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Remembering My Childhood Social Awkwardness as a Mom With Autism

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I haven’t had much time for self-reflection until just recently. While talking with my daughter about social interactions at school that were puzzling her, I began to take a step back into my inner self, and boy did the memories come flooding back.

At times when I am talking with my children or while I am managing one of L’s meltdowns or talking with the little superheroes’ therapists and specialists, I am able to take a step back and I have flashbacks to my childhood, teenage years and even memories of when I was a young adult. So much of my life has begun to make sense now that I have two children on the autism spectrum. In the last 18 months or so, I have had a lot of “a ha” moments.

As a child and a teenager I knew that I was different, I just didn’t know what the issue was. As a teenager and young adult, I always felt socially awkward. I craved acceptance and understanding from my peers, but it felt as though I never seemed to be truly accepted for who I was.

I was seen as the weird one. The odd one. And at times I felt very isolated from those around me. And those peers who I was most desperate to impress eventually excluded me one way or another, either intentionally or unintentionally.

I was laughed at. I was bullied.

I always struggled as a teenager to understand why my peers said the things they said, and I struggled to understand their actions. Why does someone say that they are your friend but then act the complete opposite? Why do people say one thing, but mean the opposite?

I became a master at reading other people to ascertain who I would or wouldn’t open up to, and this was due to an overwhelming fear of being ridiculed or ostracized. But by my late teenage years, this skill would fail me on a regular basis when I would begin to open up to people, and then be burnt by them within what seemed like a matter of minutes. So my solution was to steer clear of and avoid those I didn’t understand. The only issue with this solution is that becoming a hermit at the age of 17 isn’t good for your mental or emotional well-being.

Engaging in conversations were always an effort for me as a teenager. I’d have a tremendous feeling of trepidation leading into every single conversation. I preferred to be alone in my thoughts. I was often alone in my thoughts.

I found navigating the politics of social groups and gatherings extremely challenging. Even in my 20s and 30s, this was a challenging task for me to actively participate in. Social settings have always, and still do at times, provoked my anxiety into action. What felt like a million questions would flood my brain and cause my anxiety to go into overdrive.

How do I act? What do I say? How do I take the first step into a conversation? Do they think I am weird? Do they like me? Did I just say something “stupid?” Do they now hate me? Am I missing any social cues that make them think I am weird? What social cues am I meant to be looking for? Oh god, am I staring at them? At what point can I leave?

I’m then always worried that I am acting weird, because let’s face it, with all of these questions running through my head, I may have seemed aloof, away with the fairies. So then I’d be conscious about just concentrating on the conversation, but by then I’d missed what the conversation was all about, so I was back to the questions. It really is a vicious cycle, and it is incredibly difficult to get out of the cycle.

I’ve been stung enough times to know that I don’t know all of the social rules that apply to social gatherings. The thing about social rules is that they are unwritten. Everyone just knows these social rules. But if you are socially awkward to begin with, unwritten social rules are a nightmare. Generally, you only know you’ve broken a social rule after you’ve broken the rule when you are being ridiculed for your mistake.

There were those that knew, and still know, the real me. They accepted me for who I was, for who I am. And I am grateful for their friendship. But getting to the place where I’m no longer reserved with people and comfortable enough to show the real me takes a lot of effort on my part, and also time. I have to trust myself to open up, but also be prepared to be shot down.

I have always had to exert a little more effort to master the social rules that the majority of the population seem to master with ease. Being socially awkward meant I spent a lot of time sitting back and observing people. Observing and taking mental notes on different social rules. I could see people for who they really were. But sitting back and observing when I probably should have been socializing meant I came across as the shy or quiet or reserved or standoffish one. But I am none of these. I am introverted until you get to know me.

It isn’t the best feeling in the world being socially awkward. It can be very isolating. I did spend a lot of time alone, which meant I was happy in my own company, but it also meant that I had a lot of time to run conversations and interactions over and over. This is not a good thing for someone who is socially awkward.

I have felt this way for pretty much all of my life, and I have always blamed weakness or depression or anxiety or being a moody teenager. I knew some of my peers felt this way at times, but I just thought they coped better than I did with these feelings. It is a relief to now know there is a reason behind why I didn’t understand social interactions — autism, Asperger’s, being an undiagnosed Aspie girl!

I have grown so much as a person, as a mum, since having both children diagnosed with autism, especially now with my daughter. I see so much of myself in her and her struggles at school in understanding her friends. I want both of my little superheroes to know they are never alone in their thoughts and their struggles, as I have been there. I know how it feels, and I understand just how lost these thoughts and struggles can make you feel. And I am determined to equip both of my children with the skills they require to navigate the minefield that is social interactions.

I have accepted that being socially awkward is a part of what makes me me, and I have stopped getting caught up in my fears about what others think and feel about me.

I am who I am. The socially awkward one!

Follow this journey on Raising My Little Superheroes.

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Photo by Demedrol68 / Getty Images.

Originally published: November 26, 2017
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