Putting One Foot in Front of the Other
As much as I would like to believe otherwise, there are many times in the course of our day-to-day lives where those of us on the autism spectrum will need to be able to “fit in.” For some, many of the skills required to pull this off will come naturally. For others, there will be bumps in the road. Even for those who may appear neurotypical in any number of situations, there will be “soft” skills that require practice, practice, practice. As a teacher, my job involves teaching those soft skills. As a parent, my job involves modeling those soft skills. And as an adult on the autism spectrum, my job involves … well … practice, practice, practice. The more I think I know about how to cope in this world, the less I seem to actually understand.
Over the recent holiday weekend, I attended my high school reunion. (Forgive me if I don’t share how many years past graduation the reunion was commemorating!) If I were to give myself a report card grade on how I handled myself from a social standpoint, I daresay this particular experience might have pulled my GPA down a bit. I am reasonably confident that I handled most of the social niceties fairly well. I exhibited expected levels of eye contact, greeted those whom I had not seen in more than a few years with smiles and hugs, and re-introduced myself as needed. Thankfully, I had the good fortune of being among those who physically look better today than I did in high school! When it came to making conversation with friends I have kept in contact with, the only difficulty I encountered came from having to process conversational exchanges in a noisy room. I struggle with that regardless of the particulars of the situation, and when the band in the other section of the establishment began playing, my ability to converse freely took a nosedive. So those were the positives. On a scale of one to 10, with a one being Sheldon Cooper from “The Big Bang Theory” and a 10 being James Bond, I perhaps hovered somewhere around a solid six or even seven when it came to basic communication skills. But almost from the start, I could actually see the differences in the way I was conducting myself in comparison to 99% of the others in the room. While it was fine to smile at and hug an old acquaintance, I quite honestly had very little interest in going to the next expected level. There were one or two others that I have been “friends” with on Facebook for a couple of years, so that paved the way for brief conversations about topics I knew we had in common. To my pleasant surprise, though, I did not spend most of the evening beating myself up for what I was unable to do—mingle in the room, approach people I knew, start a conversation beyond the safety of the table at which I had pretty much planted myself. Knowing how my brain works now made the evening much less guilt-ridden than it would have been if this reunion had been five years ago. Better yet, I did not choose to turn to any coping strategies that could ultimately do more harm than good—in other words, the open bar held no appeal!
Situations such as this remind me of the question, if someone offered me $1 million, and all I had to do was make a half-court free throw shot on a professional court on the first try, would I be able to? Of course not. Even with the best motivation in the world, there are some things I simply cannot do. I can picture them in my mind, I can explain how they should be done, I can write a task analysis to break them down as well as any behavior analyst, but when push comes to shove I personally cannot accomplish the task. I know what it looks like when done correctly—at the reunion, I could see any number of individuals behaving as one would expect people to behave in such a situation. I could see myself, and know that the way I was behaving—or not behaving—was outside the norm. I can also recognize the steps I did take that I would not have taken before my diagnosis. These are steps I take because I am now able to recognize those soft skills that are so hard for me and I know that even if it will be incredibly hard to accomplish certain tasks, I owe it to myself to try. So even if in the moment, I have absolutely no desire to smile at and make eye contact with and even hug the person who pretty much tormented me for most of my childhood and adolescence, I understand that this is what is expected at a high school reunion. We let bygones be bygones. Having practiced to improve in the tasks I was able to successfully complete at the reunion, I know that with time some of the other soft skills I am so weak in now may improve—with practice. It won’t happen overnight for me any more than it will happen overnight for my children or my students. More importantly, I know that if I can continue to learn from experiences such as these about what worked, what didn’t work, what was hard but worth the effort and what I would just as soon pass on next time around, it will only make me a stronger teacher, a better mom, and a more confident Aspie.