Apr 10, 2013 1 Share

The Dinner Guest

A younger and older couple sitting drinking wine.

My in-laws and I have known each other for over a dozen years—and some of those years were before I'd even heard of AS. They've put up with quite a bit from me. 

Including when they've had me over for dinner. Mealtimes are perhaps the ultimate social occasion, and for an Aspie like me they provided lots of chances for me to upset others, before I learned a few little cues. 

For one thing, my favorite form of stimming has been pacing. Back and forth. 

Back and forth. Forth and back. Back and forth. Forth and back. Back and forth. Forth and back. 

At dinner, as soon as I was done I used to just get up and start pacing around even before anyone else was done: 

Mother-in-law: “So, congratulations, Emily, on winning that award! Jeff, would you like more lasagna? By the way, how's that business website of yours coming along Jeff?” 

Me: “Oh no, I'm stuffed. Thanks though!” I push back from the table, get up, and start pacing. 

Breaking family dinner down to its basic components: It's a table, with a bunch of people sitting around it who might or might not be related, and there's food. So why not leave as soon as you're finished eating? (Yes, people sometimes talked around the dinner table. So what? People can talk anywhere, right?) I had it all figured out, logically ... just like since a tomato is classified as a fruit, it should go into fruit salad. This is the textbook case of “outsmarting yourself.” 

I've sometimes tended to just ask myself: “What's logical?” instead of “What's socially accepted?” or “What would please (or tick off) everyone else?” Not so much because I've made that conscious choice (though there's that element too), but also because sometimes logic is the only thing that occurred to me. The socially accepted thing, and the emotionally (un)welcome thing, often are never written down or even spoken, so sometimes the logical thing was the only guide I had. 

Not that that made everyone else feel much better. 

I've got Emily to thank for pushing me on this one. Not only did she force me to learn about AS in the first place, but also she made me understand that certain behaviors were simply appropriate and others simply not appropriate, at least around their family dinner table. 

And now, after a bit more practice (and quite a bit of patience on everyone's part), it's more like: 

Mother-in-law: “Emily, congratulations on winning that incentive award at work! Jeff, would you like some more lamb?”

Father-in-law: “By the way, Jeff, how's it going with that course you're teaching?”

Me: “Thank you, but after having seconds already I'm stuffed. Great lamb, my compliments to the chef! The course is going pretty well. Midterms are coming up and I'll need to grade them over the weekend so the students will get them back in time to decide by deadline if they want to withdraw. Of course, I can't say anything about individual cases, but I'm pretty sure a few will want to at least consider withdrawing to save their GPAs. By the way, I remember you mentioned that reorganization project in your office ... how's that coming along?” 

Emily (at home, a couple of hours later): “Jeff, they really liked having you over and hope they can see you again soon. That makes me feel good, too!” 

So, whether you're an Aspie or autist trying to get and keep more friends, or a parent who wants the same for your Aspie or autistic son or daughter, keep in mind: 

  • Pleasing others can be an upward spiral ... for example, if you make your girlfriend's or wife's parents happy, you often make her happier too. And if you make more friends, they can introduce you to their friends too.

  • People actually like to talk at the dinner table as well as eat. So, if everyone else is still at the table talking, stay yourself and join in the conversation as much as you can ... at least when asked to talk.

  • Compliment the food whenever possible. When people cook, they take pride in their food and if you show you like it, that implies you like them and it helps them like you too.

  • When conversing, don't just answer. Ask a question or two, because it shows interest in the other person. Bonus points if you can ask about what they told you previously, because it shows you're listening.

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LOVED your advice for the dinner table!

Great column, Jeff!!  I really loved your advice and will be using it with my son, who likes to get up from the dinner table as soon as he's finished eating!  I'd like him to hang around a little longer and converse with us and our guests, so I'm going to be showing him your column.  Printing it out as soon as I get finish this little note to you.  Thanks again, great advice!!  Love reading your stuff!