Bullying and Autism

Greetings Earthlings ๐Ÿ™‚

Bullying- neurotypical and neurodiverse alike, we’ve ย all been there at some point, but did you know that autistic people are bullied nearly five times as often as their neurotypical peers?

Studies have estimated that as many as 46% of people with autism have been bullied at some point in their life versus 10% of the general population.

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Our issues with social awkwardness and interpretation, hypersensitivity, literal thinking, poor motor skills and trusting nature can make autists quite vulnerable to bullies. Sometimes we aren’t even aware that we are being targeting and so the bullying goes unreported.

Navigating school as an un-diagnosed teenager was particularly challenging. My literal thinking meant that I was often unaware that I was being made fun of, simple things said in attempts to fit in were turned into taunts, my expressions of individualism were ridiculed- and I just couldn’t understand why.

When I finally started to realize what was going on, it was devastating. I felt like such a fool that I shoved my emotions down and tried to pretend that I was fine.

Buuuuuttttt there’s only so long you can continue to ignore a full septic tank for before chaos erupts…

Once your peers have seen you have a meltdown, some people will do anything to trigger another one.

So I trudged along quietly everyday blaming myself for the teasing I endured:

Why was I so naiive?

Why did I say that?

Why did I lose it?ย 

Why can’t I be normal?

I sat back and allowed the storm clouds to gather overhead every time I reached the school doors.

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It wasn’t until I burned out and hit breaking point that I realized I had to find a better way through, began to talk and learned, not just to cope, but to thrive ๐Ÿ™‚

So what advice would I give to someone on the spectrum who find themselves in the midst of a bullying situation?

Well, as the bullying game has intensified with the spread of social media since my schooldays (rural Ireland had quite limited access to high speed internet in the noughties), this is a tough one to advise, but here are some of my top tips:

  • Ignore the bullies– An obvious one that’s easier said than done, I know (I pretended to ignore for years- it can take quite a bit of practice to truly let words glide off your back), but when you react or meltdown- that’s what fuels them. My reactions made bullies push my buttons all the harder. If you feel a meltdown coming on, take a moment to go somewhere quiet, get some fresh air and take a deep breath.ย  Bathroom stalls were a personal favourite of mine to give me some time to regroup (unless someone had been smoking in there… this added further sensory fuel to the fire! ๐Ÿ˜› )
  • Find an outlet for your emotions- We autists experience and process our emotions in very different ways. If you shove things down, the end result will not be pleasant. So run, dance, go on a four hour killing spree on your PlayStation (something that I wouldn’t know anything about… ๐Ÿ˜› )- do whatever works for you to deal with your frustrations. I know it’s hard, but finding an outlet will help to quell the dragon inside.
  • Try to think before you act/speak– Again this is quite challenging when you don’t have a filter or struggle with impulsivity,ย but sometimes what may seem like the most simple of sentiments to you can be twisted and misconstrued by bullies. An innocent comment I once passed about the family dog led to years of jeering and implied bestiality…! I still put my foot in it every now and again, but I’ve gradually learned to pause more to assess if my comments will sink or float.
  • Be careful what you post on social media- The online world can be a dangerous, unregulated one. We live so much of our lives online we forget that our peers are always watching. As with your thoughts, take a moment to think through your posts. Something as simple as a picture or throwaway comment could land you in bother both on and offline (a simple lack of an appropriate emoji once caused a rift with a friend). Remember- it’s also perfectly ok to abstain or take some time away from social media. It may seem like social suicide, but we all need time away from our screens- people disable their accounts every day for lots of reasons so don’t worry about what they’ll think at school. Your sanity is far more important ๐Ÿ™‚
  • Talk to someone– If you’re being targeted, tell a teacher, confide in a friend or talk to your parents so something can be done. But bear in mind, they can’t alwaysย  intervene. Teasing is a natural part of life as much as it may hurt (something that the autistic mind really struggles to comprehend), and not everything can be prevented. What may seem a devastating comment to your mind may mean nothing to an outsider. Intervention aside, by simply talking to someone about how you’re feeling, this will make the load so much easier to bear. Don’t let the quicksand claim you- ask for help!bitmoji2141702869

At the end of it all, just remember what my Biology teacher once taught me- “Whoever said that your school days are the best days of your life lied- college days are the best days of your life!”

So don’t get disheartened Earthlings! It may be hard to see it through the swirling fog in the crystal ball, but life does get so much better (…once you get past the bills, taxes and work-day traffic jams! ๐Ÿ˜› ๐Ÿ˜‰ ).

Aoife

Autism and Anxiety

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Did you know: People with autism are five times more likely to suffer from an anxiety disorder?

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Autists are highly strung individuals. Our brains move faster than 10 speeding trains as we process the world around us; so naturally, we have a greater capacity for worrying. Imagine you are in the car approaching a straight road- you would just drive straight on without much further thought right?

In the autistic mind, you’re thinking about future bends that may (or may never) pop up, the condition of the road, idiot drivers you may encounter, stray animals or pedestrians, road works and diversions. What if I get lost? What will I do about parking? What if I get caught behind a tractor (a legitimate reason for being late for anything in Ireland! ๐Ÿ˜› )?

What if this, what if that!

We over-analyse every single aspect of the most routine of ventures, twisting ourselves into anxious knots about an array of ‘what ifs‘ that may never come to pass.

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In my experience, social anxiety can be quite an issue. Most of the time, everything is hunky dory when I’m socializing- I listen, I engage, I laugh, no problem at all.

