Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Reflections from School: When the Teacher Observes You Doing Poorly

Throughout my schooling I remained in mainstream education, often with extra help from support assistants in lessons. I realised at one point, when I was around 14 or 15, that I found it quite stressful when the teacher would walk around the class observing everyone donig their work, if I felt I was struggling with the work or doing badly.

If my work wasn't going to be too good, I would rather the teacher would only see it after the lesson, when I was elsewhere, so I did not have to deal with their reaction to my work. Witnessing someone's reaction to something you've done badly is stressfull because it somehow requires a responce from you (when it is not a positive situation to respond to). Whereas if the teacher doesn't see your until after the lesson, you don't have to face the teacher's reaction if the work is sub-standard. That way if it's bad enough for the teacher to want to talk with you about it, they will at least have got over their initial reaction and be able to discuss it with you in a more composed way, and they will see all your work before you face their reaction, not just a part of it.

Monday, 28 June 2010

Approaching Someone to Talk To - Finding my Window of Opportunity

In my earlier post The Toilet can Sometimes be my Best Friend I explained my tactic for getting out of awkward conversations, used primarily at organised socials but also in other social settings when necessary. Now once I'm back into the main hall, ready to socialise again, the challenge can often be knowing how to approach the person I wish to talk to. Now I can go up and talk to anybody and start a conversation, I'm not shy about that, the problem is when that person I wish to speak to is already in a conversation with one or more other people, how do I find a way in? I'm faced with the challenge of finding a 'window of opportunity' (as Tony Blair used to put it regarding Britain joining the Euro) to approach that person, when it appears that the conversation that person is engaging in may have reached a pause, or better still, clearly ended.

Looking out for a window of opportunity to chat to someone is tricky because you're having to do two things at once. You're having to at least try to look as though your confident, and not lost socially, whilst keeping an eye on you person you're wishing to speak to. Then, when you think you've found your window of opportunity, you don't want to appear abrupt or as if you're interrupting them. The business of approaching someone engaged in conversation is much harder for someone with Asperger's Syndrome and requires more concentration then it does for someone without Asperger's. Hence I may appear very anxious looking in a social setting, and my expressions and body language may possibly be misinterpreted as being unfriendly, when you're simply having to try much harder to do what others are doing with ease.

And to make matters worse, there can be many moments when a conversation between two or more people appears to have reached a standstill, only for it to start up again. When approaching you risk the embarrasment of getting the timing wrong, looking like your butting in, starting to make eye contact with that person for half a second before you realise the conversation hasn't ended after all, or saying 'Hello' or something without a responce, discovering you didn't quite find your window correctly.

With all that said, there are times when I may find an easy window of opportunity with someone and end up having the conversation I am looking for.

Now a little note to end this post: As I was writing this post, I was conscious that people might take a poor view of me, thinking I am favouring talking to one person compared to another. If that's what you're thinking, I'll just say that I love to interact with a very wide range of people, but at a given social event there may be a perfectly legitimate reason why I may rather talk to Person A than Person B or C, particularly if I am in the business of trying to build up a social life and possibly exchange contacts. So I plead with you all to reserve judgement here.

Friday, 25 June 2010

The Toilet can Sometimes be My Best Friend

Here is a common pattern that takes place with me at organised socials when I am trying to mingle around and talk to people. Firstly, I get into a conversation with someone or with a few people. Then, either with one comment from someone or just gradually, the conversation changes direction into a topic which I don't know much about or cannot discuss easily. Initially I will try to follow along, and see if there is anything I can say to contribute to the conversation, but after two or three minutes, I start to feel conscious of the fact that I am getting a bit isolated. After about five minutes I might begin to feel it is time to move on and try talking to someone else, sometimes also spotting someone else I want to chat to. However I don't want to appear rude and just walk away. What I need is a get out excuse.

The tactic I have somehow developed is to say 'excuse me' then go to the toilet (its quite often at these moments I actually need the toilet, to a certain degree) as my way out of the conversation. Then once I'm out of the toilet, I can go back to the main room, and hopefully find someone else to talk to.

Often in a pub or a noisy environment, the toilet can be the one place to go for a brief respite, collect your thoughts, and prepare yourself once again to go back and socialise, maybe even to have another brief look at your social preparation notes from your pocket while no one is watching. Everyone needs to go occassionally, but no-one knows when you need to go. The toilet can sometimes be your best friend.

Organised Socials - Factors that can Make a Good Night or a Bad Night

In the various organised socials I have attended this year, there have been some great moments, and some very awkward and difficult moments. The context is that of an unstructured general get-together in a pub with a mixed bunch of people, some I might have met four or five times, others once or twice before, and some completely new people.

