Barb Cohen

Mom, Am I Disabled?

The Price of Being a Loner

Social interactions provide a reassuring glimpse into others' shortcomings.

Posted May 21, 2017

My daughter Sam does not like group work.  She does not enjoy the task of switching her attention between people who speak in rapid succession, sometimes over each other, and who somehow develop a plan of action while she is still processing a comment from minutes earlier.  She also does not enjoy watching as her contributions are ignored, even when (by my assessment) those ideas could be pursued more fruitfully than the idea that carries the day.  Because she cannot engage in the easy rapport of her classmates, they seem to tolerate, rather than value, her presence. Sam prefers to work alone, and I respect that preference.

"Guernica"/Pablo Picasso/Fair Use
Source: "Guernica"/Pablo Picasso/Fair Use

I also recognize that society needs people who work well with others, and society needs people who work well alone.  Picasso never sought collaborators for Guernica; most writers, while they appreciate editors and sounding boards for their ideas, write in solitude.  Solitude is a valid preference.

This is why I cringed when I read an article that argued, “Our social brain—which gives rise to our capacity to manage people, interactions, and relationships—is the most powerful component of human intelligence.”  I always cringe when I read declarations that some human characteristic is “most powerful,” because the declaration usually serves the author’s self-promoting purpose.  Either it elevates his or her skill set to the pinnacle of accomplishment, or it promotes the skill set that the author is paid to research and teach to others.  By promoting the “social brain” as the sine qua non, the most valuable trait we possess, the author implicitly demeans all of us whose talents lie elsewhere.

But I am realizing this school year that social deficits, at least for Sam, carry a price I had never thought about: impossible expectations of herself.  Sam assumes that she is the only student in her class who does not understand a concept.  

Source: "Spring 2013 hackNY"/hackNY.org/CC BY-SA 2.0

She assumes that her difficulty stems from an inherent inadequacy within her, never from a poor explanation or the difficulty of the material.  Over and over she asks, “Should I have known that?”  Sometimes she asks the question quietly, and sometimes she asks through tears.  And I realize that she has no way of knowing what she should have known, because she cannot recognize the other students’ confused expressions, nor does she engage in conversations about class.  My younger daughter, Kelly, started high school this year, and I’ve been amazed to learn how much discussion takes place over social media every evening.  The kids remind each other of the homework assignments, compare answers, ask for explanations from each other, and complain about their teachers.  Most parents will not be surprised to hear about this chatter, but those of us whose children are autistic never witness these reassuring exchanges.

Should I have known that?  The world seems unpredictable, because an overabundance of sensory information has flooded Sam’s brain indiscriminately since the day she was born.  Determining causality involves choosing information from this overload, often arbitrarily.  Sanity involves blocking out much of the information, again arbitrarily.  What was missed?  Was it important?  Was the relevant information ever revealed?

Most people build their identity in part by comparing their experiences to those of other people.  Children compare grades, athletic prowess, and families.  They know if they are wearing the “cool” brand of shoes by listening and watching.  And then they decide if they care.  They learn how to navigate puberty with its highs and lows by scrutinizing the people around them and by (at least for girls) dissecting every social interaction with their closest friends.  They learn to rebound from failure by watching others also fail and by learning that their friends still like them, regardless of their performance.

Without a social brain, imperfection is never “normalized;” the soothing mantra “Everybody feels this way sometimes” cannot be internalized.  I am fine with my daughter preferring her own company and her own acts of creativity.  I am proud of her persistence.  I just wish I could hear her one day plead ignorance without belittling herself in the process.  Limited knowledge does not reflect failure.  I want her to believe, “It’s not all on you, my beautiful child.”