One of the themes I came across from Donna Williams’ The Jumbled Jigsaw was a problem with experiencing company. She stated that she got to the age of 30 until she had actually experienced being “with” rather that just “at”. She has explained it as having a “simultaneous sense of self and other”.
You can read about that in her book, but here is my re-interpretation of it. It was a while before what she was describing sank in properly and I could see this problem at work in my own life.
I think it goes a bit beyond being able to enjoy the company of another person or several people in a group, because there are so many ramifications of not having the ability to maintain “self” and “other” at the same time.
I have wondered why my recollections of being with other people have little information about the mental states of these other people and what they said and thought. Why do I remember being in a place but not anything about the people?
I often have trouble making sense of why I went along with certain decisions in my life. Why was it that I often agreed to things that later on didn’t seem to make sense once I’d thought about it? Why do I feel so unsure when trying to verbalise things?
In interactions with other people there can be information processing problems. For autistic people if can manifest as having a sort of “mono-tracked” mind. This is not quite the same as the typical understanding of not being able to multi-task, something that conventional wisdom says that women are better at. In reality I think it’s just that in that case men and women have different scopes to their area of multi-tasking. For an autistic person the difficulty is at a far lower level that is in most people’s unconscious processes.
In order to be in company “with” another you have to be able to converse. This is not a discrete task – I have seen people who can check their email and listen to a conversation at the same time. Regardless of whether this is considered rude or not, people can actually do it! Conversation in itself requires that you are able to listen to the words another person is saying, figure out what those words mean, at the same time as working out what you think about the meaning of what they have said in order to formulate a useful response. What will happen with an Aspie is often a delay that is longer than normal people expect, which can be interpreted as rudeness or boredom most likely. If you can’t formulate a response that must mean you aren’t interested in what the person is saying surely?
Unless the autistic person has encountered a topic before in an almost identical context there may genuinely be no idea of what they think about a certain thing. I have found this happen to me in situations where some opinion is expected and I just have nothing available to say. I marvel at other people sounding so sure of what they think about something they have just been asked about. This is probably one of the things that has led me to think I was less intelligent than others and had a bit of a hit on my self-esteem.
In conversation my difficulty is working out what to say next at the same time as listening to another person. I regularly time things badly and try and get things out because I won’t have a hold on them later. Conversations are a rather hit-and-miss operation where I may not recollect much about what the other person was saying, possibly because my head was full of what I was going to say next and there was only partial space for the other person’s words.
There can be the additional problem of processing visual input that is relevant in that moment. “Face blindness” is something often used to describe the difficulty in reading people’s expressions, but I wonder if it has more to do with the processing of detail irrelevant to conversation. I’ll remember what someone is wearing or the colour of their shoes and have no useful information related to what they were trying to express, or what their mood may have been. I’m sure this causes problems in figuring out what people are like and what they are interested in.
Processing is often delayed. After a conversation or perhaps an experience of a group situation, possibly several days after I’ll have processed the words or possibly the meaning associated with the words.
After playing things over in my head many times I’ll have realised what might have been a useful response. In this way I end up having many normal conversations in my head that are unlikely to happen in reality because I won’t have to words available unless I can trot out a response that seems to apply to the context, but may not have any relation to what I actually think or feel.
The difficulty of trying to track conversations in a group situation usually leads to me becoming silent. I’ll be unable to focus on one and end up bouncing between several and failing to participate in any of them unless I’m asked something specific. My guess is that this results in people not remembering you were there or that you had anything much to add.
The dangerous element here is that one can be so involved in the “other” with little sense of self that you will end up agreeing with statement and going along with suggestions because you can’t work out what you actually want in time. In order to go with a social situation you compromise your own self because it isn’t possible to say you’ll think about it and give a reply tomorrow.
This brings me back to some of those initial questions of why I went with certain decisions in my life, when after the fact I have no idea how I ended up with those decisions. Why did I end up spending time with people I didn’t like, and doing things that were perhaps contrary to my own nature? Why did I end up in a destructive relationship for more than ten years?
The answer, I think, comes with this problem of having a simultaneous sense of “self” and “other”. My self will make one decision, and “other” can often come along and I’ll have gone along with someone else’s point of view.
This account can’t really tell someone, or me, how to manage to be in company reliably. I can only maintain this sense occasionally and usually by accident. The feeling is good, but very difficult to re-capture. I know that it is more likely to happen with other Aspies, which is why support groups are helpful for allowing Aspies to meet one another.