The word socialising brings shivers down the spine, for many of us. I posted this meme on one of The Gentle Autistic’s community groups and asked: What are your thoughts on this statement? What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘socialise’? And here are some of the responses:

  • “Fear”
  • “Dread”
  • “Over-analysing”
  • “I identify with the term “selectively social”. I can enjoy it sometimes, but only at the time and usually only when supported by few bevvies”
  • “Utter terror!”
  • “No! Unless of course it’s completely necessary.”
  • “Can I change my mind at the last minute?”
  • “Am I happy with the company and the number of people present?”
  • “…afterwards – sheer torture- the dreaded 3am cringe fest, intrusive rumination on what I’ve said wrong- on repeat. Ever increasing circular cringes. Hideous – can last days/weeks! Some humiliations have lasted years 🤦🏻‍♀️ the cold hand of shame gripping my heart…”
  • “Do I have enough energy for it?”
  • “Will I bump into people who make me feel worse about myself?”
  • “My [partner]…will encourage me to try it as it will take me out of my comfort zone. Then we will row because I really don’t want to do it. Sleepless nights working through all the possible scenarios. And then I’ll have bad fatigue so my whole world gets tricky. Again!”
  • “Will it be a quiet environment so I can tune into the person speaking?”
  • “Will I come home better or worse for the experience?”
  • “Have I over-analysed the invitation? Absolutely. Better stay home.”
  • “Straight away I’ll think ‘how can I get out of it’?”
  • “The number of things I have started and attended one session is legendary.”
  • “I am conscious after the event that the socialization has been a one sided affair.”
  • “There is the huge issue in my head of ‘why would anyone want to talk to me?”
  • “Avoid!!”
  • “I break out into an instant sweat.”
  • “I know I will not remember anyone…which in itself causes fear as I can’t remember who I have met before.”
  • “People say ‘you will enjoy it when you get there’…after an evening out I am never really sure it was worth it.”
  • “Social phone calls are equally anxiety provoking!”
  • “I’d rather stay at home with the dog.”

None of these views reflect Cambridge dictionary’s definition of socialising as being “spending time…with friends or with other people in order to enjoy yourself“!

Of course, there’s a second meaning to the word socialising, and this is Collins’ dictionary definition: “being made to behave in a way that is acceptable in their culture or society”. Now this is closer to our experience of socialising! Social situations are often the most pressurising, intense examples of us desperately trying to behave in ways that are deemed appropriate by those around us.

It’s party time in six months time, let the anxiety commence, as we gradually count down the days, the dread increasing as it draws ever closer and then…

    • Do we dress up or down? Whichever we gamble with, there’s a good chance we’ll have misjudged the dress code!
    • On goes that mask.
    • We monitor ourselves to check if we’re talking enough, talking too much, asking the right questions – do we sound interested? Nosy? Bored? Do we look engaged, even though we’re extremely distracted by some annoying cackling behind us? Are we producing our interpretation of an interested furrowed brow, or is this our scowl?
    • Do we stand with a drink in hand? What do we do with our arms otherwise?
    • Is there a toilet? Are we supposed to acknowledge fellow toilet goers when we exchange cubicles, and at the sinks, or do we avert our gaze?
    • How do we know when we can move away from a group of people?
    • Are we stopping people from moving on to others?                                     
    • How do we find the right gap in conversation to speak?
    • Is it okay to sit in this corner and look busy on our phone?
    • Is it okay to hide in this toilet cubicle for half an hour and play solitaire to ease sensory overload?
    • If we have an alcoholic drink then we will feel that we have more confidence but that increases the risk of saying weird stuff…tricky one.
    • Who is this person, behaving like we know each other, and why aren’t they giving us any clues?
    • Why are these people so dull? Are we being dull?
    • Is it worse have nothing but a paper plate piled high with cheese and pineapple on sticks and scoff the lot, OR, worse to have a wholesome platter of varied items but leave most of them, uneaten, hidden under a carefully arranged scrunched napkin?
    • If we get up the courage to dance, will our limbs lash out wildly? Or will the classic switch to a slow song kick in, ten seconds after we’ve hit the dance floor?
    • What’s the earliest we can go home without it seeming rude? And do we have to say goodbye or can we just scuttle away quietly?

I, for one, would genuinely like answers to most of these questions!

As one of the people from our community has described, one of the often overlooked problems with socialising, particularly in groups of people we know less well, is our inability to recall faces. As if we don’t have enough on our checklist of expected social behaviours, 36% of neurodivergents without learning disabilities, have some degree of prosopagnosia – that’s an inability to recognise faces. As you will read, if you click on the link to that glossary post, some people are fine with people they know well but cannot remember faces at all for those we know less well.

A recent example of my own: I met a woman outside an airport hotel and she started chatting – she was really friendly. She went away and came back about five minutes later, so I attempted to continue the conversation, asking if she’d found what she had been looking for. She looked at me as if I was hitting on her! It was only when the actual woman appeared next to her that I realised that they were not the same person. They didn’t look anything like each other, apart from both being women and having appeared in the same spot. Because I have prosopagnosia, I make a point of identifying certain aspects of people that will help me recognise them next time. Ideally, I’d only ever see them in the same location, or wearing the same brightly coloured hat, or walking their distinctive three-legged dog. If all of that fails, I try to find some other feature that will stick with me. Unfortunately, on this occasion, I chose the woman’s suitcase as her identifier, which is pretty silly considering we were at an airport.

Cancelling pre-arranged social events at the last minute is entirely usual for me, and now I realise it’s true for many of us. What a relief! I’ve always been so ashamed that I feel the need to cancel in the lead up, when I can have spent days, weeks or months doing all of the things listed above, by our community. After all that, I don’t actually go to the event that has tortured me for so long. So, if I’d just said ‘thanks, but no thanks’ in the first place, I’d have been free of all of that anxiety. I’ve really been making a concerted effort to say no in the last few months…I’ve even cancelled Christmas. My calendar is looking beautifully empty right now, so it’s working.

We are able to enjoy social experiences, given the right conditions: comfortable surroundings, comfortable clothes, with people that we feel relaxed around, who understand us, who accept us just as we are. It’s not us who needs to change – we don’t need to get more brave and we shouldn’t have to wear those masks.

Thank you SO much to all those of you who contributed to this post, you brought it to life. And hey, we may not be socialising in the traditional sense, but our community allows us to socialise on our own terms. And that’s got to be a good thing.