Caring for Your Introvert - The Atlantic

A recommended column:

Caring for Your Introvert - The Atlantic

Why would I post a link to an article on "introverts" to The Autistic Me? Because I've had a handful of parents and teachers suggest to me that the quiet young people we might call "geeks" or "nerds" are "on the spectrum." The implication is that introversion itself is a pathology. This view of introversion is the result of viewing anyone asocial as somehow defective.

Introversion is not a disorder. Shyness is sometimes the cause, but sometimes a person simply likes to be alone -- without being shy. Also, being asocial is not the same as being destructively anti-social. You can simply want to be alone without hating people. Not everyone with a desire for solitude is a misanthrope.

Social people do have more "success" in politics, business, and in some academic settings. We all know that social skills do, rightly or wrongly, affect our success in life, even when we don't define success in financial terms. I've met mediocre artists who could get a showing anywhere on sheer personal charisma. We know authors sell their personalities on talk shows in the same way. A charming, personable author ends up on daytime television.

Yes, impaired social skills is one, and only one, of the criteria for autism spectrum disorders. We need to stop thinking of it as the defining characteristic of ASDs. Also, we must stop confusing shyness or simple introversion with serious social impairments.

The social impairment in ASDs start with the inability to "read" other people. Most shy people I know have no problem reading expressions, gestures, or vocal tones. They simply dislike being in large groups of people. They are able to do well on face reading tests, for example, but don't want to be at a crowded party.

Admittedly, if you take enough abuse and feel slighted enough times by colleagues and peers, it is a challenge not to become cynical and misanthropic. I personally find I dislike trying to deal with people more each year. The majority of people might be okay, but it seems that one lousy person will find a way to abuse or insult me given the opportunity. Why would I want to deal with a large group knowing even one jerk is present? Unlike other people, I have a difficult time, a nearly impossible time, forgetting such abuse.

But I'm not shy. I'm not introverted. In fact, my problem is that I will try to defend myself when I perceive an attack. (I don't always perceive an attack, sadly, until it is too late to undo damage.) So, my "introversion" is really an attempt to avoid people and conflicts. It's not a desire to be alone because I like being alone, it is a desire to avoid being miserable later.

Many people with ASDs start to seem introverted because that's an easy way to cope with life. If I stay at home, there is less risk of sensory overload, emotional overload, or general social conflicts. Alone is safe. And, thankfully, I don't feel "lonely" or "isolated" -- when I feel "trapped" it is not because I want to be around people, but because I want out of the city.

Sure, I realize I was isolated from peers and colleagues. But my desire for connections was practical; I realize social connections do matter at school, in the workplace, and within organizations. Unfortunately, I lack the social skills to develop the relationships that might help my career(s).

My wife is an introvert. She is quite comfortable at home reading or working on crafts. She can read people, she is polite and never defensive. She's far better with people than I will ever be. But, she likes to be alone. That's not a bad thing. In fact, it makes her a great companion because we can sit at home, alone, enjoying time with our cats.


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