Small Talk

I was reading an excellent post on M. Kelter’s experience of conversation and social input in general – Sorting Social Data (Go read it!) – that resonated with me on a lot of levels.

It’s always so helpful to hear other autistics relate and try to describe their thoughts and experiences on processing issues as it’s so difficult (BECAUSE of processing issues) for me to describe and understand them. I find reading other’s ideas and experiences triggers memories and realizations of my own.

In reading the above post I was reminded of an incident that had happened just the night before. An old friend of my oldest (also autistic) daughter was in our area playing with his band and she had come down from Oakland to join us in going to see them. We picked her sister up from work and, with a couple of hours to kill before the show, went out for Thai food. I love the fact that we can talk about all kinds of random things together, or not talk at all, and (at least as far as I’m aware) don’t feel stress or awkwardness in either case. I think we are completely comfortable together.

About halfway through our meal, two women came in and sat at a neighboring table. My daughters were discussing something, but the conversation at the other table was interfering with my ability to keep track, though I wasn’t purposely or even consciously listening to the other conversation.

Until I was.

I was trying not to laugh. It reminded me of one of my favorite movies and a script that we – both daughters and myself – use frequently:

Mashed Potatoes and Tall Actors

Except they were talking about shopping around for churches and cooking and other unrelated things. One woman had a slow, lugubrious voice and repeated herself several times on seemingly unrelated topics. It was hard to tell whether the other woman was talking too softly for us to hear sometimes or simply wasn’t responding to everything the other lady said.

I looked to see if my daughters had picked up on it and they had, their expressions looking very similar to Sandra Bullock’s at the end of the above clip.

At that point it became impossible for me to focus on almost anything else. It’s just a good thing that we have very good senses of humor. And while I don’t in general like making fun of people, sometimes it’s impossible to not find them funny. We were laughing.

I got to thinking about it today, though. As funny as it was to overhear it, it would have been absolute torture to actually be a part of it. I have a short attention span for such conversations and little of the right kind of imagination or patience to participate in topics I’m not interested in. If it’s a case of showing interest in a friend’s interest, I can do that. I can think of pertinent questions to ask and respond appropriately (I think) because I care about my friend and am able to be interested (however temporarily) for their sake. I am interested in their interest, not necessarily the topic itself.

It’s harder to monitor interest when the topic is shifted in my direction. I can talk at great length about the subjects that fascinate or affect me deeply. The subject of autism creeps into almost everything if I’m not careful. It’s such a huge part of my life – how I live, how I process things, how I teach, and so many of my students are also autistic – that I have to closely monitor myself and the people I’m talking to, even my own family. Music and teaching in general, likewise. I think I’ve gotten much better at self-regulation lately, but I still get carried away and too passionate for some people sometimes. That is always followed by anxiety and self-recrimination, which I try very hard to avoid.

But if there’s no passion in the topic on either side, merely mundane chit-chat – no, I can’t do that for long at all. I will become extremely exhausted very quickly. I’ll try to, as politely as possible, extricate myself from the situation. If that doesn’t work or isn’t possible, I’ll just walk away. If I’m part of a group that is engaging in it, I’ll just leave. I think it’s sometimes taken as rude, but it seems to me that it would be far more rude to interrupt the conversation to say that I’m leaving. Why would I want to draw attention to that fact?

I rarely participate in conversations at work. The staff room is not a place to relax and be comfortable for me. I DO like to connect with people, but I need to do it in small doses and preferably one-on-one where it’s easier to follow conversation and know when I’m expected to talk (notice I said easier, not easy). I can do the “Nice weather today”s with friends and strangers alike if I’m not overwhelmed by other issues, but if I am, you might not get an appropriate response or response of any kind. And please don’t ask me how I’m doing unless you really care and want to know the truth. Sometimes having to say, “Fine” because I know that’s the only response the asker will tolerate, makes me feel like my head will explode.

The other issue with trying to be sociable in the staff room (or other social gatherings/places) is it takes a huge concentrated effort to participate, even on topics I am interested in, and sometimes even just to listen. Sooner or later (but usually sooner) I’m aware that I’m not responding/acting/speaking in the right way. I don’t know exactly what I’ve done wrong but there’s a definite chill in the atmosphere and my brain starts screaming, “Shut up!” or “Disappear!” or “You’re an idiot!”(to myself, not the others!) And most of the time I have no idea why. It’s even worse when I know I’ve said or done something – usually expressed an opinion or preference – that is unwelcome, socially unacceptable, or politically incorrect (though probably honest and true), no matter how inconsequential it is. Then I’m going to suffer for days. Anxiety goes through the roof and I may suffer PTSD symptoms. I don’t need the punishment of others – I do it to myself!

B B Shepherd is a musician, educator, and author and can also be found at Glistering: B’s Blog

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