Autistic people are — quite literally by (diagnostic) definition — seen as socially awkward, often in ways that are immediately apparent to neurotypical people.
One fascinating study found, for instance, that neurotypical people (people without autism, abbreviated as "NT" later on) are less likely to want to interact with autistic people based on mere snippets of the ways in which they present themselves. It is especially interesting that neurotypical folks were very quick to judge autistic people when shown video footage or played audio, while their first impressions were totally normal when judging written content.
So, what struggles can autistic people encounter with social interactions? Though examples are laid out in the diagnostic criteria found in the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, the "psychiatry bible" is so clinical that you may not get all that much information from it. Wordings like "deficits in social-emotional reciprocity", "abnormal social approach", and "poorly integrated verbal and nonverbal communication" don't exactly give concrete examples, do they?
Even less clinical sources that give more tangible examples such as "avoiding eye contact" and "an unusual tone of voice" (like, for instance, the NIH's info page on autism spectrum disorder) don't help anyone understand what it is like to interact socially in a neurotypical world as an autistic person.
How sensory overload impacts social interactions
The DSM-5 speaks of "hyper- or hyporeactivity to sensory input or unusual interest in sensory aspects of the environment". How could this feature of the autism spectrum impact social interactions?
- Mila shares: "I have audio processing issues and am incredibly sensitive to all the sounds around. I can't hear what the people around me are trying to tell me in loud, crowded situations, and loud sounds can cause me physical pain. I don't do parties. Or concerts. Or shopping malls. They drive me crazy. NTs center their lives on things like these, so yes, that can get awkward."
- Bryan agrees: "A loud sound or bad smell can put me in a bad mood for hours. Just interacting with more than a few people at a time also does this. Before my diagnosis, this caused problems in my marriage but now, I am able to explain why, because I understand myself."
Passions or 'autistic obsessions' and other people's reaction to them
The DSM-5 mentions "highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus" — also colloquially called special interests or autistic obsessions. People without autism may experience autistic people as rather intense, in a way they don't appreciate.
- Mila explains: "Even my parents always used to tell me to stop thinking and talking about things that were important to me. This made me feel unvalued."
- "Other people call it obsessions," says Willem. "I say we are passionate and have a life-long love of learning."
- Bryan adds: "I still don't understand this one. Isn't it normal for people to talk about topics they're interested in, rather than topics they couldn't care less about? Well, of course. It's also frustrating when nobody in your life seems to share your interests. For the NTs, I guess the problem comes in when I don't pick up on them not being interested in something I think is fascinating, and I keep on talking when they want me to stop."
Loving routines and hating change
When the DSM-5 describes "insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualized patterns of verbal or nonverbal behavior", you might imagine someone who orders the same take-out every Friday, has five pairs of the same shoes, or simply needs to engage in their daily tasks in the exact same order every day. All these things can be true, but a love of routines and hard time coping with change can impact social interactions, as well.
- Mila says: "If I'm gonna be social with you, I prepare for this for hours before I actually see you, and I really don't do well if you cancel at the last minute."
- Bryan recognizes this. "I used to have this problem," he says, "but I'm now at a point where I can get over this quite quickly, after working through it with my therapist."
Initiating conversations, reacting to comments, and scripting
The DSM-5 describes how autistic folks can struggle with initiating conversations, responding when someone says something, and holding back-and-forth conversations. Many autistic people cope by creating "scripts" in their heads to be better prepared for social interactions — but they don't always work.
- Bryan says: "After my diagnosis, I realized that I had always observed how other people interact and make scripts on the basis of what I hear, the way someone who is learning a foreign language would also rehearse phrases. Go-to sentences like 'awesome, thanks, and you?' or 'I am sorry to hear that, what can I do?' really help."
- Willem agrees. "I make scripts for all possible interactions, and this is the sole reason I can function at work, especially with telephone conversations. If something diverges from the script, I may not know what to do next. And I may say things before my turn or after a long pause."
Coping with social disconnects between autistic and neurotypical people
Other random trouble autistic people can encounter during social interactions are caused by the fact that autistic and neurotypical people just don't always understand each other — something that can impact the content of conversations as well as non-verbal aspects of communication like body language and tone of voice.
- Willem says a lot of jokes either go over his head or he just doesn't find them funny.
- Mila explains that she says what she thinks, and though she knows neurotypical people often express themselves more subtly, she doesn't always understand what they want. This can be awkward all around.
- Bryan describes another common issue — "When I get excited about something, I tend to be loud, which other people then interpret as aggression, and when I'm just fine, people often think I am sad or angry."
Talking about emotions
Autistic people have a reputation for having trouble talking about emotions, but Mila thinks it's neurotypical people who don't do it well. She explains that she has "face-blindness". Not only does she sometimes not recognize people she knows well as they pass her by on the street, she also isn't very good at "reading" the emotions expressed on their faces. "The easiest way to find out what someone is feeling would be to ask them, but neurotypical people don't always give you a straight answer," she shares.
Willem recognizes this, and says that he's gotten into trouble for believing people when they say they feel a certain way before. "They say they're fine, but then expect me to know they're not and get angry when I don't have a clue. Why don't they just say what they mean?"
"I logically deduce how people must be feeling," Bryan says. "A promotion makes someone happy and their dog dying makes them sad. But in less obvious situations, I might not know. Someone may be offended because of the way I expressed myself, not say so, and instead start acting cold."
Mila wants to dispell the notion that autistic people feel no empathy, though. She says that she has a lot of empathy once she realizes how someone feels, but getting there may take a while. And, crucially, "I might respond in a way that the other person doesn't find appropriate."
A final word
I hope that you got some interesting insights from Mila, Willem, and Bryan that go beyond what a diagnostic cheklist could offer. Autism exists on a spectrum, however, and autistic people are individuals — which means everyone on the spectrum experiences social interactions differently, and faces their own personal challenges.
If you know someone who is autistic, the best way to make social interactions mutually satisying is to ask direct questions about their needs, opinions, and perceptions, rather than trying to guess. If you think you may be autistic yourself and recognize yourself in the descriptions above, it may be time for you to seek evaluation.