It's no secret that large gatherings of any level can be incredibly overwhelming for those on the autism spectrum. There's so much happening on both social and sensory levels that it gets stressful just thinking about it. There's the sheer amount of people in the immediate vicinity, the high expectation to talk to all of them in the right way, the preparation of the event in question, how to present yourself...it's all kinda much for anyone to handle. And if you're autistic, it's downright terrifying.
On top of being autistic, I have a ton of social anxiety. While it looks like I can increasingly handle myself well enough in group settings, I'm riddled with fear that I have no idea what I'm doing. Am I connecting with enough people? Am I engaged enough in the conversation? Am I hogging conversation too much? Am I maintaining the appropriate amount of eye contact? Nodding in the right places? Truly listening to people? All these things people take for granted requires a tremendous amount of thinking and planning, and it's so overwhelming just writing it gives me the shivers.
And what's a hallmark of the winter holiday season? Social gatherings, particularly holiday parties and family time. The two most stressful situations for almost anyone, let alone for someone who innately has trouble socializing to begin with.
I've been described as more socially adept than the average autistic person to the point where most people wouldn't guess I even fall on the spectrum. Hell, autism is often equated with introversion and I register in between an ENFP and ESFP on the Meyers -Brigg Scale. But the quickest way to bring out my social awkwardness and ineptitude is throwing me in a crowd of more than ten people and watch what happens. To quote myself in a blog post I wrote for work almost a year ago, "I personally tend to clam up, avert my gaze from everyone, search for any opportunity to speak only to have no room to say anything, and my brain turns everyone’s words and voices into Charlie Brown’s teacher on fast-forward. WAAHWAAHWAAHWAAH WAAAAAAAHHH." I try to remedy this by isolating people to engage with one-on-one (the best way I've found to socially engage with anyone), follow a conversation to the nth degree so I can figure out when to say something, and turn on my charm meter to maximum levels. But none of this erases my anxieties - I never know if I'm ever doing the right thing and I still feel somewhat excluded in the scene.
I find this especially hard in the family setting. My family is extroverted to the point where everyone's got something to say and it's practically impossible to find a good point to jump in when everyone's going a mile a minute to the point where's no room to breathe. There's also the issue that because everyone has an opinion, there's a sort of fight for dominance of conversation. My brother recently told me that he finds this dynamic troubling to him as well, so at least I'm not alone in this sentiment. But I have the added anxiety of wondering when I can bring up the things I'm interested in. I try to talk about my special interests in entertainment and history when I feel like it might be relevant to things my family would be interested in, but I am sometimes met with the following sentiment:
"Zoey, think about if people are interested in that before you talk about it."
Well how do I know if they aren't interested if I don't bring it up? That doesn't help my anxiety.
In all fairness, things are starting to get better. I'm trying to take more control over how I operate in these settings. The one-on-one engagement helps a lot as well as purposely isolating certain larger conversations where I can better engage. I also take a lot of time to mentally prepare for counteracting negative thoughts about how I'll do and focusing on the present moment without judgement. And when it comes to family events, I try to actively take part in the preparation as a means of establishing some sort of control over my setting. This almost always involves cooking, which I'm told I'm good at but need constant reassurance that I know what I'm doing. I can only imagine how annoying it might be to constantly ask for that validation, but I'm working on it.
So this holiday season, make sure anyone autistic you know feels welcome and included. Help them prepare for the whirlwind that is having to socially engage with a ton of people. Include them in the preparation process so they have something to talk about. And if they need a break from the party or conversation, give them that break and support that decision. Sensitivity is key.
I have a lot to work on when it comes to large social gatherings. I still need to figure out juggling conversations and not dominating them. I have to not assume the worst when it comes to how others perceive me. I have to believe in myself that I can get through a party without becoming down. And I have to believe that people want me there. But I'll get through it. I've survived much worse, which I'll get into soon.