Mandatory Spontaneity

Sarah Morton

Sarah Morton (author)

I often wondered why during and after giving a lecture I can effortlessly connect with people, while in "social settings" I fail to do so. Giving lectures is my strong point and I have at least the illusion that people are genuinely interested in what I have to say. When I talk about a subject that lets the blood flow faster through my veins, things run smoothly. For that reason I prefer a formal contact over a personal one, even though personal topics may arise.

So I certainly can be communicative, when I see the usefulness of it. This won't be a surprise to many. It is known that people with Autism eagerly talk about their interests (designated as "obsessions"). They're being reproached for not being interested in others.

The latter I do not recognize in myself, neither in friends with a diagnosis on the autism spectrum.

Note that experts often advise parents against playing along with their child's fixations, even though their child's strength and talent lies within those. Possibly, the child will be able to make a living with them. A child, glued to a computer, may later become a game designer or will go into computer repair. A kid that prefers to listen to, or make music all day, may become a musician. The stronger the interest, the more a child is driven to practice and develop its talent.

Many people have tried to "turn me off" of my autism, in the past. As if it were a behavioral problem. They wanted to force me to learn social skills. I'm not talking about saying hello, shaking a hand and introducing myself, the most basic of social norms. No, I had to become a different person. I had to sound cheerful (when I really felt fatigued). I had to suppress my emotions because "my feelings were not more important than those of others". As if I had been preoccupied with my own importance, at a moment I was stricken by grief. I had to demonstrate affection, without becoming too attached to someone. I had to spontaneously and enthusiastically respond to people I really was apprehensive about, etc.

One of the low points was in my period of assisted living. The foundation would arrange a job coach, who would help me find an internship. I enrolled into child care training. I was to have an interview with her and my personal companion would attend. As soon as the job coach entered the room, she proceeded to interrogate me. I had once had an internship in a public library. I stocked returned books back onto their shelves. I worked in the hours that there were no customers so that I did not need to answer questions and my work would go smoothly.

The so-called job coach pulled out a dossier and immediately brought up this internship, using a tone as if I had committed an offense. Why I only worked when there were no patrons. In a day care center I would certainly have to deal with people and would not be able to go my own way. Children demand attention, can be chaotic and can do unexpected things. Yes - I had thought about that myself already. That my library internship was used against me, while I only tried to make the best of my life, hurt me deeply.

It was difficult for me to verbalize that things are different when it comes to children, that I could tolerate a lot from them. I love kids but I was unable to explain this. I felt overwhelmed. The woman talked excitedly, her eyes protruding from their sockets. She'd better check her blood pressure.

That I closed up was again seen as "proof" that I was a hopeless case. The job coach knew two places, but like this I would never be accepted there. "You can bet your life on it" she said literally. "Perhaps I should do that then", I thought.

Seventy percent of her sentences contained the word "not". And such a person had to introduce me for an internship. When the job coach pointed out that presently, I could lie in bed as long as I wanted but that with an internship I had to rise and shine in time, also my personal companion couldn't handle it any longer. She said that I set my alarm clock every weekday and that I got up at 07:00. The job coach left after an hour. Never heard from her again.

Since recently I realize that many people with autism (myself included) really need a spokesperson in situations in which they feel intimidated and overwhelmed. An inability to speak (selective mutism) is a common phenomenon in, amongst others, Asperger's syndrome. Already when I was fourteen years old, my parents thought I had to solve problems with for example teachers or the taxi driver myself, even though the balance of power did not lend itself to this.

Thanks to a friend I now realize why many people have so much trouble dealing with autism. The word autism is derived from the Greek "autůs", which means "self". It stands for the introvert vibe that autistic people often impress. Many people don't handle being alone well, because it confronts them with themselves. They have a constant need for entertainment, distraction and small talk. In effect, they are unable to come to themselves. With someone with autism, they feel thrown back upon themselves. In the end they blame the autistic person. He or she is held responsible for the discomfort "normal" people feel. The sad part is that also certain parents blame their (autistic) child for their misfortune. If they would reverse the situation by putting themselves into the their child's perceptual world, how would they or would they not react in their child's place? Seeing the world through the eyes of their child would possibly contribute to a better bond and more zest for life for both parents and child.

I can bond with some people en conduct deep conversations. But I don't do smalltalk. As a child I was quite sociable, as long as people respected me and did not impose. The past months I felt an increasing need to fully retract from contact. I would for example really dedicate myself to my books again, which I am writing. To work on my personal growth. Which is impossible when people want to be entertained all the time. The contact with people required more and more of my energy. I was hardly able to have a chat. I don't know why but I felt wholly overwhelmed. The constant striving for approval and keeping people satisfied was, as it were, standing in the way of contact. While I still wished to share my thoughts.

The more I try to adjust, the worse I function. The social pressure requires so much energy that it deprives me of my other tasks and goals. To better explain this, yet another example: Imagine you're participating in a long distance walk and they constantly tell you how funny your gait looks to them. You don't understand what they mean, you're moving along fine, no? It becomes clear that it really looks funny though. They may start thinking you're missing a marble or two. You've lost your enjoyment of the walk. By constantly being involved with managing how I appear to others, I get tunnel vision. It forces me to observe myself as if I were a 3rd party, making sure I do things well. When that pressure releases, a world opens up for me and this enables me to genuinely listen to what someone has to say, as well as truly learn from others. Then I can also enjoy being together.

But how do I accomplish that? There is hope again, since recently. Music does something to my body. By for example to sing along with music, I come alive. My voice comes out and words and sentences form easier. To conduct a dialogue succeeds "all by itself". There also is more melody. It sounds livelier. I clearly notice a difference between days on which I've sung and days I did not find the time. So it certainly is worthwhile. Hopefully I can finally dissolve the blockade and make my own voice heard.

By Sarah Morton

Translated from the Dutch by Frank de Groot

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