One of the hallmark signs of autism is difficulty socializing.
This correlation can lead people to believe that autism automatically causes socializing difficulties.
It doesn’t. At least not directly.
An autistic brain processes differently. It is these processing differences that can then make socializing difficult.
Let me break it down.
Autistic individuals have brains that perceive, process, and learn differently than neurotypical people. It is theorized that neural pathways in Autistic minds fire more frequently and in conjunction with other pathways. This causes a greater intensity in the five senses, emotions, and thinking. It also causes multiple things to be felt and thought at once.
This impacts an autistic person in MULTIPLE WAYS.
For example, an autistic individual may have more sensitive hearing than a neurotypical. This makes them more sensitive to loud noises, so large parties and crowded places feel overwhelming. This can lead to difficulty socializing.
In this example, we can see that autism did not directly cause difficulty in socializing. Autism causes an individual to be more sensitive to sound, which then leads to it being difficult to be in crowded, public places, which then makes socializing more difficult. It is an indirect causation.
There are many many examples of processing differences that then impact socialization.
An autistic person’s ability to observe, think, and process quickly can lead them to pick up on others’ incongruent behavior. An autistic person can adeptly detect when an individual’s words and behaviors aren’t lining up. It can be difficult for an autistic person to remain connected and interested in a conversation when they know a person isn’t being congruent.
An autistic’s way of thinking also leads them to feel deeply. They notice and perceive harm with greater acuity. They are often more sensitive and less tolerant of harmful behavior. These differences shape what kind of conversations, jokes, and people they find enjoyable. Who wants to regularly hang out with individuals who are perceived as rude, hurtful, insensitive, or hypocritical?
An autistic person can become extremely excited by specific subjects, which can lead to monopolizing a conversation on a topic they love. Their brain is so active that they miss that the people in front of them are bored. This impacts socialization and maintaining friendships over time.
Another key thing to note is that autistic individuals are trying to socialize in a neurotypical world. The norms of our culture are established by neurotypical people. If the norms were designed by an autistic majority, an autistic person may not find socializing to be so difficult.
For example, language would be far more clear and direct. Individuals would be less afraid to state their true feelings (and thus there would be less incongruent behavior). Environments would be more conducive to people with sensory sensitivities. I explore this more in my essay “What Would a World Designed by Autistics Be Like.”
I think it is important to make a distinction between a direct cause and indirect cause with socialization and autism because it shifts the perspective on autism. A direct cause link between autism and socializing can cause a person to think, “I can’t socialize well because I’m autistic.” It also focuses on what is “wrong” with an autistic individual. A shift to acknowledging the indirect causes helps an individual to see, “Here’s how my brain functions differently” and that will have positive, negative, and neutral consequences.
Thanks for reading. I'm an autistic art therapist who specializes in late-identified autism. If you'd like to work together, you can learn more here.