I bring the pad of my thumb to my index fingernail and begin to trace the shape of my nail. I’m bothered that it is not even and needs to be filed. This causes me to fixate on it even more as I move from my index finger, to my middle finger, then to my ring finger, and back to my index finger again almost without thinking. All of them need to be filed. I am wishing that I had packed a nail file, but suddenly wonder if it is rude or weird to file your nails when you’re hanging out with your friends.
I call this “tracing”. Its how I stim. I trace lots of things, not just my nails. I trace the lines of the steering wheel in my car and the edges of my cell phone. I like that they are consistent and smooth. I do this when I am nervous or thinking deeply about something. I am good at hiding what I am doing. I only appear to be “fidgeting”. Its a small, subtle movement that nobody ever really notices, but it helps me stay in my seat.
I’m sitting at the table in your dining room right across from you listening to you talk. This is not my home. I already feel out of place, but I do like to socialize. I keep my tension tucked in the back of my mind and try to ignore it. I want to appear relaxed, welcoming, and relatable.
The light that hangs over your dining room table is a dark yellow and casts dark shadows on your furniture. I find the lighting soothing. Your home is normally very warm when I visit, but its winter and I can appreciate that this time. You’ve been talking to me for about five minutes about how your brother is doing. He lives in Maine and he’s just had another baby with his wife. You’re happy to be an aunt again.
I am thinking about smiling at all the right times so that you know I am happy for you. I’m remembering a time I heard a woman say “CONGRATULATIONS!” and I’m making sure that I do something similar.
When you tell me the news, I immediately put forth my best surprised, yet happy face. It is always accepted. I am working so hard to show excitement that I almost make myself emotional. I want to empathize with you so much that I am trying to put myself in your shoes. How must you feel? How might you want me to react to your news?
I have learned that women love to smile a lot and talk in excited, high pitched tones. I normally do not do this at home. I am more like Eeyore at times or that cartoon girl Daria, just not so negative and a little more expressive.
My show of excitement seems to have rubbed you the right way and that makes me feel good to know that I did the right thing. Our little chat requires more thought for me than I assume it does for you. I am aware that I have to think through all of these things, but I have been doing it for so long that it flows almost perfectly by now.
You ask me how my brothers are doing and I get that “deer caught in the headlights” feeling for a moment. My mind blanks and I have to work hard to think of what to say. How are my brothers doing? One has enlisted in the Air Force. That’s interesting information. I’ll share that!
And so I do and you ask me where he is stationed. This is an easy question.
“That’s great! And how are your children?” you ask me next.
My mind floods with images of my children and what we have been up to lately. So many things come to mind that I almost cannot think what to say. I look to the side momentarily and make sure to use my “thinking” face so that you don’t think I’ve gotten side tracked. I know that it’s odd to take so long to respond to these things so out of pressure, I start rattling off everything I can think of about my kids recently. Before I know it, ten minutes have passed and I’m embarrassed because I realize I have rambled.
Chatty, excited type people tend to be unphased by my rambling. They just build off of whatever I’ve said. Quiet people seem to be the most bothered by the way I talk because they feel as though I never let them speak. I talk the most when I am nervous.
But you are chatty and excited and you take my rambling in stride. You even make a joke that we both laugh about. My best social skill is my wit. I’m able to turn many of my awkward social moments into something funny and people love that.
Despite being a little overwhelmed when it is my turn to talk, I do love chatting with people like you. You take initiative in conversation and I have to think less about what to say. All I have to do is follow your lead and try to be funny. You’re funny too and that gives me the chance to shine and do what I am good at.
“That’s great! How are they doing in school?” you ask.
I start rambling again about details you don’t even need to know, but it fills the time and we go back and forth like this for a little longer until I notice that you are smiling less and have become quiet.
There is an awkward pause.
I glance at the time and wonder if you may be getting bored and ready to end the conversation. How long is it appropriate to chat for? I wonder. Should I begin to wrap things up?
“Well I guess its time for me to go. I’ve got to get my children,” I say, even though I technically have another hour before its time.
“Oh so soon?” you say as if you are surprised. Maybe I misunderstood your desire to end the conversation?
“Yeah the babysitter has somewhere to be,” I smile to show ease.
“Well,” you say, “it was so nice to see you!” We stand up and give a big hug goodbye and just like that, its over.
I am so happy to have been able to interact with someone in a way that is affirming and accepting. One single positive interaction can encourage me for the rest of the day. Despite common misconceptions about autism, I want friends. I need human interaction and healthy connections just like everyone else.
You don’t know yet the impact you’ve had on my social skills. Maybe one day I’ll tell you.