Why is Social Communication Complicated?

Everyone struggles in life – but not everyone who struggles suffers.

I didn’t know much about autism before 2014. But I was very aware I had experienced problems and suffering throughout my life with social communication – at home, work and in close relationships.

From birth I didn’t have the same type of speech and communication as my two older siblings. I didn’t talk until I was 2.5yrs and pre-school, was sent to elocution lessons which continued until I was 10 years old.

Like many others, I was teased by other children. Adults picked up on my speech; not speaking, talking too fast, mumbling, whispering, not answering. Early on, when I did attempt to talk, my voice actually scared me! It sounded too loud and too deep.

As a sensitive young child, when someone expresses irritation of behaviour, we generally try to hide it or suppress it. I started masking my speech problems to avoid the hurt. My default options were silence and observation until I became older and the outbursts started.

I vividly remember feeling bewildered by the behaviour the person in front of me was displaying. What had I done wrong? What did they want me to do? What should I do? Why should I? Why aren’t they discussing it with me? Why did they say that? I would be thinking rather than speaking. Sharply followed by anxiety about what would happen afterwards – unless I behaved the way I was now being asked or told to.

It’s difficult to accurately portray childhood memories. My early life wasn’t straightforward; my parents divorced, both sets of grandparents lived nearby. By the time I was ten, both parents remarried, we’d moved away from my hometown and all the family and people I knew – and both parents were adding a new baby into the family.

I preferred to sit alone in class. I realise I struggled to find friends and understand the social ‘rules’ around clothing and socialising. My brother and sister (one and two years my seniors) were involved with London’s emerging punk scene. I changed schools at 14 and I was dispatched overnight to live with my father’s family when I was 15.

At 16 I had left (my fourth) secondary school and was working as an administrator in London for a life insurance company. I had briefly returned to my mother’s when I started work and literally had my bag packed and was forced out of the home when I was 16.

I survived my teenage years, living in the gay community in London. I was protected, accepted and fitted right in. My best friend was an intelligent, exuberant, verbose gay man. I was his shy and faithful side-kick. He taught me about diversity and makeup –  and I totally adopted his lifestyle instructions.

At work

Fast forward into my 30s and the communication problems continue. At work for example, there have been at least five times I can recall, when a colleague has introduced (their way) during a business meeting, I’ve been expected to pick up the presentation and have been literally unable to speak. Struck mute! It feels like I can’t find the thread to pick up – to grasp – my mind is running backwards and forwards and can’t locate that thread!

This didn’t and doesn’t happen when there is discussion and planning beforehand, where I can visualise the outcome we are agreed upon.

Seriously, can you imagine the look on the face of the expectant client, my colleagues, the MD? In excruciating awkwardness, I felt like I was melting from the inside out. As people would nervously start laughing, all I’d be able to do would be to leave the room until I could compose myself in the nearest toilet.

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Young bracken fronds opening in spring

Socially, I have throughly enjoyed going out for an evening with a single friend, but will remain silent in a group, listening intently, but seem unable to talk or express myself. This has always been the case and has caused me a lot of suffering and made me want to avoid socialising. It feels similar to the work presentations, I know and understand what’s being discussed, have my own thoughts, but can’t find the thread of communication.

By the way, like many other women who identify as autistic, I detest small talk and would like to write about that separately.

Other types of socialising

If you ever met me at a lunch, dinner, pub, club, event or party, I might talk to you one to one, but the rest of the time, you’d probably see me sit or stand back, I listen and avoid inclusion (usually with a large glass of wine in my hand).

My life started down a new path at the end of my teens when I encountered a group of buddhists in a wine bar.

I’ve attended monthly buddhist group meetings at people’s homes since I was 20. There’s nearly always a guest or new face at every meeting. Social communication issues surfaced here pretty quickly. I didn’t talk at these meetings other than to say my name at introductions for the first two years.

My group leader eventually became quite frustrated and cross with me, questioning why I continued to attend meetings if I didn’t join in. I had no way of explaining my feelings and could have given up my buddhist practise then. The truth is, I enjoyed the topics, I always felt refreshed and invigorated after a meeting and so fortunately, took some advice and was able to seek personal guidance and encouragement with a senior leader in faith.

