When to conform and when to be yourself

Last night, I was at the monthly support group meeting for people with Asperger’s that I attend, both as a fellow Aspie who needs support and as the adult group’s leader. It was the most emotionally tiring meeting I’ve attended in a while. Without going too much into specifics, the topic of conformity came up. It would make a great topic for a meeting, but we were just catching up at that particular one. Maybe next month.

At the meetings, we go around to each person and have them weigh in on whatever the topic is. At this past meeting, I hadn’t really prepared anything, so we talked about whatever was new in our lives since the previous month. I find it’s a good go-to topic, and it allows people to brag about anything cool that they’re doing. (I often have something, not to brag or anything.) This format allows everyone who has something to contribute to have their time to be listened to as long as they’re not interrupted. And that’s where we often run into problems.

As aspies, we often find ourselves bursting to say whatever pops into our heads. This can be a problem in social situations, because often what pops into our heads is only loosely related to the topic at hand. Sometimes it’s even wildly inappropriate and/or rude. I struggled with this for a long time until I developed a mental filter that lets only “approved” messages through to the speech part of my brain, but some people think it shouldn’t be necessary to conform in this way. They just want to be who they are and do what they want.

Of course you should be who you are, but that doesn’t mean that you should be able to disregard the rights and feelings of others. What if they wanted to do the same thing to you? If a group of people is talking about something, comments should pertain to the topic. If you don’t find the topic interesting, that doesn’t mean you can interrupt with irrelevant comments in order to steer the conversation toward your areas of interest. Conversation topics have a natural lifespan, and if you wait it out, new topics will come about in time. If you can’t wait, then go find other people to talk to.

There is a time and a place to joke around and be hilarious. When someone is telling the group about a recent traumatic experience, it is both inappropriate and rude to make light of it by telling a joke.

There is a difference between interrupting and active listening. You can show someone that you are listening to them and you understand what they’re saying by cutting in with things like “that must have been difficult” or “you’re handling it very well” or a simple “yeah.” Active listening generally doesn’t disrupt the flow of the speaker’s story, and it shows that you care about what he or she has to say. Interrupting says that you care more about what you have to say than what the other person does. If you don’t understand what’s being said, ask for clarification. Don’t ask where he got his shirt or why she has three arms.

The time to conform is when you are in the company of other people. The degree of conformity depends on the size of the group, how well you know them, how well they know you, and the occasion. Support group meetings are for showing and receiving support, so unfortunately, the degree to which you should conform to standards of etiquette is pretty high, but it’s a very valuable skill. You will get a chance to share your thoughts, but give that same courtesy to everyone else as well, and you’ll find it easy to get along with other people before too long.

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One thought on “When to conform and when to be yourself

  1. Oh man, what a meeting. It was ultimately fruitful, but rather stressful and damn did I need a beer and some quiet time afterwards. I also feel bad for C.H., because the 18-yr old new person in question definitely got under her skin. We’re going to have a challenging time ahead trying to “socialize” this self-centered late teen hellion. It was kinda cute when she was 16, not so cute now. Baby steps, and let’s keep working at it, as a miniature “Aspie village” but damn. This person is really self-centered to a vexing degree, and tends to storm out of the room when criticized rather than sit still and ponder…to be fair, it may be her best coping mechanism and maybe she does do some thinking while walking alone away from the group…let us hope so…she’s not entirely without empathy but I do say she’s weak in compassion, though she did (arguably) display a modicum of compassion tinged with annoyance at the sufferer for going on and on about his problem. It’s good that she tried to cheer him up, but she was rather brusque in her approach and betrayed her ultimate impatience with the person at the same time. She’s not yet formally DX’ed but I give her my 2 thumbs up for definitely being with us on the spectrum and more “impaired” than many, if not most of us. I do hope she gets into her desired university, but as she admitted to having less than stellar math skills, I have to admit that the local university in question is very difficult to get into for liberal arts or even biology majors…i.e. if your math skills aren’t robust you have to go out of your way to “prove” yourself worthy through community service, theater and other extra-curricular stuff, etc. I hope she can make it under those rubrics (I am a grad school Alumnus of the same institution) but I have my doubts & worries. I hope it won’t devastate her if she doesn’t quite make it the first time. Maybe she’s just quirky enough to qualify, goodness willing. But even in the best case scenario this person has a lot of social skills that she needs to master along the way, goodness willing.

Now you may speak.

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