I don’t eat tomatoes. Not because I’m allergic to them, but because they have this weird, slimy texture and bitter taste that makes them repulsive to me. But, that doesn’t mean I completely avoid tomatoes. I eat tomato sauce and salsa and I will even have a little bit of tomato on a burger. So, I will actually eat tomatoes, but not straight.
I feel the same way about socializing. I love people. People are great. People are interesting. But, days and days of just peopling causes my brain to slowly shut down.
Have you ever had one of those dreams where everything is in slow motion and even your speech is slow? I feel like this is what happens to me after having a lot of time socializing. I am speaking specifically of situations where I would have to observe social norms and put on a neurotypical mask.
People with Autism who are at the higher end of the spectrum are quite good at imitating neurotypical behavior. They do this by masking their autistic traits. This can work as long as they are not socializing for long periods of time. The longer the time, the more likely it is that they will eventually shut down or worse, melt down.
To use another analogy (because, I can’t get enough of them). It’s like walking around in shoes you like, eventhough they hurt your feet. I used to do this as a child. I had shoes that I loved so much, I did not tell my mom that they hurt and I actually wound up ruining my toes.
Long periods of masking mean I need to take longer periods to recover. I have come to describe this to my husband as being prickly. I get irritated and even my skin starts to hurt and feel raw, as if I had been rubbing it with sandpaper. If someone happens to call me during this time, it will be hard for me to make sense or answer questions. Sometimes, my exhaustion can lead to anxiety and I will start to hermit and dig deeper into my special interests.
Because I love people, and I would like have better relationships with them, I have started to work on finding ways to minimize the burnout I experience.
Here are a few things that have worked so far:
Prepare myself mentally
If I know I am going to be with people the entire day, I take some moments for myself to do something relaxing. Listen to music, take a shower, go for a walk or dig into one of my special interests.
Give myself permission to check out
Sometimes I am having a great time with friends and then i start to feel the ache in my body that tells me my people barometer is reading on the high end. When I actually listen to this signal, I find an excuse to step away. Go to the bathroom, go to the car to get something, if available, talk to a small child or animal (less socially demanding)
Find opportunities to use my special interests
Ask any Aspie about her special interest and you will probably get an earful! I am no exception, so I love to be in social situations where my special interest is quite useful and can save me from so much small talk. For example, since I love to draw, I will ask to draw people. People love that anyway. I also love languages, so having the opportunity to ask someone who speaks another language how to say things in his/her language is great for me and I am showing interest in them as well, so it’s a win/win!
Sometimes, I am in situations where I can’t check out or use my special interests. So I decide to not speak or speak as little as possible. If people ask me why i am so quiet, I tell them that I’m just listening. Usually this is sufficient for them. Most of the time, in a group of people, the conversation will come around to something interesting and I will pepper in some comments so that I still look like I’m engaged.
Since I have started to become mindful of my shutdown signals, I feel like I don’t get as exhausted socializing and I have been able to do it a little more than before I was aware of my shutdown signals.
What strategies do you use to enjoy socializing?