From then on, I determined to not give in to what I perceived as my weakness, misunderstandings or a negative attitude from others. I wanted to keep using my buddhist practise to grow and shape my life.  I planned in advance what I would say at meetings and by contributing was able to open my life, focus on my strengths, gain confidence a feel happier. My efforts simultaneously benefited other areas of my life – work included.

In my buddhist environment, people became used to seeing me talking and participating. I’m aware now that although I have experienced personal challenges with meetings, that these are structured environments, meetings are respectful (generally), timed, planned and topics are discussed in advance. I tend to feel relaxed and enjoy being in such a supportive environment and feel energised by the time the meeting finishes.

To quote an article from SGI USA; “Attaining Buddhahood is an ongoing effort to strengthen our inherent Buddha nature. It is also a struggle to not give in to our inherent fundamental darkness, which is our most deeply rooted disbelief in the truth of our own Buddha nature.”

I continued to chant, reflect on myself and maintain my buddhist practise – and wondering why I also continued to struggle and feel socially inept. Making efforts to be helpful, smiling and upbeat were my personal contribution and, I assumed, would eventually become a natural habit.

In 35 years of practise, the habit to not give up and be helpful has strengthened within me, but the social ineptitude seems worse than ever!

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I have continued to challenge my limitations – attempting to break through that “wall”. As an adult I also started to become increasingly anxious as familiar people around me have become critical and frustrated when I don’t respond as expected or remain non-resposive.

Most of the time – in structured environments like work – my communication strengths have outshone my communication weaknesses.  I have always avoided mentioning personal weaknesses to friends and colleagues. Not wanting to expose ‘imperfections’. I wanted to avoid potential judgements that could affect my job, to cause others to think less of me or feel ashamed that I was not ‘changing’.

Learning about my autism identity has given me the courage to mention that my way of thinking may be different – should the need arise. I’m beginning to understand the masking and withdrawal that has been part of my behaviour and I am learning to use phrases like, for example, ‘Oh, sometimes I need time to think before answering’.

I can say focussed interests ‘are one of my “things”‘ and embrace some of my quirky interests instead of trying to hide them. I can ask for the thread of the discussion to be repeated because I missed it.

Criticism is difficult. I find personal criticism still hurts in as much the same way as when I was a child. I find job-based criticism much easier, because to me, it means it’s an opportunity to develop expertise and to see and reap the measurable benefits in my work.

I need quite a lot of time to think about personal criticism and be able to understand how others’ may see or experience me. I find it difficult to understand what it is in my behaviour, that a person is criticising. What do they think I am lacking? What do they expect of me?

Having the courage and learning how to question and listen to others’ points should work both ways in a social setting or equal relationship. For someone with an autistic brain, I have learnt this type of communication is better if it is a communication of ‘facts’ rather than complex ‘feelings’.

According to the teachings of Buddhism, everything around us, including work and family relationships, is the reflection of our inner lives. Everything is perceived through the self and alters according to the individual’s inner state of life.

This means, for example, that an on-going sense of personal worthlessness will affect every aspect of my life. My daily buddhist practise works to transform my life from the very core. It involves identifying and challenging those things which inhibit the full expression of my positive potential and humanity. Buddhism teaches me to recognise, to call forth, to use and to strengthen the ‘hidden’ or ‘latent’ life state of Buddhahood which exists within all life.

Discovering my autistic identity is an experience for me. I do not feel like it is an unjust burden or disability. It feels more like a key to finding a purpose in my life.  It means I can learn how to help others struggling in a similar situation.

I believe that as I continue to grow, my own understanding of different people and their different ways of communicating will become more universally embraced.

I feel particularly worried for any children whose parents decide to use upsetting, physically corrective methods for behaviour they (the adults) find challenging. Children grow into adults. How do the adults ‘in control’ expect those children to view and relate to the world around them as they move into adulthood?

My hope is that neurological diversity becomes recognised and respected as a social category on par with gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or disability status.

Ending with a quote:

“No life is completely free from problems and difficulties.. What matters is that we bring forth boundless courage, wisdom and life force so that we may calmly surmount every challenge and hardship that arises… That is the purpose of our faith. We study Buddhism in order to learn the fundamental path for living with true humanity and to make our own character shine its brightest.” From 10th June 2018 issue of the Seikyo Shinbun, translation released Aug. 2018.

Have a great day today!

Jo