Before I outline the factors that affect whether it's a good or bad night for me, I had better define for you first what makes an evening good or bad. A good evening happens when I am engaged in interesting, stimulating, and sometimes exciting conversations, when I feel people are friendly towards me. A bad evening is when I am struggling to talk to people and I find myself on my own, looking rather lost for much of the evening. Now here are a few of the factors that can affect how good the night is:
  • Seating Arrangements. As a general rule, I am more confortable when everyone is sitting at a table rather then if everyone is standing around. When everyone is standing, if you don't look like you are part of any conversation, you look like a 'loser'. If you're sitting, it is generally more relaxed and easier to follow a conversation as people are not moving about, and if you cannot contribute you don't look so lost as you do when standing around.
  • People in Attendence. Although there is always a mix of personalitites and some quite extrovert people at any organised social, it still makes a difference as to who is there. Some people respond more warmly towards you, and naturally seem to help you along in a conversation. Often the best moments are when someone, through their more lively personality, can unwittingly help you interact in a more positive way and help you join in the fun.
  • Direction of conversations. Once I'm into a conversation, the direction the conversation takes is important, as sometimes it may go into a direction towards something I know little or nothing about.
These are probably the main factors that affect how much I will enjoy organised socials. That said even the best organised socials have their difficult moments, and the worst ones have a few good moments.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Organised Socials - How I Prepare Myself

Over the Christmas to New Year period I stumbled upon a website that organised events for people who simply wanted to find new friends and meet new people in their area. Seeing that it was possible to go to an event simply by signing up, without having to go through the hoops of online networking with someone first, I bravely decided to join this group, and went to my first event the evening of Tuesday, January 12.

(I will be posting more on comments on socials with this group. However in order to protect people's identities I will not name the group, but I will refer to this group's events here and in future posts as "organised socials.")

The event was a catch-all meet up in a pub, and was one of those events specifically geared for new members. I was, like most people, very nervous about going. But I did go and ended up having an OK evening, though not a fantastic one. However I have since been to several more organised socials. I've had a really good time at some, others have been more of a struggle. So far the number of organised socials I've been to is something in the teens, and the majority have been simple meet-ups in pubs.

Having Asperger's means that the business of social interaction is more difficult for me than for others. However I am not shy as such, and I can go up and talk to almost anyone. I decided before my first event that I would be wise to do my pre-social homework, which was as follows:
  • Look on the website to see who was going to the event, and what the people said about themselves, their job, hobbies, interests etc. Make a note on paper of anything you could ask them when you talk.
  • Prepare beforehand how you will introduce yourself to others, practice on your own approaching a new person confidently with a "Hi, I'm Chris...."
  • Prepare beforehand what you will say about yourself when someone asks you. Think of things you may have in common with other people that could be talking points, often just general things, like TV programmes.
This was not intended to be a formula that must be followed, but I used it as a safeguard to hopefully fall back upon if I became unstuck in a conversation. If I can have a good chat with someone without remembering any notes, then great! As it happened, on this first organised social I was quite overawed with the situation and all these new people, and I couldn't remember faces from the profile pictures, so I never used my notes, but having done the preparations no doubt helped me feel more comfortable at the event.

Introducing Myself - My Background

It is difficult to know how to start a new blog, so I decided the best way was for me to give you some background to my life so far as social interaction goes. This is just an overview, details will follow in due course in later posts.

The majority of children with Asperger's Syndrome wish to make friends with their peers but find themselves unable to know how to do so. I was not like this. Up until the age of about 20 I had no real interest in making friends with others my age. I lived at home with my family and always wanted time to myself. Oftentimes when I was growing up the first thing I would do on Saturday morning was to go outside and talk to my imaginary people, and would spend the school playtime doing the same, wanting the other kids to leave me alone. That said I did develop a few friends in my primary school years, even going to their houses after school on occasion, quite how that happened I do not know. However by the time I started secondary school I really was not interested at all in making friends with my peers. I think that might have been to do with the impressions I had of teenagers when I was a young child and thinking "I could never possibly be like or fit in with them."

In my teens, my social life outside the family basically amounted to latching onto my parents' friends occasionally, usually other middle aged couples, because that is what I found safe, easy and comfortable. For instance when my parents invited another couple round for dinner I might join them for the meal then go upstairs once I'd had enough and talk to my imaginary people. 

However, about a year after I had started working, which was around late 2002 - early 2003, I started to want my own friends of my own age. I felt I was missing out on my youth. Now today I have a good social life, although I still do many things by myself. I have some great friends, from a mixture of different places, and I have found a means of being able to meet more new people regularly, which is very important for me. However in the past seven years or so I have worked hard to develop and build friendships with some key opportunities and many frustrations along the way. I have learnt much about the social world, something I was clueless about when I was 20, and this has caused me to analyse the social dynamics of different situations that I am in or observing.