Quirk Monster #4: Autism and dinner table conversation
A few nights ago I went out to dinner. It was a farewell for two much-loved colleagues that ended up being a celebration of four beautiful people in attendance. It was a really lovely evening out.
There were 13 of us seated at a long table inside a gorgeous function room. It was the perfect environment for me because it was quieter than a more typical restaurant setting, the lighting was soft and I was surrounded by people I knew and felt safe with. The art deco print wallpaper gave my eyes something to trace over and our dedicated waiter was quietly unobtrusive and helpful. I was seated close to the middle of the table with my back to a wall with plenty of space behind me to move around. I could see all the entrances and exits and I felt really comfortable.
As the minutes passed, I noticed a familiar pattern happening. Whenever I attend dinner parties with large groups of people, conversations always seem to happen either side and across from me and not usually with me. It’s nobody’s fault and I’m not saying I’m being excluded. I have trouble knowing when it’s my turn to talk and I find it hard to follow a conversation at the best of times — let alone when there are multiple conversations happening at the same table! I’m not always able to identify an entry point in the conversation for me to join in at.
When this happens I usually pull my phone out. I check my emails, my social media feeds and I visit a news website. I’m not being anti-social or refusing to join in. I’m self-regulating and soothing a mind that is processing an enormous amount of information and losing a considerable amount of energy in doing so. My brain is taking in all the sensory stimuli in the room and processing multiple conversations while also sorting through a backlog of information from earlier in the day and looking for that elusive conversational entry point. It's a lot to take in and reading helps me focus.
I did this the other night and because I was with really supportive people, they just let me do my own thing. After several minutes of brain soothing phone time, the best thing ever happened. The friend to my left turned her chair around and asked if I would like to join their conversation. Having had time to recharge, I said yes and was so happy that someone had helped pull down that social interaction barrier and had given me the opening I couldn’t identify for myself.
Organised social events can be hard for me. Different types of events have their own unique challenges (to be discussed in future Quirk Monster posts), but with the right support, they can all be really enjoyable for me. I need space to recharge and pace myself through the event. I sometimes need help with the social stuff and I need to be free to just do my own thing with zero expectations or pressures. Exactly what my awesome colleagues did for me a few nights ago.
This short article is a lived experience example shared from my life to help you understand a little bit more about what it’s like to be autistic. I am just one autistic person in a really big world. No two of us are exactly alike. I can only speak for myself and to my own experiences. If you want to know what other autistic people think — and you should — look them up, talk to them and read their work too. We all have our own voices and this is only mine. This article is part of a mini content series I publish to LinkedIn when I can. You can view the other articles in this series via my LinkedIn profile.