Saturday 1 August 2020

"In-between" social interactions

My career has always involved me in large amounts of social interaction, with colleagues, with students, with the wider public. When I understand the structure of that interaction, what the rules are, then I can generally perform well. Interacting professionally while at work is mostly fine. But it’s a different story when the rules become fuzzy, or non-existent. 

Casual social interactions, including chat, and especially with strangers, are generally problematic. Mostly I avoid them, but when they do happen I can find it an enormous effort to maintain what I now recognise as a mask. I generally do it by collaging together snippets of other conversations I have overheard or viewed in movies or on TV. Another technique, which remains a favourite, is to visualise what everybody is saying, as they say it, as though it is written dialogue in a book. Sometimes I use a play format (ME: xxx, INTERLOCUTOR: xxx) and other times I envisage the pages of a novel, complete with “he said ... she said”s (sometimes with adverbs!). Either strategy takes me out of the situation and able to view things more analytically, but it is an effort and I think perhaps sometimes the other person senses something is going on and doesn’t like it.

But I have been musing recently about in-between situations. By “in-between”, I mean social interactions with professional colleagues outside work or, rarely, with non professionals (e.g. family) in a work setting. 

Music is a social activity. To become a Professor of Music requires social interaction, not just in the making of music but also afterwards, generally in the pub. During my years working in music, I could expect to find myself in such situations at least once a week with colleagues, or a mix of colleagues and students. 

My special ability as an autistic person is to make connections between ideas or things that other people cannot see. Situations like this, often helped by a little  inhibition-removing alcohol, would liberate my flow of thought in ways which could be transformative for others. I have ample evidence, in the form of correspondence and people’s histories, of the truth of this. I have had an enormous influence on many academic and professional lives. Some of my conversations have led to innovative educational initiatives, large-scale funded research projects, book publications, new artworks, professorial promotions, and even changes in people’s personal lives. 

What I would do is to take the interests or expertises of visiting Professors, PhD candidates, undergraduates, academic colleagues, and connect them with other things or people of which they were unaware, or reframe their ideas in ways that had never occurred to them. To do this, I would draw on my vast reservoir of knowledge (some of it very obscure) built up from my autistic interests over the years. Furthermore, I would hyper-focus on all the people I was talking to, making unexpected connections between what I understood of them and their work or interests. It was a bit like the way I would listen to all the instruments in an ensemble and then hear the relationships between them. People who knew me well would recognise the process, to the extent that my name actually became an adjective for that kind of thinking. 

But for this to happen, I had to have an entirely willing audience, and this was not always the case. Some people, understandably, did not like how I could dominate the conversation. I think I alienated quite a few that way. If I did not see an opportunity to speak fluently, I would fall completely silent. People would comment “you’re quiet tonight”. If I then tried to speak, things could quickly go wrong. I now understand why that happened, but at the time I really had no idea. In some cases, the mistakes I made were terminal and some people have never spoken to me again, even though we were close at the time.

The deterioration of my hearing in 2009 meant that I moved away from Music into Computing. One result of all that has been a great reduction in my social life and these days I rarely find myself in such situations. I don’t really miss them much. My ideas remain as fluidly transdisciplinary as ever. I find ways to convey them through other means involving much less social pressure. The autism identification has helped me to realise what was actually going on during those conversations, and I think I would be more conscious of that today. This is not a bad thing. It means that I would be more forgiving of, and able to explain, any negative effects, rather than just becoming confused as I did in the past. It also means that I would be able to see the beneficial aspects of neurodivergence and provide reinforcement of that for others who might be in a similar position.