I was homeschooled growing up, so most of the social settings I was involved in was church or youth group (which is more or less the same thing, just with different age demographics). After getting my high school diploma, I had the opportunity to get involved in other different social settings like my first job, then eventually college, and get exposed to a lot of people from different walks of life and different cultures and mindsets. While my exposure to others on the spectrum started before college, I had the opportunity by the time I went to college to meet a lot of other people on the spectrum. I’m positive I’ve said this before in previous posts, not one autistic person is exactly the same as another. All autistic people have different personalities, mindsets, and strengths and weaknesses. There may be some similarities in terms of weaknesses and even strengths, but no two people are exactly the same, as is the case with pretty much anyone else in general for that matter.
So what can it typically be like for autistic people in a social setting? If they’re different, what different kinds of scenarios are there for people on the spectrum in public? There are many different kinds, but to keep this short, I’ll list several that I’ve observed, including my own personal experience:
1. There are autistic people who are completely anti-social. They prefer the company of themselves instead of interacting with other people. Interacting with other people can be considered intimidating to them and they feel more comfortable alone, staying within the borders of their minds to brainstorm and sometimes even talk to themselves. If they have no choice but to be in public, they will stay away from large groups and stand to the side to keep to themselves and let their minds take them wherever they want to go.
2. There are autistic people who actually want to interact with others, be heard, and talk about things they are very interested in. The third thing there is one of the truest of them all. They want to talk to people about things they’re passionate about and interested in, but that’s about as far they’ll go. They can sit with someone and have an almost one-sided conversation by continuing to talk about what they’re passionate about with very few breaks in between to allow the other person to talk. As I’ve said in previous articles, autistic people hold their passions and obsessions very near and dear to them, and they want to share it with others, sometimes unaware that others are simply not interested. I’ve learned that the best thing to do is to let the person talk and try to listen as best I can, and then when I’m ready to move on, I can politely inform the person that I’d like to talk to someone else or move on to a different subject. If done politely and calmly, this usually works.
3. There are autistic people who want to be part of a group or talk to other people but they feel uncomfortable when placed in that setting because if no one is talking about something the person is familiar with, then it can be hard to be engaged in the conversation. There’s also the possibility of the person feeling left out because very little attention is payed to him. This can lead to the person feeling awkward and deciding to move on, feeling ignored and not valued. While this can type of scenario can absolutely be relevant for other kinds of people, autistic people can tend to feel the weight of that much more significantly and will tend to think a lot afterwards about how much people may or may not value them.
So those are some concepts for you guys to think about. One more thing to mention is that I’d say that when you meet autistic people in public, they can surprise you, intrigue you, maybe even wear you out a little bit (even I have the tendency to do that), or maybe you won’t even notice them at all because they’d rather stand to the side. Personally for me, when it comes to going out with friends, I’ve always preferred just going out with one friend because it feels good to give special attention to one friend without all the distractions of other people, even if I really like them too, and it’s easier to find my words and follow conversations. In groups a lot of times, there’s the tendency for someone to get left out, and I don’t like the thought of being responsible for that nor do I like to find myself in that position myself. I love to talk, and I love to meet new people and form relationships, but as you’ve learned a little bit of just a second ago, I’m pretty particular about how I go about it. There’s no single way that all people on the spectrum approach people or conversations in public, and for people who are higher functioning, you probably won’t even realize that the person is autistic on some level until later, but regardless, I hope that listing these things helps increase your awareness and helps you think of ways to manage these scenarios when they come.