Autism and Perfect Pitch: An Analogy

Last December I was finally able to see a professional psychologist and was officially diagnosed with both high-functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) (not to be confused with Seasonal Affective Disorder, which is also SAD. And also sad.). In addition to being a nightmare to distinguish between if I was also dyslexic (which I’m not), these diagnoses have coalesced a lot of who I am into recognizable patterns. I’ve wanted to write a blog post about it for some time now, but I’ve been a little nervous about it. Now that I’ve got labels for these things I have the responsibility to be a voice for others with the same condition, and I don’t want to accidentally misrepresent or cause difficulties for others due to my interpretation or experience. But, at the same time, I do wish to convey my experiences for those who don’t understand, and commiserate with those who do. So I decided to just kinda wing this post, with the caveat for the reader that ASD is a spectrum, and everything I say could be way off base for others with ASD.

Having these two conditions has been a weird mismash of social awkwardness on both ends of the scale. One of the issues with ASD is that it’s really hard to get outside of one’s own head. A lot of autistic people just assume that everyone sees the world in the same way they do, not because they’re narcissistic or self-focused, but because they’re literally incapable of seeing it otherwise, at least not without a lot of thought and active reminders. Avoiding others is just easier and less stressful, hence the SAD.

Also, one of the symptoms of ASD is the inability to read/predict social cues from others, but one of the symptoms of SAD is the abject fear of crossing social norms. So, in any given social situation, I’m deathly afraid of saying the wrong thing, but I don’t know what the wrong thing is until I can see people’s reactions. About 60% of the time, I say something that’s normal (or normal enough) that the conversation continues just fine. About 30% of the time, I say something that might be a little awkward, earning some mental side-eyes from others (or actual side-eyes), but I don’t realize it until I think about the conversation afterward (something I do constantly about virtually every interaction I have, from those with strangers to those with the closest friends and family members), analyze it from the other viewpoint, and come to the conclusion that it was probably a weird thing to say. And about 10% of the time, I say something so awkward or inappropriate that I get an immediate response from others (usually a big pause with an “Uhhhhh….so anyway”) and then I want to go die in the corner.

You might think that that 10% is the worst part of having these two conditions, and that’s probably true. But the 30% of times when I don’t know whether or not I’ve done something wrong until afterward is probably more agonizing in the long run, because people don’t give feedback on this kind of thing, or at least feedback in a way that would be recognizable to someone with ASD. It’s not that I can’t recognize social cues at all, but more that it takes a more conscious, active effort to do so, and that takes time, like learning any new skill does, only in this case I’m not mentally able to eventually do it subconsciously. It will always be like learning a new skill. This sounds weird, but I’d like to illustrate with an analogy.

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