• In my twenties I was spending so much energy trying to work other people out that I became invisible. (Getty Images )
Madeleine Ryan reflects on the challenges of negotiating social interactions with Asperger's syndrome, from the chaos of parties to reading personal cues.
By
Madeleine Ryan

17 Jan 2018 - 2:14 PM  UPDATED 17 Jan 2018 - 2:14 PM

As a woman living with Asperger's syndrome, social conversation can often feel as fraught as playing bumper cars.

It's a confusing collision of thoughts, feelings, physical gestures, words, subtext and facial expressions. Everyday I hope to find some sort of island in the chaos.

When I was 12, a girl in my year level renowned for having epic birthday parties invited me to hers. A large portion of the day was to be spent playing bumper cars. I can’t recall any of it.

All I can remember is standing on the sidelines with one of her parents, in shock, unable to make sense of everyone’s laughter and joy as they crashed into one another. Watching the mayhem unfold made me very uneasy, and conversation can be much the same.

All I can remember is standing on the sidelines with one of her parents, in shock, unable to make sense of everyone’s laughter and joy as they crashed into one another.

I frequently sense discrepancies between someone’s feelings and intentions and what they’re saying, even if I struggle to communicate it in the moment.

Give me a week, some time in nature, a bit of exercise and a day of writing and I’ll know exactly what was happening and how to express my thoughts and feelings about it. Until then, I’m still processing. A conversation lasts me a month. Why did their tone change? Did they mean…? Were they disappointed…? What do I feel…?

For a long time it seemed easier to take what people said at face value because they preferred it, and my logical mind felt safer with it. Questioning someone’s intentions, or expressing discomfort with what’s being said, often led to conflict - my worst nightmare.

The pace speeds up and the volume increases and the expectations rise and the stakes get higher and my body throbs. I start noticing things like how trapped I feel in jeans, and the weight of the hair hanging against my cheeks, and my mind goes blank.

I start noticing things like how trapped I feel in jeans, and the weight of the hair hanging against my cheeks, and my mind goes blank.

I have no idea how it happened and in order to process it, we’re looking at up to 18 months, several sessions with a therapist, and a serious amping-up of my daily meditation practice.

I’ve never felt the pleasures of intellectual debate. I grew up around it, and was encouraged to participate in it, and I did so at the expense of my wellbeing.

I would quickly say things in order to keep up and I’d be left feeling frustrated and helpless, carried along by a current too strong for me, and ending up even further away from true expression or communication.

Only recently have I started to embrace a slower, more peaceful state during conversation, and it’s happened through relinquishing the need to respond immediately.

I take in all the information - coming from inside and outside of myself - and I feel more confident saying things like, “I don’t know” or “I need time to think about that,” which seems to be appreciated.

Ironically, through slowing down and listening in this way, I find myself better equipped to share my thoughts and feelings because I don’t feel rushed.

Only recently have I started to embrace a slower, more peaceful state during conversation, and it’s happened through relinquishing the need to respond immediately.

In my twenties I was spending so much energy trying to work other people out that I became invisible. I didn’t know how to share the experiences I was having.

A friend told me that she found spending time together exhausting because I never talked about myself - I only ever asked her questions. Her honesty was such a relief, and it revealed a truthfulness that had been absent from the conversations I was having.

I was so eager to please and to keep up and to fit in - and people were so happy to talk about themselves and to argue and to have me work out the patterns behind their problems, which it turns out my I’m very skilled at - it left very little room for being real. I had to find my own voice and my own pace because no one else was going to do it for me.

 I had to find my own voice and my own pace because no one else was going to do it for me.

I’m not sure that I’ll ever feel entirely comfortable with conversation, or with bumper cars, although I can now appreciate them without being scared. Maybe with a bit more time, and a bit more honesty, and a bit more listening, who knows? I might find a way to laugh along. 

Madeleine Ryan is a freelance writer. 

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