Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Puzzling Nature of Relationships

Sure, it is a play on the "puzzle" of autism — because I believe relationships are a puzzle for almost every person. More from the eBook I am preparing for release later this month.

Relationship Circles
We often hear about “circles of friends” and our “social circles.” These are references to the numbers of people we consider to be within particular relationship categories. The smallest “circle” is that of lovers: usually two people. Even that smallest of circles changes, as partners enter and leave our lives. The largest, and most fluid circle, contains the strangers we encounter on any given day.
Most of our relationships begin in the outer circle. We meet a stranger and that person becomes an acquaintance over time. If we work closely with that person, he or she might become a colleague or peer. Eventually, we somehow sort through our peers and choose friends — or they choose us. I consider my wife to be my best friend, but I knew her first as schoolmate (not even a classmate). Through our choices and the choices of others, our circles change throughout our entire lives. 
The Circles

Advice, Not Certainty
This text now moves ahead towards discussions that do not apply to every individual with an autism spectrum disorder. Despite years of autism research, I have never located reliable statistics on the percentage of individuals with ASDs classified as “moderately to minimally” impaired. The shifting diagnostic criteria complicate any estimate I might offer. However, the reality is that many children and adults with autism might not form close friendships or intimate relationships. 
Intelligence and general social skills do not predict how an autistic person perceives relationships. We should remember that some “high functioning” individuals are uninterested in social connections. I’ve met many autistic adults describing themselves as “asexual” or “non-gendered.” These adults often have careers and are independent, but they do not have a desire for emotional bonds. 
I wish we had better, more descriptive terms than “low-functioning” and “developmentally delayed.” If someone doesn’t desire romantic relationships, who has the right to describe that person as lacking developmental maturity? I believe a person demonstrates maturity and development by recognizing his or her personal nature. So, though I am using clinical and research terms, I don’t believe these terms are ideal. 
With those caveats and qualifications, I want to remind readers that the advice in following chapters:
• Does not apply to every individual with an ASD and might not apply to your teen or adult with autism
• Must be adapted to each teen’s or adult’s situation and abilities
• Assumes a teen or adult is “mainstreamed” in his or her daily routine
• Is offered generally, based on discussions with parents and students living with autism
The Outer Rings
Most people we encounter are either complete strangers or minor acquaintances. These are the largest “relationship circles” and also the least connected to us. Because strangers and acquaintances are unfamiliar to us, we cannot anticipate their behaviors. Most people find these groups difficult to navigate, but the challenges are much greater for people with ASDs. 
Strangers
From the first day of school to the first day at work, we have to deal with strangers. We deal with strangers at malls, strangers at restaurants, and strangers nearly everywhere else we might go. Most people develop the skills to deal with the emotional and sensory stimuli of strangers. Personally, I find strangers overwhelming and exhausting.
A stranger is someone with whom you directly interact rarely, if at all, forming no social bonds. Some strangers do move into the closer social circles, but the vast majority do not. It is difficult, if not impossible to predict which strangers will become important to us. 
A good guideline to live by is that every stranger might be someone you need later in life. Such a reasonable guideline isn’t always easy to remember or follow, especially when an autistic individual might be balancing other challenges when meeting someone for the first time. Every class I’ve taught began with many strangers in the seats. Some of these strangers might become my colleagues someday. 
I try to remind myself that people don’t know, and usually cannot tell, that I have sensory and physical challenges. People don’t know that their fragrances, voices, or gestures might make me uncomfortable. Unfortunately, considering the limited knowledge of others doesn’t make it any easier to deal with them. 
If you are a person with an ASD, some advice for dealing with strangers includes:
• Avoid approaching strangers when it would be unexpected, this makes people uncomfortable
• Answer questions if approached in social situations, but keep answers short
• Do not answer personal questions asked by a stranger unlikely to need the information
• Allow other people to initiate contact when possible
• Rely on friends to help navigate situations in which strangers are common
A therapist told me she encourages her clients with ASDs to approach strangers in public places and try to start conversations. Kamran Nazeer writes of trying this himself, in Send in the Idiots. Personally, I’m not comfortable with this outside parties or places where approaching someone might be accepted as “normal” by attendees. I’ve met too many autistic individuals who tried to approach someone in a public space only to be accused of harassment. That’s not a good experience. 
My preference is to allow people to approach me, if they want. There are plenty of shy and introverted people in the world; it’s okay to be cautious and shy among strangers. I’m not suggesting that individuals with ASDs need to hide in a corner or avoid people if they are comfortable mingling. I simply want to stress that being uncomfortable with strangers is not unusual for anyone.
Questions also pose a problem for some people with ASDs. We tend to answer questions we shouldn’t, sometimes disclosing private information. Remember the notecard tip: you can have a list of information it is safe to share and a list of information to keep confidential. If you are a parent, caregiver, or educator of autistic individuals, you can help create the list of information safe to share. While the first issue might be identity theft, sharing to much can also enable others to take advantage of an autistic individual in other ways. 
Life-long Challenges
I have never and will never deal well with strangers. I could practice and rehearse meeting people for hours each week, with the best business coach, and I would still have the same limitations I’ve had for more than four decades. It is important for parents and caregivers to understand that I realize I should be “different” in social situations and that I comprehend the logic involved. But, I have worked with behavioral experts, family counselors, and educational psychologists without any significant changes. What I learn to do in practice simply doesn’t transfer to “real world” situations. They are not the same, no matter how much I try to “pretend” or “imagine” they are the same. 
This inability to role play, imagine, pretend, or rehearse most significantly affects my ability to interact with strangers. I could do a thousand “mock interviews” and that might alter my behavior slightly, right up until the perfume of the stranger interviewing me causes a migraine. I cannot completely shut down my senses or my impulses to deal with strangers. 
Parents, caregivers, and educators might not like reading the preceding paragraphs, but they reflect the challenges of many autistic individuals. Not all of us with ASDs can alter ourselves to social norms, no matter how much we might want to do so or how reasonable the request to change is. I am not arguing that I have not improved my social skills over time, but they have not improved as much as those of my peers — I will always lag behind with social skills. However, some people with ASDs can and do master “acting” and the skills required to deal with strangers. 
Mastering the Stranger Things
I theorize, admittedly with limited research evidence, that exposure to people is necessary to learn how to deal with them. Research on “sensory integration therapy” has been limited and often with contradictory findings. However, I believe that trips to the mall or other public places helped me learn how to deal with strangers and crowds. I am not sure I am less sensitive, but I learned ways to cope with the stimuli caused by people.
Friends, family, caregivers, and educators can try to expose a child or teen with an ASD to small groups, followed by larger crowds. However, I also believe you should do this only with an “escape route” in mind. There are days when I can go to a mall and days when I have to leave in a hurry. Knowing a way out of the crowd of strangers is essential. I always try to memorize the layout of a store, mall, or other public space. If there are maps, I am sure to take one and carry it with me. 

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