25 August 2010

Neurotypical Envy

(Warning, this an unusually personal post . . .)

I heard a feature on NPR driving home the other day about an autistic woman named Lisa Daxer, who blogs at Reports from a Resident Alien. She discusses both in the NPR story and extensively on her blog the differences between neurotypicals and people with autism and similar handicaps. She describes her autistic self as having "a weird brain." A neurotypical (her own great term) is "anyone who doesn't have a weird brain, someone in the middle of the neurological bell curve." Her atypicality is multiplex, but most challenging is her lack of social ability. She doesn't understand other people. Her brain is just wired differently. This isn't a lack of "social skills," something the study of Dale Carnegie and Miss Manners can correct. It's a lack of neurological capacity.

I really appreciated this young woman's honesty and advocacy. I'm not autistic, but I'm certainly not a neurotypical. I suffer from social anxiety and other neuroses that have defined my life, but which I've only come to recognize as neuroses quite late. Better late than never, but I'm still stunned that it took forty years for me to recognize that my challenging personality structure was something other than just a result of moral or religious failing.

Social anxiety, for me, is not shyness or social ineptness. I can be charming, if I need to, can even light up a party, if I need to. I just feel little need to. I'm not antisocial; I'm nonsocial.

But at the root of it, in fact, is anxiety. I find conversation to be full of potential conflict, embarrassment and shame, none of which I process well. I find social expectations a burden. Most conversations, sometimes even with people very close to me, seem like a walk through a minefield. I also handle stress poorly but project it regrettably well, which is (or I imagine it to be) a drain on those close to me, which in turn prompts me to withdraw when a neurotypical would be looking for social comfort. And when other people are stressed, well, I withdraw then, too.

Even casual social interactions are challenging. I'd rather take a fork in the eye than spend two hours making polite conversation at some work or church function. It seems like meaningless suffering.

Neurotypicals find conversation and socialization as natural as breathing. As Lisa Daxer says, "By default, they socialize. You have to actually interfere to stop neurotypicals from socializing." I find that incredible. I'll continue to challenge my anxiety, but I very much doubt I will ever have the neurotypical experience of compulsive and effortless socialization.

And I admit to being a bit jealous of that. Neurotypicals have super magical powers of sociability that are completely invisible to them, even though that sociability enables them to have a plurality of healthy relationships and take social risks that are personally and economically empowering. Their sociability defines their lives as much as my lack of it defines mine. They just have no idea.

But of course, my lack is only revealed by their abundance in numbers. If the bell curve were shaped differently, I'd be the neurotypical and they'd be struggling with the burden of hypersociality. O cruel averages.


Mister Fweem said...

You and me both, buddy. And whatever "weird brain" stuff I've got, I've passed it on to our oldest. We got a diagnosis of mild Asberger's Syndrome lat in the past school year, based on Liam's social awkwardness and some testing we had done. I recognize myself a lot in the behavior he demonstrates, but that could just mean I empathize, nothing more. I'm not sure having a label on it will make dealing with it any better. Maybe the next time we meet, we can just be nonsocial together. Liam would love to hang out with us.

carl g said...

I think diagnoses or labels can be helpful, on a certain level. They offer a kind of "why," which can be helpful both for self-perception and for explanation. Being autistic and being a weirdo may have all the same characteristics, but one is a neurological disorder and the other is some kind of personal failure. I think just making that distinction can be a positive difference in dealing with the issues.

But of course problems are problems, however you label them. I think one of the most important things is just matching expectations to capacities. Not only your expectations as parents, but guiding Liam's expectations of himself. We are bombarded in our culture with neurotypical values regarding social roles, relationships, scholastic and professional accomplishment, etc. I've found this is especially the case in the church, which on a structural level is of one-size-fits-all design. It's chock full of every-member-shoulds and, while clearly exceptions are everywhere, it has no social mechanisms for accomodating exception.

In every social context, it's up to us as individuals to adapt seemingly monolithic expectations to our idiosyncratic selves. But don't ask me for advice on doing it. My only useful contribution to these kinds of discussions is as a cautionary tale. But I expect that if you start young with your eyes wide open to your own personal realities, it has to be easier than beginning in your 40s.

Anyway, I cut fellow non-typicals a lot of slack. We're on a long and uphill road in life that we really didn't choose, and having some company on it is nice. Even for those of us who don't really like company.