Socially Awkward Like Me: The Quirky Parents of Children With Autism

BlogHer Original Post

I'm grateful for all the things my son Leo has taught me about myself. He has autism, and as a result I've spent years researching and learning about the traits that add up to his diagnosis. Along the way, I have come to realize that many of my own, quirkier behaviors are not in fact the result of moral failure or insufficient character, as I was socially conditioned into assuming. No, I'm just wired differently. Now that I understand myself better, I am easier on myself, and also more confident in my interactions with other people. This knowledge, which I hadn't completely grasped during my social anxiety paroxysms at BlogHer '06 and BlogHer '08, will definitely help me thrive amidst the wild rumpus of BlogHer '10.

close-up of a palm; blurred

Autism and Asperger's syndrome often run in families, though not always in full-blown diagnosis form. Ten years ago Steve Silberman wrote a Wired Magazine article called The Geek Syndrome about how autism diagnoses seemed to cluster in engineer-flooded areas like Silicon Valley. Though Mr. Silberman is actively revisiting some of his Geek Syndrome statements and expanding on others, he has never stopped getting affirming emails about his article.

If you observe the families of children with autism, sooner rather than later you'll encounter parents who are noticeably quirky -- they'll be a little too interested in model trains, uncompromisingly logical and rigid thinkers, or oblivious to social cues -- like me, they'll share several but not all the autism traits of their children.

I hope by explaining some of my quirks, those of you who chide yourselves about social awkwardness -- whether you have kids with autism or not, and especially if you'll be attending BlogHer '10 -- will give yourselves a break. I also hope that if you spy me as I skulk around the edges of the conference, taking in but not necessarily engaging with the chaos, my explanations of why I behave the way I do will make you less appalled by my lack of social finesse:

Sensory Issues

  • I've got some sensory stuff going on. Leo does too. Strong food smells make him retch, too-loud noises make him cry, too-busy scenes make him freak and tantrum.
  • I get overwhelmed by crowds and noise -- my nervous system can't take it, even if my brain wants to participate.
  • More than 30 minutes of one-to-one conversation gives me a thumping headache.
  • I'm all about tactile defensiveness. Like a twitchy housecat, I may push away from you if you try to hug me, though I don't mind hugging on my terms.
  • Uncomfortable or binding clothes can make me physically sick (headache, nausea), so I will be sporting comfortable rather than fabulous shoes.

Social Cluelessness

  • Leo doesn't always get social cues. He may not pay attention to you even if you address him directly, and he has been known to snatch a cookie right out of a person's hand without asking first.
  • In conversation, I may be more blunt than is appropriate, though I'm working on my diplomacy skills. But I wrestle with understanding why people get offended by the true or the obvious.
  • I don't always process your situation or body language, especially if I'm excited about something and want to tell you about it. Be direct with me, and repeat yourself if you have to: "Yes, I will contribute a story to Tales of the Schoolyard/Can I Sit With You? if you'll just let me go to this panel that's about to start, first!"
  • Be careful about using analogies to convey information. They are too indirect, and I don't do subtle. I also often don't realize those analogies are directed at me; I just wonder why people tell me odd stories.

Need for Routine

  • Leo thrives on predictability and routine. So does his mother.
  • Recurring weekly events, like Thursday coffee with friends or Wednesday family pizza night keep me anchored.
  • Routine: The moment I emerge from La Guardia, I'm headed for Ghanaian food in The Bronx -- just like I used to ten years ago, when my business trips to NYC were commonplace.
  • My entire BlogHer weekend will be planned, leaving little room for spontaneity and the social anxiety that can accompany not knowing what's going to happen next.
  • I do not like surprises, nor do I like unpredictable social scenes like the open seating of the BlogHer keynote addresses. I may avoid them.

My quirkiness doesn’t mean I’m socially shackled, unfriendly, or unapproachable -- quite the opposite (and the same is true for Leo). I am genuinely interested in other people, and even in meeting new people -- especially smarty, funny, geeky, witty people -- even I if don’t always understand their social cues.

Having a place to retreat and recharge during the conference helps those with social anxiety, a matter BlogHer is addressing this year -- they have helped facilitate a Serenity Suite during both days of the conference, for people who need a regardless-of-reasons-why place to chill.

If you do see me at the conference, please say hi. I'd be especially tickled if you told me about your own quirks.

Shannon Des Roches Rosa is all about the bloggity blog blogging, because it requires no IRL social interactivity. Her online lurking spaces include Squidalicious.com, BlogHer.com, CanISitWithYou.org, and ThinkingAutismGuide.com.

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