Often, when autistic people talk about their autistic traits, other people relate to those traits.
For example, I might say that socializing exhausts me, and before I start saying how exactly socializing exhausts me, someone else jumps in and says that socializing tires them out too, that they relate to me by having the same trait that I have.
Or I might say that I am hypersensitive to noise, and before I start saying how exactly I am hypersensitive to noise, someone else jumps in and says that they don’t like sudden loud noises either, that they relate to me by having the same trait that I have.
Or I might say that I sometimes have difficulty speaking and conversing, and before I start saying how exactly I have difficulty speaking and conversing, someone else jumps in and says that they sometimes can’t find the right words either, that they relate to me by having the same trait that I have.
In a thousand words, a summary of the above:
When people say that they relate to me before I start relating any of the details of my traits and experiences, what they seem to be saying is that we all have pretty much the same traits, that we all have pretty much the same experiences, that we are all pretty much the same, except just a little different in detail, and that I could be just like everyone else if I just swam harder and faster with my school of fish in the direction in which all the other fish are swimming.
Relating is a common phenomenon in social interactions. People often relate to each other, and for most people, having other people say that they relate often helps them feel better about themselves and less alone in their lives. Relating is considered a generally good thing, and people generally do it with good intentions.
However, it doesn’t work for me, and I don’t like it when people do it to me.
To the relating, I don’t relate.
I don’t relate, because I am autistic, and I think verry merry berry differently from most of the people around me. Unlike how most people are different from each other, I am not just different in the small details, verry merry berry many of them for each different person. I am verry merry berry different in the big picture too, and my traits and experiences are not nearly the same as everyone else’s. They are not the same, and they are not similar either. In addition, I can’t be just like everyone else no matter how much I try, no matter how hard and fast I swim with my school of fish in the direction in which all the other fish are swimming.
Another thousand words to summarize:
When I say that socializing exhausts me, I mean that I feel physically ill after spending a few minutes around people at a party where I can’t hear anything that anyone is saying to me, because I am hypersensitive to noise, and I can hear every little clink of glass and scuffle of shoe in the room, so all these little noises everywhere are taking over my brain, which is processing far more sensory stimuli in the form of noises and lights and sights and sounds at a far more amplified and detailed level than everyone else’s brain, and that is why I am having difficulty speaking and conversing, because I think in pictures, not words, and I am way too overloaded and braindrained right now to do my usual overloading braindraining translation of pictures into words to communicate with other people in a way that is still verry merry berry different from how most people communicate with each other.
Or I might say that I feel sick whenever someone comes into my room when I wasn’t expecting them.
Or I might say that I can hear people sniffling in the kitchen downstairs and on the opposite side of the house from my room with my door closed.
Or I might say that I used to be a non-verbal child who had zero words in my mind and therefore never said anything to anyone who said anything to me.
Once I get a chance to describe my traits and experiences in detail, most people don’t relate, and that is exactly what I wish for them to do. I wish for most people not to relate to me, because I know that many of my traits and experiences are not relatable for people who are not autistic or even autistic people who have an expression of autism that is significantly different from mine.
When people don’t relate to me, I can be my normal natural self, without having to swim too hard and too fast with my school of fish in the direction in which all the other fish are swimming. That exhausts me quickly, and I can’t do it for long without sinking.
When people do relate, I can’t be my normal natural self. When people relate to me, what they expect from me is that I relate to them as well. Well, I don’t, and I can’t. In addition, they expect me to do what they do in the way in which they do it, because they think that I am not that different from them. After all, they relate to me, or they think that they do without waiting to hear any of the details of my traits and experiences that make mine verry merry berry different from theirs.
The opposite doesn’t hold true. I don’t relate to other people, and I don’t think that I do, because I know that they are verry merry berry different from me. However, that doesn’t mean that I can’t ever relate to anyone else ever. To relate to people who think verry merry berry differently from me, I have to hear many of the details of their traits and experiences that make theirs verry merry berry different from mine. Otherwise, I don’t know what their traits and experiences are, and I don’t know if I have any that are at all similar to theirs.
In many cases, I don’t, but that still doesn’t mean that I can’t relate at all.
I can often find a way to relate.
For example, when someone tells me that they are upset about a social slight that they received from someone else, I don’t and can’t relate. I don’t and can’t relate, because I am not as sensitive to social cues as most people are, so chances are that a social slight that someone else perceived as a strong offense against them is something that didn’t even register in my mind. To me, these social perceptions are like hypersensitive overreactions to hallucinatory delusions about things that are not real, and I have to remember explicitly that they are real to other people, that other people get upset and feel bad about them all the time as well.
In my mind, the feeling is unmutual, but I know what it is like to be upset by other things that are real to me, but not to others. I know what it is like to be upset by a sudden interruption or eating noises or the noise of the phone ringing or the noise of the doorbell ringing or too many people talking for too long or just one person going on and on and on in an excessively varitone voice.
I know what it is like to be upset about the things that I get upset about, and I know what it is like to feel bad about the things that I feel bad about, so I can draw a line between my feelings in one situation and someone else’s feelings in another situation. This doesn’t require that we feel the same way in the same situation, but it still relates our feelings to each other’s, so we can understand a little something about each other.
If someone knows that I can’t stand to hear their eating noises that drive me crazy and shut down my brain, then they know that I am not eating with them for a reason other than me disliking them and wishing to avoid them at all cost.
If I know that someone else feels neglected because I am not eating with them, then I know that they wish to spend more time with me and need me to spend more time with them doing something other than eating.
Even amongst people who think verry merry berry differently, relating can be done, as long as it is done in a different way. The lines for relating can be drawn, and the ways built up from listening to people when they say a little something about themselves.
Listening, whether the people are autistic or not, whether their experiences are different in the big picture or the small details.
Listening to relate, not speaking to not relate.
I think that everyone likes to be listened to and told that they are different in certain situations, that they really are different from everyone else in the specifics of their ongoing life experiences. Sometimes, the best way to relate is to admit the differences, figure out what they are, and go from there.
Other times, relating is purrrfurrrtly effortless, even amongst people who think verry merry berry differently in the big picture and the small details.
All of us fish in our school wish to avoid the big bad anglerfish dangling its light to lure us in and eat us. That is why we seek safety in numbers.