I’ve just read a lovely article by Sara Ryan and Ulla Räisänen [“It’s like you are just a spectator in this thing”: Experiencing social life the “aspie” way. Emotion, Space and Society, 2008, 1, 135-143] who interviewed people with Asperger’s syndrome to explore their experiences of problems like social exclusion. Some excerpts from the interviews:
“… it just sort of highlighted and made me almost feel as though basically sort of like a freak. You know you really had nothing in common with these people and with people in general and it was a very lonely feeling […] You know, loneliness, I think, sort of becomes the default setting.”
“… like you say something stupid, and then realise you have said something stupid, and say something even more stupid, and or say something or do something awkward and then sort of combination of doing something awkward and saying something awkward and trying to make it funny and then making it even more awkward, making yourself look like a complete and utter idiot and then going all sort of red in the face and then hiding for days.”
This sort of detail of what it feels like to be an “aspie” in an (in general) non-aspie friendly society is sadly missing from the psychological literature.
It would have been lovely if they’d also included a matched non-Asperger group. For instance after discussing how it felt for one of the participants to try to have a conversation, the authors comment:
“Of course, this is an experience that is probably familiar to many neuro-typical people but the level of intensity and frequency is substantial for people with AS who are unable, or find it difficult to, internalise social norms and values.”
So, how does it feel for a typically developing person to have a conversation? There must be a tremendous amount of variation! Where do people typically get their ideas from? Where does it feel like they come from? Do they just pop into memory? I’ve been in many fairly unpleasant social situations where people simply have nothing to say to each other. Wine is then wheeled in before disaster strikes. I’ve seen a professor digest a copy of the Guardian just before going to lunch; from the conversation that followed it seemed that he was replaying much of what he read, but the result was that people had interesting discussions. To make sense of the autism spectrum experience, the worries of typically developing folk must also be carefully understood.
How the participants thought of topics reminded me of the distinction between stimulus-oriented versus stimulus-independent thought. I wonder if results from the cognitive end of the literature combined with interviews could give ideas for “coping mechanisms”, both for autistics and for NTs. This would fit in nicely with the authors argument that “Moral obligations … include being sympathetically aware of the kinds of ways in which others present can become spontaneously and properly involved…”—maybe conversation partners can help autistic people to ignore local stimulus cues, so the interaction goes beyond words to include explicit joint planning.