I’m shy, but I also struggle with the disconnection between my autistic communication style and that of allistic people. I see these as separate issues, but people seem to confuse them. So I thought I’d try to explain how I see things.
Shyness is a personality trait that means I get nervous and uncomfortable when I’m around people I don’t know well and when I’m the centre of attention. Shyness causes me to not always say what I’d like to express.
And I’m Autistic and I often don’t know what to say in some types of social situation. Autistic people tend to say what we mean and we tend to assume that everyone else does too. But in A Field Guide to Earthlings, a book about allistic (nonautistic) behaviour, Ian Ford wrote about the many ways that allistic people don’t say what they mean. He argued that in some situations, such as small talk, the things allistic people say are not even the purpose of the interaction. Instead, while they say things that sound like they mean something, allistic people can have a silent exchange that an Autistic person can completely fail to understand or even notice. This idea seems bizarre to me, but it does explain a lot.
Sometimes allistic people’s interactions are about the things they say. I think this happens at university when I discuss zoology with the lecturers or the other students. The purpose of this type of interaction is to exchange knowledge and opinions on zoology; I understand this. I know how to discuss zoology. I have knowledge and opinions about it that I like to share and I generally understand what other people say about it. But in large groups and when I’m around people I don’t know, sometimes I stay silent when I think of something I could say, or I get nervous and say something wrong, because I’m shy.
But when people make small talk or try to have a friendly chat with me I don’t understand the purpose of the interaction. In the past I thought they were interested in what they were actually talking about, like the weather or what people did at the weekend, and I tried to say interesting things about the topic of the conversation. But we’d usually end up with an awkward silence and I never understood what I’d said wrong. Sometimes I couldn’t think of anything at all to say, so I didn’t say anything.
I’ve had lots of people tell me I need to relax around people and come out of my shell, or like myself more or be myself more, and the implication seems to be that when I do these things I’ll just know what to say. But this hardly ever helps. When I try to get over my shyness I end up with the same result.
When I tried to follow advice for dealing with shyness it really upset me when I seemed to fail again and again, and in the end I stopped trying.
I think this is because the problem is not shyness but that there is some fundamental difference in the way me and other people perceive our interactions. I focus on words and fail to notice or reciprocate what the allistic person is really trying to do.
More recently I’ve come to understand that words are often not their intended focus. And I think I’ve learned to imitate some of what allistic people do when they chat. Now when someone says, ‘How are you?’ I don’t try to answer the question but say, ‘Fine thanks, how are you?’ This seems effective when starting a conversation. And when someone asks me another question I answer it then ask them the same question back. I didn’t do this much before because I usually wasn’t interested in the answer. I this is a good method for asking appropriate questions, which is something I’ve been told I should do, but I’ve had a lot of trouble thinking of them.
This imitation of allistic communication seems to work for short conversations, but I worry that people would see through it if I kept it up for too long. I still only barely understand some aspects of allistic behaviour.
Edit: I should have probably made clear that not every Autistic person communicates like I do.