Social reciprocity

In this post I try to play an autism researcher so it may not include any description of emotions, unless I feel that adding it will be appropriate. I also try to refrain from commenting on my parsnip muffins, or any other of my healthy bakes that I made in the past.

So, social reciprocity for me is when we try to respond to other person emotions in a conversation, whether face to face, over the phone or via chat or email. For example if The Friend tells me that work is very busy and she’s really tired and I tell her that I feel really sorry for her and understand how her job can be tiring and stressful and I do hope her colleagues are supportive and that she’ll manage to get some rest over the weekend, that is social reciprocity. But if I tell her she’s tired because of limited exposure to light and she should get SAD lamp and use it every morning, that is not social reciprocity, that is giving practical advice.

In real life I think both of the above approaches are important and if SAD lamp is going to make anyone more energetic throughout the winter then I see no reason for denying them the information about it, but for some reason our society values social reciprocity more than giving practical advice.

It is said that we, autistics, are totally crap in social reciprocity, and I guess that is right. Some of that is probably our natural reaction to other human beings and it can’t be fully changed but we forget about an important factor while discussing the concept: neurotypicals have plenty of opportunities to practice social reciprocity with others – we, autistics, don’t, as people don’t understand our reactions and emotions and often make us wrong as a result.

Just a few weeks ago, when I had my training for live in care job, I mentioned about my mum, how I couldn’t believe she had dementia because, even though she changed, her memory was intact. I spoke up because I wanted people to know that good memory doesn’t mean there’s no dementia, and then the lady who run the training thanked me and said that it must have been difficult for me to talk about it so she really appreciate that. She made an attempt on social reciprocity, and the only problem was that it wasn’t difficult for me to talk about it at all. If it was, I wouldn’t even be able to find words in my head to form coherent sentences, that’s how bad it can get when I consider something a difficult subject.

Perhaps non autistic people experience the same feelings they had when something happens to them when they later talk about it, but I don’t think that happens to me, or at least not every time and not with every feeling (although it probably happens when I talk about fear), so the trainer assumed that was what happened to me but I was just focused on passing an important information.

After the trainer’s comment I however started thinking that I should have felt bad, but I wasn’t, therefore I am a bad daughter. So the attempt on social reciprocity backfired.

I can also think of another situation, when I was in my twenties and spoke with a friend’s friend. We used to get on rather well, or at least that’s what I thought, and I told her that I really like spending time on my own. Of course high functioning autism was virtually unknown then and I had no idea I’m autistic. The girl seemed not to like my disclosure and our relationship was never the same after that. It seems to me she found it suspicious and decided I cannot be trusted.

I can think of many other situations when I was being made wrong: people laugh at me saying I’m so funny when I just go about my day but when I actually try to make a joke no one understands it. I get stressed over silly things and need help but no one is there to deliver it; at other times people rush to help me when I’m coping perfectly fine. I want to be understood, but no one is listening, not even private counsellor; at other times I want to be left alone and people insist I should open up. I even remember situations when I was explicitly told I’m weird when I tried to explain something about me to people.

What I just described above is certainly not an environment where social reciprocity can be learned, it’s an environment where we learned to ignore other people needs the same way they ignore ours; it’s an environment where we have no space to be ourselves, therefore it’s not possible for us to give space to other people to be themselves.

I’d like all the autism researchers and commenters to remember that.

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