It is said that autistic people are poor at social imagination, that means we can’t predict how complex situations involving people may unfold. It made sense to me for a long time, however, last night I realised something that changed how I see this issue. We are poor at social imagination because when we try to imagine other people reactions to our behaviour we use their specific features called personality or even interests, and instead we should be focusing on their agenda and their function.
Agenda tells us what outcome the other person is after while their function (manager, ex partner, family member) tells us what actions are available to them to get what they want.
A few days ago I realised that I can understand social situations better when I imagine them as a game played by ‘meeples’ or if you prefer ‘general model of a human being’. I also realised that I am quite good at understanding general public reactions, I also understand that if I watch a film and a character does something significant there will always be a reaction from other characters. And yet, if I tried to imagine how a specific person will act in a specific situation, I’m failing. That didn’t make sense to me so I spent loads of time trying to work this out.
And finally I know.
Let’s say you work in an organisation where a couple of colleagues have a secret that you are aware of and want to expose. What will happen then? Those people will most likely block you. What they will do specifically is not that important when you try to assess the situation. What should be enough for you is to know that they will make the situation so difficult for you that you’ll probably need to leave.
And what they can do will depend on their function – so the manager may give you tasks that they know you are unable to complete while a colleague will be talking about you behind your back and ignore you socially. The fact that the manager likes mountain climbing or is a family man will have very little to do with how they will treat you in this situation.
Moreover, I now think that neurotypicals will also be unable to predict the exact reaction of people unless they saw it happening already with somebody else, but they are not bothered about specifics, they just know that something will happen in response and that’s enough for them to judge the situation.
Obviously the issue of social imagination is a bit more complex than that; for example a young autistic person may believe that manager is a role model and they will behave accordingly regardless of the situation, so life experience also plays a part here, however I’ll leave this part for autism researchers to look at.
It’s a bit sad obviously that no one came up with this already; or possibly someone did, but it just hasn’t been passed on to us, autistics, to make the use of. Very sad indeed.