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The Alien in the Room

An "alien" is defined as "a hypothetical or fictional being from another planet", and this analogy has often been used to describe how individuals with an autism diagnosis experience our society. Confused and perplexed by our non verbal communication, our social customs and rules (both spoken and unspoken) and our love of staring in each others eyeballs! We seek conformance, and see anything else as "odd".

Social skills training being one of my passions, I have mused over the way in which our social world is perceived, and which skills are necessary, will enhance quality of life, and those which are simply superfluous. While navigating the social world, walking in the shoes of my students, I have often felt like the alien in the room. The term "Neurotypical" was actually coined by the ASD community as a tongue in cheek reference to our love of labels. As an NT, (neurotypical) it constantly occurs to me that I am as much an alien in their world as they are in ours, and as such I seek to comprehend the nuances and complexities of behaviour.

As an alien, coming from a behaviourist background, I find myself analysing behaviour to look for the function. Function meaning, why? The difference in navigating the autistic social world, is that customs differ from person to person, and so a common set of customs are hard to pinpoint.As a result of this, the "why" is often harder to decipher. However, one thing is obvious, intentions are more glaringly obvious, and truth is often the medium for communication. With this in mind, can we really say that this is inappropriate? If more people spoke the truth, reading between the lines would not be necessary, body language analysis would be irrelevant, and people would always know where they stand. If we took a leaf out of the ASD social book, would we have a more direct society, what would be so wrong with that?

From my own perspective, I love directness. I vehemently dislike beating around the bush. I find the direct communication of my students refreshing. For example, I once had a session with a student, and she commented on my nails. I had just had them done the previous day, and wasn't quite sure about the colour, a little too Barbie for my liking. She told me how much she liked them, before adding "maybe a bit young for you though". I laughed before agreeing with her. This fresh opinion, was what I had sought, but anyone else I had asked had perhaps been too polite to give their honest opinion, or perhaps they really did like my Barbie pink polish! This direct honesty may not be for everyone, but it most definitely has its place.

White lies are a necessity in our society, to spare the feelings of those you are communicating with. However, if we all had a direct style of communication, but took account of people's feelings while delivering our opinion, the need for white lies would be diminished or even eliminated. It looks like a mixture of both social approaches is actually the ideal scenario in my opinion. The only problem we can encounter is when people express their opinions as facts, never a good tactic in conversation! So the difference between fact and opinion, and how to appropriately express and respond to them, is a basic lesson that needs to be learned by both people with ASD and NT alike. .

When examining eye contact, I have often sat and actively tried to understand why it is awkward for those on the spectrum, and the more that I try, the more awkward I actually find it, and I completely empathise with the struggle. Unfortunately eye contact is something that us NT's actively value, and when it is absent, we almost mistrust the individual. Why is staring in someones eyeball a sign of trust and comfort? Why not stare at their nostrils or arm? Literature tells us that eyes are the windows to the soul, and so I presume by looking into someones eyes you are actively seeing the person, rather than just acknowledging their existence. To write that sounds odd, so how do we explain it to someone on the spectrum? Well in truth, we can't, we have to just discuss the importance of eye contact, the social repercussions resulting from the lack of it, and how to find clever ways around it if you find it too uncomfortable (concentrating on the patch between their eyebrows is always a good one!)

Conversation is often perfunctory for those on the spectrum, conveying their wants/needs or relaying information about their favourite topics. NT conversations are often full of fluff. When asked how we are, we say "good/grand/great" when we could be anything but! If our conversations were less about the perceptions of our communicative partner, and more about actually communicating, we may find that we are less burdened in times of struggle. Yet the structure of our conversations allow each person an equal share of the conversation, equal air time if you will (Well, most of the time, we all know a conversation hog!) This equality is often lacking in conversation with those on the spectrum, and teaching skills such as the two question rule (when someone asks a questions, you have to answer it, before asking an on topic question in return) are a necessity. This equality leads to individuals feeling heard, valued and respected, and this is a firm foundation for any friendship.

The social ramifications of one's actions must be made evident in order for true learning and social growth to take place. While I comprehend, and have respect for the social presentation of those on the spectrum, our social world is the one in which we predominantly reside, and so, our strange ways and customs must be understood and followed to a degree. In equal measures though, I feel that we need to comprehend the ASD social world, and respect that their ways are not intended to be rude or disrespectful. Mutual respect and comprehension is necessary, and also achievable. We are all aliens in our own respect, and a little understanding and acceptance can go a long way.

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