to interact with anyone she doesn't know. She doesn't have to smile and think of witty answers to questions nor does she have to pretend as if she cares about the orange taffeta dress the maid of honor wore that clashed with her red hair. She doesn't have to pretend she noticed that the maid of honor had red hair or that her dress was a summer color when it is obvious the MOH is a winter person. My sister doesn't even know what that means. God bless her.

What I have found to be helpful to my sister in cases where I know that floundering is to take over the conversation. EA has voiced her frustrations in small talk over the years. I have never understood why she can't just make small talk. It's not hard. It's been frustrating for me to understand why she always has a problem with something as simple as small talk. It's pointless conversation that you don't always mean and isn't really important. A concept she also doesn't understand.

But as she is my sister and I love her I have taken to watching her and noticing signs of distress. If I feel that she is at her limit I interject myself into the conversation and take over. I have no problems with commandeering a conversation and doing all the talking. It's easy for me and EA knows that, so long as I am talking she isn't expected to contribute to the conversation.

Again, it all boils down to expectations. If she knows what is expected of her in a conversation or if she knows that she doesn't have to worry about talking too much or too little then she isn't going to be anxious.

To make an Aspie's life easier when going into any social setting, help them know exactly what they are expected to do or say and I am sure that they will be grateful for the assistance.

Heck, your favorite aspie might even begin to expect it.

*Not to be confused with Great Aunt Agnes or anyone who is real or living.


  1. I am sure there is a color out there that makes my skin look sallow. I have no idea what that color is.

    Seriously, this is very true, but I do want to emphasize that the book at the wedding reception was an escape mechanism. All those on Autism Spectrum disorder have their 'I have to to escape from the pressure of this situation that I don't understand and over which I have no control' thing (as well as plenty of perfectly normal people), and mine happens to be reading. Or, now, playing Angry birds.

  2. It's rather funny that now, fiddling on your iPhone would be perfectly acceptable, where the book wasn't.