Social communication – being a ‘different not less’ exchange student

If you read the Diagnostic Manual for various brain-related things including Autism, the DSM 5, – which I wouldn’t really recommend unless you need to. It’s not exactly light reading. Anyway one of the criteria for a diagnosis of Autism is in the statement below. There are cuter qualifying statements related to it:

Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts…

Regular readers of this blog will probably know I have some issues with the purely clinical concept of Autism contained within some of the diagnostic descriptions. I understand that the diagnostic criteria are there in order to provide thresholds of ‘disability’ which translate into funding for services, which is actually a useful thing if clinicians keep that in mind. My concern as always is the deficits basis which sees Autism only in terms of what Autistic people apparently have trouble doing and where we apparently ‘deviate’ from some ‘norm’ – which is undefined and unclassified. It fits that picture that Autism is something broken, an affliction which needs ‘solving’. As an Autistic self-advocate I recognise that some elements of Autism can be challenging and hard to live with. I also understand our great potential and how Autistic people who are supported and included and viewed as their own unique and valuable self rather than a burden, is probably considerably more likely to lead a fulfilled life. I also know as an Autistic adult, that many of the issues related to Autism stem from our interactions with the non-autistic world and its inhabitants.

Anyway today I was thinking about friendship as it related to Autistic people and thinking of the DSM 5 criterion around social communication and Autism and how it is quite firmly planted in the territory of ‘Autistic people do social communication ‘wrong.’’ I actually don’t believe that we do social communication ‘wrong’ but I believe there is something like a different culture between Autistic and non-autistic people and social communication is major point of difference between those two cultures.

So instead of a deviation form an imaginary social ‘norm’ it would probably be more helpful to think if you are friends with  a non-autistic person (or an Autistic one, depending on where you ‘sit’) that you are an exchange student learning the customs of the other person’s ’culture.’

Autistic people are considered to be between more than one in 100 in the population. This figure has grown over the past thirty years due to many things, such as greater understanding of Autism and changes to both the diagnostic criteria and how those are applied. Whatever the prevalence rate is, we are a minority in a world where many of those who live within the majority have no little or understanding of Autistic communication. To them we are maybe seen as quirky (when people are friendly) and ‘weird’ (and insert other more hurtful insults here) – for those who are judgemental and unsympathetic.’Cross-cultural friendships happen between Autistic and non-autistic people a lot – and sexual and intimate relationships too. In the deficits model, the non-autistic person might be seen as being kind for being friends with the Autistic person  – and I’d better not go down that track because it makes me rather angry to think of myself and my peers as ‘charity friends’.

In the deficits model of social communication I AM weird. I communicate very differently to how the non-autistic folks I know seem to. I don’t do eye contact as it is very unpleasant and I feel like I’m looking into the person’s soul which makes it hard to have a conversation with them. I don’t ‘get’ facial expressions or body language unless they are very marked (such as the person is crying). I join conversations midway and take every discussion on an interesting tangent and then forget where it started! If the conversation is a train, I inadvertently derail it every time! I am insecure and paranoid – probably more due to a history of bullying than any inherent Autistic traits. This is challenging though as I often have to reality check with a friend in case I think they don’t like me any more. I forget details about people’s life which are often important ones. I have to be reminded of who people are due to my prosopagnosia / face blindness. I am, as I like to say, a bit of a quirky Purky!

So those are my social characteristics which might seem a little odd to a non-autistic person. Let’s not just stop on the quirkiness aspect though. As a friend I have been told I am loyal and kind and will go out of my way to help those i care about. I almost never tell any kind of lie or dishonesty. If I do something I think might have upset a friend I will bite the bullet and tell them and I very rarely judge someone and when I do I take myself to task about it.

The odd thing about my positive friendship qualities is they are shared – in some form or anther – by most of my Autistic friends. People who are meant to have social communication deficits are so often kind and loyal friends. My social deficits are around things I can’t help very much – how my brain is wired in terms of interpreting facial expression and body language, that sort of thing. These deficits exist certainly but they are tempered by those very positive friendship qualities I, and apparently a large number of other Autistic people, have

The other thing to know is that non-autistic people can have some pretty difficult social deficits themselves. For example I am yet to meet a ‘two-faced’ Autistic person. I am also yet to meet an Autistic person who knowingly manipulates others to get their own way. In my life Autistic people have rarely done anything which has fundamentally upset or hurt me. So the people who’re supposed to have the social deficits have not been deficient. Not wanting to be a separatist or anything, but pretty much all the main damaging, violent and hurtful things which have been done in the context of my life have been done by non-autistic people. Of course Autistic people are certainly capable of violence  and malice and loads of other unpleasant things but it hasn’t really been something I have encountered.

So in terms of social deficits I think the DSM 5 has missed a few important points. Autistic people are not deviating from some ‘norm’ of positive social behaviour. Instead we form a separate social culture ourselves in which we tend to find it easer to find friends who understand us. The social differences in my mind really are like being from a different country with different customs and a different language. One is not better or worse than they other, they are simply different. And lots of people like going on a  cultural exchange to other countries to see what it is like and try the food and things. So maybe we can look at Autistic culture and social communication like that.  Back to the old ‘different not less’ statement again (thanks Temple 🙂

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