Saturday, February 12, 2011
Autism, Desires, and Needs
Another section of my book on relationships and autism. I'll be adding citations to the final edition. For now, you can read the bibliography on this blog for additional resources I have consulted.
Desires and Needs
Human relationships come down to our desires and our needs as they relate to social connections. Psychologists and social experts can and do argue over the distinction between a desire and need, and I realize plenty of scientists assert the only real “needs” are biological. I am not using the biological definitions in this text, I’m relying on terms from marriage and family counselors.
A psychology need is something necessary to develop a sense of self. If you want to learn more about needs, there are several books and websites with information on Abraham Maslow’s theories. By contrast, a desire is something we want, but that is unessential to the development of self-awareness. Philosophers also consider desires versus needs.
Allow me another moment of blunt honesty: some individuals with ASDs will never be able to communicate desires. As a result, we can only make assumptions about the desires of some autistic people. I know that is not ideal, and mistakes are likely when we assume what any other person wants. Counselors suggest at least trying to interpret desires signals caring for someone, but we don’t know if all autistic people understand such efforts.
Most of people tend to be more aware of desires. Desires are those impulses that cause people to pursue particular relationships. Because desires do not always align with our actual needs, desires can lead us make decisions that result in poor relationships. All people mistake some desires for needs. For autistic individuals the complexities of can be incomprehensible. That’s not a personal failing, it merely reflects the challenges of being less able to interpret situations.
• What we desire isn’t always what is best for us, including in relationships
• Teens (and adults) want friends who can be bridges to other social groups and settings
• Teens with ASDs often speak of wanting companions who will help them “feel normal”
• The desire to be wanted is most common
As I wrote, a desire isn’t necessary for self-awareness, but they are important. The impulse to seek a group and a sense of social standing is normal. “Belonging” is considered a human need, but we don’t always the desire the people and relationships that will actual embrace us. When we are lucky, though, our desires end up leading us to our needs.
Parents, family members, and support providers have asked how they can determine the desires of a child or adult with an ASD. The solution is to discuss desires. If you are an individual with autism, the same suggestion applies: tell your friends and family what you want. Whether you are the friend or the person with autism, do what works best when you want to ask anything serious.
If you talk over dinner, ask about desires then. If you talk while taking walks, ask then. The main thing is that eventually people need to discuss their desires. For people with autism, these discussions might come later than their peers, but the discussions should happen. If you are a parent or caregiver, you should ask about desires if your teen or young adult with autism doesn’t mention them first.
Parents tell me that the reality is teens with autism end up surprising their families with questions about social desires at the least expected moment. As early as elementary school an autistic child might say, “I wish I had more friends.” That is a common desire, of course. The questions and complaints get more complex, so get ready — they will be asked.
The remainder of this text addresses desires, with the hope that needs are also met.
Recall that needs are those relationships that help us develop self-awareness. The theory is that as people develop self-awareness, they also improve their abilities to understand the thoughts of others. In autism research, this is known as the “Theory of Mind.” Studies have found that autistic individuals not only struggle to imagine how others feel or might act, but they also struggle to understand their own emotions and reactions.
What we need to develop our self-awareness are relationships that guide us. What we need, in essence, are true friends. Friends might also be family, and our lovers are hopefully our friends. Friends meet needs because they do some or all of the following:
• Complement us, without exceeding our tolerances
• Expand our social network, providing supports and guidance to socializing
• Help interpret the world for us, and interpret us to the world
• Know how to “correct” our social errors without insulting our natures
Friends do these things for us because we do the same for them. Autistic individuals might not always appreciate how we meet the needs of people in our lives. Sometimes, we have to have things explained to us — including why someone might consider us a friend.
I’ve heard it said, “Autistics see the world differently.” If that’s true, they we help people see and interpret the world in new ways. I’m not always sure my friend get much benefit from me, but they seem content to remain friends.
How A Friend Helps
The friends of autistic individuals help us in countless ways. The belonging a friend offers is only the start. Friends are bridges and buffers, helping us connect to others while also protecting us. Some important examples of how a friend helps include:
• Models social skills and norms in various settings
• Introduces the teen/adult to other potential friends and social situations
• Demonstrates that “me time” is okay, even necessary
• Guides the teen/adult away from stressful situations
• Recognizes potential triggers before it is “too late” for the teen/adult
• Offers comfort when “life” inevitably happens
People generally learn social norms by mimicking parents and peers unconsciously. Psychologists and neurologists theorize “mirror neurons” enable children to mimic the behaviors around them long before basic memories form. Mirroring, research suggests, is instinctive. Some people with ASDs do this well, others have to consciously mimic social skills and norms. Either way, friends are the best models. Observing and interacting with friends also provides an opportunity to learn about ourselves.
Self-awareness requires a knowledge of our behaviors. For people with autism, learning about how we behave is challenging. Watching our friends, the people we attempt to mimic, helps us understand more about ourselves.
Most people with ASDs are not extroverts, and those autistics who are sometimes overestimate their own social skills. Friends can help an autistic person connect to social groups. Often, friends share our interests and know of groups and organizations dedicated to those interests. An autistic person might not be to deal with all social gatherings his or her friends enjoy, but every social interaction is valuable.
Because autism is characterized by isolation, it is easy to forget that everyone needs “me time” and time away from stressful situations. Even friends need time apart, a bit of alone time to recharge emotionally and physically. It is a valuable, though difficult, to realize friends are not always available. Autistic children, and some autistic adults, struggle with the realization friends needing time apart is not a sign of rejection.
Our friends also guide us away from potentially risky or emotionally damaging situations. Not that some “friends” don’t guide us towards danger, but real friends try to protect us. Since autistic individuals cannot always read situations or people, a friend who can perceive dangers is great to have. Even autistic individuals with good math and logic skills often miscalculate personal risks.
Truly great friends, including our close family members, learn to recognize those conditions that lead to sensory or emotional overload. Teens with ASDs seem particularly prone to assuming they can tolerate more stimuli than actually is possible. In school or at home, a meltdown or withdrawal might be okay, but in public settings becoming overwhelmed can be frustrating for a teen or adult with autism.
Of course, “life happens” and our friend are there to help cope with frustration and disappoint. That might be the most important role for friends of autistic individuals. Life with a disability is frustrating; “invisible” disabilities like autism expose people to unique frustrations. Because autism, learning disabilities, and other impairments don’t always appear severe, uninformed people don’t always understand the challenges. Our friends do.