My Autistic Experience: Group dynamics

The following narrative describes almost exactly what I experienced at a month-long colloquium I attended when I was in graduate school. It was held on the campus of a leading university and drew participants from all over the world. There were around thirty of us and we stayed in graduate housing.

The first day was the best. None of us had ever visited this campus before. And none of us knew each other. This is as good as it gets for me. For a very short honeymoon period, I am no more of an outsider than anyone else.

During the first week, no one really attempted to make plans to meet for lunch or dinner. You just went with whoever happened to be hanging it around when it was time to eat. But by the end of that first week, people had started to form groups — and then they often made plans that did not involve other people.

During the second week, I noticed that almost everyone was now in a group — except me, of course. At dinner time, I had to look for a group to tag along with. I tried to do this discretely, e.g. by getting into a conversation with one of the group, and then as the others arrived to go to dinner, I kept talking with that person and followed along with them. Occasionally someone would notice and say, “I guess Suzanne’s coming all too,” but most of them no one said anything.

However, by the third week, the groups now had recognizable leaders — and tagging along was not as seamless. There would be worried glances exchanged and someone would ask the leader, “Is it OK if Suzanne comes with us?” No one ever said “No” — but the fact that someone felt they should check with the leader first made me feel unwelcome.

By the last week, I was eating dinner alone.

This is pretty much how it unfolds for me every time. By the way, the event I am describing took place in the early 1990s, long before anything like Facebook or Slack. But if it were taking place today, by the end of the first week, I would have picked up that people were friending each other on Facebook or inviting each other to join Slack groups (that kind of thing) and I was being left out.

I think this is why I like to show up early to events. At least for a little while, I can feel as much a part of things as anyone else.

2 thoughts on “My Autistic Experience: Group dynamics

  1. Very interesting. I think I would have eaten alone the whole time! I actually went on a week-long residential programme when I was about seventeen. It was intended for teenagers from state schools who were planning on applying to Oxford or Cambridge University.

    On the first day, people went into Cambridge. I stayed behind, as I’d gone with my school a few weeks previously. I now realise I missed a key bonding stage, but it’s taken me years to realise that. I did eat with the other students (the way the dining hall was arranged, I had to), but initially I went back to my room in the breaks between sessions. After a while someone must have told me that really I should be with the other students in the recreation room, as I went down there and joined in with the games of table tennis, but I found it hard to talk to people. I did what I usually do in these situations, which is to find a couple of people I feel reasonably “safe” with and stick around them, probably excessively.

    To be fair, I did feel a bit more bonded with the group by the end of the week, but then all the students and teachers went down to the pub on the last night and I completely panicked. (I don’t know if it was the concept of going to a pub, which I’d never done before.) I stayed behind, unable to adequately explain even to myself why I couldn’t go with them. Twice people came back for me and tried to get me to join them and twice I said no. I hated myself for it, but I just could not do it. I guess this is the grey area where autistic social issues blend into social anxiety.

    In retrospect, I handled the week badly, but compared with how I was functioning at school, I probably handled it well…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There’s definitely a balance to be struck. I often err on the side of trying to be social and generally fit in — and then I end up wishing I had just stayed behind in my room. Happily, although I didn’t find a group to be part of, I did get along very well with many of the people — but more in a one-on-one basis. If someone was alone, they did seem to enjoy my company. But once one of their group showed up, I was generally forgotten.

      Liked by 1 person

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