So, I never talked about it on here, but I wrote a guest post for the amazing Katherine May (author of The Electricity of Every Living Thing) about how online communities provided an outlet for me to socialize and be myself, especially when growing up (and nearly just as much now). It’s essentially a safe haven for me to interact with other people, especially through voice chat (I also love typing but my wrists start hurting at some point). Voice chat allows me not to worry about whether I’m faking eye contact “okay” or whether the person I’m talking to is bored by what I’m saying or upset. You just say the things. Sometimes you’ll get a response, sometimes the conversation will move on. Sometimes you misunderstand a joke and resolving the conversation is found to be a hilarious misinterpretation. It’s really all in good fun.
A Thank You Note to My Internet Family
Lots of stories of ours are about our social challenges in life.
I want to tell you a happy story.
When I was 13, I started playing Day of Defeat, an online first-person shooter. I really enjoyed it but was terrified of using a microphone. When I finally used callouts in the game, people would call me a pre- pubescent boy and all other kinds of things, mostly college or high school boys. But at least I knew they were obnoxious and not to listen to them – not like in real life. I even joined a clan of genuinely nice people. They were WWII veterans and were super nice! We had a few clan matches but it ended after a few months.
During this time, my brother and I started playing another game, an obscure half-life 2 mod. It was an objective-based first-person shooter team game. There were a lot of people playing this game who were also in junior high. I ended up getting to know the community through playing and found a lot of friends through typing and talking in chat while playing. It was the only place I could be myself. I wasn’t scared of the microphone anymore since I knew the community. We had a league, created clans, analyzed team composition and loadouts, and scrimmaged with other teams. I moved states right before high school and never really made friends there but was still supported by my online friends. I was having fun with a group of people who understood me and didn’t judge me (and made banter-y jokes to everyone). Many of them also deal with social anxiety, agoraphobia, or just plain awkwardness, so I didn’t worry about “seeming weird.” We kept the group together after the league ended, and started playing other games together, just to hang out really. I got to know one person particularly well throughout high school, and we started dating long-distance in college. We’d watch TV shows and play Minecraft together. After college, we moved in, and it’s been a pretty great 4 years so far. We’ve met quite a few of our online friends at gaming conventions and continue to meet up every year. I was actually the driving force of those meet-ups. People think of online games as silly and online friends as not real friendships. I have gotten pity hugs when I tell someone I have “online friends,” but they cannot fathom the community that I am talking about. What I really mean: I am going to interact with some of my best friends that I’ve known since junior high. I am going to go socialize and be accepted for who I am. People often see me as “retreating” into my shell, and still, sometimes I feel bad that they missed out.
The internet gave me the space to exist in my own skin. It still does today. And I wouldn’t be where I am right now without it. So thank you, friends.
Thoughts on Current Research, Neurotypical Interpretations
My internet interactions remind me of a recent (and wonderfully done) journal article that came out about autistic people’s social interactions with each other. Essentially, the authors state that autistic people would keep saying different references and lines until something sticks with the other person, and they then reply and then have a conversation about it. If they don’t understand something, no one is absurdly shocked or surprised. If something the other person said doesn’t resonate, they simply don’t reply, and the conversation moves on. It’s not that they are trying to ignore the other person, they probably (in my opinion) just don’t have anything to say in response to that sentence. That doesn’t mean they’re being rude. This study was specifically recording social interactions while autistic people played video games together. Most of my social interaction online is while playing video games. It gives you something to talk about when you don’t have much else to say, and like they said in the study, if you’re in real life playing the video game, you’re focusing on the screen in front of you, and you are not required to look at the other person, even if they were neurotypical. I know for me, this makes auditory processing easier and frees up more resources to think of what I’m going to say next.
They bring up a really important point in their research, essentially saying that misunderstandings were smoothed over rather quickly because the autistic person would simply switch topics or move on to a different topic, and would not be offended or upset by the previous misunderstanding.
I think that autistic people may even be more forgiving than neurotypical people exactly because we are constantly misunderstood all the time via body language/social cues/tone of voice. We are probably more likely to be understanding when there is a miscommunication and more used to moving on with the conversation, as this happens with neurotypical conversations all the time. I think we’re more likely to give each other a break. And I also think we are more likely to assume that other autistic people have good intentions, even when there is a misunderstanding. I often read autistic people’s writing and notice that I would phrase something the same way, but see how that may be misinterpreted by a neurotypical person. I think we understand that everyone else is trying just as much as we are to form friendships and connections, and that autistic people’s neurotypical-based social skills don’t correlate to effort. We know we are always trying even if it doesn’t look like it to other people. I would be very interested to see how neurotypical/autistic interactions occur in this same video game environment.
It’s really exciting to think that in the next few years (and this year!), there is literature out there supporting the positive interactions autistic people have with each other. That when interacting with each other, we do not show “impaired” communication or “impaired” theory of mind. In fact, it seems like we are likely much more understanding than the neurotypical people who interact with us. I hope this information gets out to neurotypical people at some point, and this language about “impairments” is changed to reflect the current research.
When I tried to look up this research paper on google (googling “autistic people’s social interactions with other autistic people”, with the google search suggesting I put in “autism and social interaction problems”), all that came up were articles about the “impairments” we have with social interaction and that even “high functioning autistic adults” have problems with social interaction and difficulties with theory of mind.
I hope that in a few years, there will be other results to choose from.
Heasman, B., Gillespie, A. (2018). Neurodivergent intersubjectivity: Distinctive features of how autistic people create shared understanding. Autism, 1-12.