“How did you become this social?” is a question that I get from either people who realize that I am one of the most introvert/nerdy person that they have met or autism experts who can identify my autistic traits that most people won’t notice. Most people would just call me weird, a non-scientific term generally used for “different” in most cultures nowadays. I did not always know that I was autistic, I just always knew I was weird.
For a long time, I honestly thought that there was something wrong with my hormones and surely, one day those hormones will work as they are supposed to, allowing me to want or need same things as other people do. I was dreaming of a day when I wouldn’t be clueless about what is going on around me, could see why a person believed that I intentionally wanted to upset them, or my all time favorite, why I am always perceived as rude. That time, unfortunately, never came. I still don’t understand a lot of things, but now I am not as lost in socially demanding situations as I was before, largely thanks to my movement practices.
I know, it sounds cheesy when you hear this phrase because it has been used by everyone who is trying to sell you something. Well, I am not… Trying to sell you anything, that is, so allow me to explain. I started thinking about how I became this social (by the way I am still not nearly as social as a usual person is expected to be!), when I got diagnosed by autism at the age of 29. “High functioning Autism” they said, it is described as basically an autistic person who does not look autistic. If you are not throwing tantrums every hour or have a hard time maintaining eye contact, you are highly functioning in the eyes of psychiatrists who surprisingly do not understand neuro-diversity very well. (For other people, you are just looking for an excuse for your rudeness.)
Before I get in the details of how I became better at “faking normal”, let me quickly explain what it is to be an autistic person. Autistic people -or most Neuro-atypical people- experience emotions differently than neuro-typical people, which makes it hard for them to be within a similar wave length of understanding as others. Now, everybody experiences everything slightly differently anyway, but when it comes to autistic people, the gap is so big that sometimes it feels like we are living in a different world. Hence the amount of times I have been granted the nickname: “alien”. We typically recognize patterns and details very easily, but knowing what to do with that information, especially in social situations is a whole other set of skills that we are not equipped with.
Sensory overload, is a thing that happens when we are interacting with more than one person. Especially if you add on environmental noise, crowded place, lack of personal comfort (the chair I am sitting on is never as perfect as I want it to be for ex…) and it becomes an anxiety party! On top of that, the people we are engaging with have many expectations from us in terms of following up a topic that we are not interested in, show appropriate emotional support when needed etc. We just don’t know what to do! Honestly!
The things that come easy to most of you, is very difficult for us, very much like it is probably very hard for a lot of people to solve a mathematical problem without knowing which formula to use in it! I can solve any mathematical problem instinctively, I do not need a formula. I can solve any 3d puzzle you give me, with 2d technical drawings of each piece next to it without even raising my eyebrow once. I am not trying to brag at all, this is just how my brain is wired an I really did not do anything to improve this, it was just, there.. Like it is to understand social situations instinctively and behave accordingly, for many people.
Interestingly, we are also not very well coordinated when it comes to movement; even walking or running is tough for some of us. (It must be all the weird wiring of our software I suppose.) So my answer to the original question of “How did you become so social?” is simply, by trying to control my body since a very young age. I always liked to put myself in situations that I was not very good at. It also amazed me how many of the people looked like they moved so effortlessly without bumping into things around them while I had to actively think about how to climb up and down the stairs without falling. So I started dance classes. MY earlier teachers had quite a lot of fun with my confusion probably, but I took the effort to learn very seriously and I was very dedicated. I guess they just thought it was cute. I understood the physics of movement perfectly — let’s face it, physics is maths in motion! — but I just could not get my body to do THE THING! It was so frustrating for a while, but I do not have the habit of giving up, so I stuck around and took even more classes. Then something started to change…
There is actual studies on how movement helps with neurological disorders or kids with learning disabilities. If you are interested, I can suggest the book SMART MOVES, by Carla Hannaford, PhD. But what I am going to explain is more about how movement started to help me understand people’s behavior and characters. You see, most of the time I struggled to be around people because I could not understand what they meant behind their words, not because I did not like them.
People rarely speak their minds very openly, and I was not very good at social cues. This ended up with people getting frustrated with me, or being offended by something I said (or did not say, which is more annoying). But as I got a chance of observing people while dancing, my brain started to form patterns of emotional expressions in subtle details. I decided to copy these details in hopes of understanding how it felt ‘in my body’ first, then maybe in my brain too. To be fully honest, I still don’t understand most social expectations in my brain, but now I can fake the little details that are necessary for the other person to feel heard. In a way, I started using movement as a decoder coder and a way of connecting with others.
This little copying act helped me so much to work on my other skills, because now I was not afraid of being labeled as ‘rude’ or ‘improper’. As I started working on this actively, I build and entire mind palace on movement/gesture patterns that match with certain types or people all emotional situations. After 26 years of active movement practice and observing, at the age of 32, I can safely say that I am pretty good at analyzing people by their simplest moves, how they sit/walk/talk. In other words, I got better at understanding the world around me, so I can relax and have fun with people.
Don’t get me wrong, my autism hasn’t healed or anything like that, I just got better at handling the negative effects on my life. Also, this only works with acquaintances that I can keep at a distance, for closer relationships I still struggle to be myself yet approachable. Life is an endless road of learning and improving, so I am pretty sure this will also become easier in time, especially now that I can find people who are as weird as me and genuinely like the way I look at the world.
We are all social creatures, we all want our tribe, it is just harder for some of us to find a happy way to go about it. I now have 3 pole studios with hundreds of students that expect me to be around for them and be approachable, it is hard, but I like to get better at being a bigger me.
I hope this article find those who are looking for their tribe and give them encouragement. Introverts (whether or not they are neuro-atypical) need people to love them the way they are too, even though they pretend not to. They also tend to be very interesting and devoted once you get to know them and earn their trust. For the instructors out there, the weird, difficult kid in class might be having real trouble with coping a lot of things at once. Please show them your love and support, patience and kindness always works. By the way, we can see when you roll your eyes even though you think we are not looking ;).