Written-out moments from a conversation with an autism specialist.
I am currently going back, piecing together all of these sessions, and hope to make them available at some point. This is one example….the topic of this discussion was one we re-visited more than any other: the daily task of processing social data.
Doctor: I’d like to focus on some of what you said last week about interactions with others, make sure I’m getting a sense of this. With permission, I’ll use a metaphor.
Doctor: I was thinking about how most people- during conversation- remain unaware of the things you have to constantly process. It’s a perceptual difference and I was trying to imagine what a social interaction must feel like from your perspective. When you talk to a person- it must feel like having a dozen radios playing at the same time.
M: I think that fits. The words a person says are always one small part of the discussion. Their inflection is another part. Their eye movements, hand gestures, shoulder posture, all of that is streaming in with equal intensity, along with the general surroundings- lights, ambient noise, etc. So it is like the radio thing. It’s hard, sometimes, to know what I’m supposed to be paying attention to, what’s relevant to that particular conversation. I have to sort through all of the data and consciously keep track of what matters, what doesn’t. There’s: “what a person says” versus “what a person means”; relevant body language versus stray movements…it’s usually more than I can take in.
Doctor: What tends to be most stressful?
M: I don’t know. I would say sensory input is the worst, the lights and all of that. That’s the most distracting thing. And I get really thrown off by…I don’t know what to call it. Persona issues. When someone puts a lot of effort into signaling how they want to be perceived. Sometimes it feels like people are trying to say one thing, but they take the long way around, and use too many descriptors. Does that make any sense?
Doctor: I’m not quite there. Can you think of an example?
M: Umm…I’m trying to think. Like expressions of status in a conversation. When someone is saying one set of things…but really saying, “I’m important”. Or when they’re indicating membership in a particular social group. I look so hard for what a person is saying that overt expressions of meaning can be incredibly intense. I get bothered by distinctive clothing for the same reasons. Clothing choices often repeat a lot of the information you’ll hear in conversation. I got this monologue from an employee at the organic food store the other day. She had an alternative kind of look…like, a look a lot of the employees there had.
I pause, chase thoughts around, try to recall the memory.
M: I needed help finding an item in the store, so I asked her about it. She pointed to the location. Then she mentioned a few things about general organic produce issues…then she switched to consumerism, environmentalism, world hunger, and so on. She described all of these food-themed documentaries she was watching. And it was exhausting because her clothes, her look, each statement…it was all a repetition of the exact same sentiment. “This is who I am. This is who I am. This is who I am”. She was wanting to really convey her values when one sentence would have been enough.
D: So…using the radio metaphor…social data can be very loud sometimes.
M: Yes. I mean, that’s the weird thing; there tends to be this constant imbalance. Sometimes I pick up on a lot of stuff that is irrelevant…random vocal inflection, statements unrelated to the overall conversation. Other times I’m hit really hard by the relevant statements…I hear the core thing so intensely that I’m no longer able to process the overall structure of the conversation. Lady at the organic store…I heard her perspective instantly, and everything after that was just mind-numbing repetition. I really shut down. I stopped participating and just felt blank, exhausted.
D: Which most people would’ve felt. Anytime someone talks your ear off, it’s exhausting. Most people would have reacted the way you did.
M: That’s true. She talked a lot, anyone would have felt overloaded. But I use an extreme example because it gets at something that happens all the time in normal, every day conversation. I just get really shut down around people because so much of what we say is cover, camouflage…and, I don’t know. Does this make any sense?
D: It makes sense.
M: In some cases, I have trouble understanding the structure of a conversation because it gets overwhelmed by the meanings it contains. In other cases, I’ll hear the structure so intensely that I can’t figure out what’s actually being said. It’s back and forth like that…it’s hard to pin down most conversations.
She looks off to the side, pauses for a bit.
M: It’s frustrating, I’m not saying that very well.
D: No, I hear you. I’m just…
She continues the pause.
D: It explains a lot. Small talk is basically filler. It can lead up to more meaningful conversation, but it contains little information in itself. To use your words, it’s weighted toward the structure side of conversation instead of the meaning side. In the radio metaphor, small talk would sound like static. It’s just noise that covers up the meanings. This woman at the store…she went to the opposite extreme. She bypassed small talk, went directly into statements that contained information about herself…it was like suddenly hitting a radio station that was too clear, too loud.
She nods, thinks.
M: Why did you create the radio metaphor?
D: What do you mean?
M: Well, I describe things as clearly as I can. I’m just curious why you created this radio metaphor. It’s not a problem or anything, I’m just…I don’t know. I guess I don’t understand the purpose of developing the metaphor. I figure, with you, I can express that fact. Most people, I can’t say stuff like “I’m confused.” I usually have to hide that stuff.
D: Yes. I hope you feel comfortable asking questions, it’s always okay. So, I would say there are two reasons I thought of this radio metaphor. One, is just to help myself organize the information you’re providing me. Your descriptions are very clear, but I also like to step back, create concepts that help me to see the big picture. Metaphors…for me…are helpful in that regard.
D: The second reason that is, by creating this metaphor and describing it to you…I’m working to establish a shared language. With a shared language, I feel like I can signal to you that I am listening, understanding. Normally, I convey those things with “listening gestures”…eye contact, nodding. But I think you find body language to be artificial. I don’t think you trust it.
I don’t say anything.
D: The radio metaphor allows me to use words…which I think you trust more. It’s just a way to keep the conversation in your comfort zone. Is that okay?
M: Yes. Thank you for explaining.
It’s quiet. I shuffle my feet, drink coffee.