Buuuttt sometimes, if I’m in a particular group or struggling to get to grips with the topic of conversation, I feel so awkward that I start to get anxious.

“Am I talking enough? Am I saying the right things? Oh no that came out wrong! Aggggghhh!!!”

Annnnnd then I sort of slip back into my shell… ๐Ÿ˜›

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Most of the time, it won’t get much worse than this, but other times…I start to burn up, I can feel the sweats, my mind starts going into overdrive “Oh God everyone is staring!! They think I’m a saddo! What is wrong with me?”

My chest tightens up and it can be difficult to breathe.

Taking deep breaths usually helps to calm me down long enough to snap out of it…but sometimes it all starts to crumble in on top of you an then….

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MELTDOWN!!!! (^^^usually the flight instinct kicks in for me!)

Other times, anxiety has been known to wreak havoc with my digestive system. I once threw up on my own shoes from the stress of minding a drunken friend (who ironically did not get sick! ๐Ÿ˜› )

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But I did get some new shoes following my gastric excursions, and some entertaining stories out of it! ๐Ÿ˜› Oftentimes my anxiety incubates into productivity to force me to get things done so every anxious cloud has a silver lining! ๐Ÿ˜‰

So what does the scientific community make of our anxious antics?

Remember how I’ve discussed Alexithymia in previous posts (Discussion-Emotions and Empathy;ย Autism and Music)? Researchers believe that our struggles to correctly identify and understand our emotions (and those of others) to be one of the driving forces behind anxiety disorders in the autistic community. A desire for emotional acceptance and an intolerance for uncertainty are also considered key players in the anxiety debate.

In addition to this, a number of biological factors have been identified in the development of anxiety. Some people are thought to have a higher biological response to stress for example- something that is quite likely in the case of autism, as we are known to have higher levels of stress hormones.

Dysregulation of levels of certain neurotransmitters in the brain are also thought to contribute to anxiety such as GABA, dopamine, serotonin and adrenaline. As I’ve discussed in numerous posts- many of these bad boys are indeed dysregulated in the autistic brain. Changes inย activity levels within the amygdala or “fear centre” of the brain may also contribute to anxiety- and yes, you’ve guessed it! Similar changes in the amygdala have been linked to a number of autistic issues (skin sensitivity, sound sensitivity).ย 

So it all links back to a few simple physiological changes in our brain! ๐Ÿ™‚

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Hope you enjoyed this weeks post Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Have a wonderful weekend! ๐Ÿ˜€

Aoife

 

Autism and Making Friends

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Today we’re going to talk about something that many autists find difficult-making friends.

When it comes to making friends there is no exact science, something which can trip up many a logically thinking autist.

It’s not that we don’t want to make friends, but we often struggle to navigate the social playing field, sometimes choosing our own company to avoid the various trials and tribulations of social interaction.

There are no set rules when it comes to friendship, and we just can’t seem to wrap our brains around it.

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In my own experience, I found that connecting with my peers was a real barrier to formulating friendships in school. We had different tastes in music and film, were interested in different hobbies, wanted different things, held opposing beliefs etc. I found it really challenging to find common ground to converse on.

Making friends isn’t the easiest of tasks, but there are some things that I’ve learned over the years to make the process a little less challenging :

  • Take classes- I found that dance classes were a great social outlet as a child. I partnered up with different children, got invited to a lot of birthday parties (although I have many memories of wandering off to be by myself! ๐Ÿ˜› ) and it helped with my coordination. Speech and drama classes can also be very useful in helping to build your confidence and social skills.
  • Try to find common ground with your peers. When in conversation, ask the other person about TV shows, bands, films, sports etc. you may be surprised at what you have in common.
  • Don’t be discouraged if you’re struggling to connect with your peers- I was 11 before I truly made a lasting friendship, and it wasn’t until college that I finally felt that I belonged socially. The average school-goer can often be small minded when it comes to befriending people who dare to be different. While some amazing efforts are being made to de-stigmatize and embrace autism in the younger generation, there will always be some who rebel against difference. Forget the haters- there are so much better people out there who are worthy of your friendship ๐Ÿ™‚

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  • Try not to compare yourself to your neurotypical peers- We all make friends in different ways, prefer different types and sizes of social groups. What seems to work for others may not work for you. Social mimicry may seem logical, buuuutt, it doesn’t always work.
  • Be yourself- As cheesy as it sounds, it’s true! ๐Ÿ˜› I have spent many a year feigning interest in matters that I thought my peers would respond to, but when I stayed true to myself, that’s when I discovered true friendship. True friends love you for you ๐Ÿ™‚

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  • And if that all fails, you can always do what I do- bake to make friends! Nothing like a plate of home made sugary goodness to create a lasting impression ๐Ÿ˜‰ Even if you burn it, you’ll still get a funny story out of it! As I’ve grown into adulthood, the stories of my many mishaps have become quite the conversation starter ๐Ÿ˜› ๐Ÿ˜‰

If things don’t work out, don’t be so hard on yourself about it. Not all friendships are built to last. One of the biggest mistakes that I make is to hyper-analyse why a friendship breaks down in my efforts to understand where I went wrong to avoid future problems. Whilst yes, social lessons can be taken from past experiences, there’s no use in torturing yourself about it- you may not even have made a misstep.

Sometimes, these things just happen.

But that does not mean that you should not try again. The social complexities of formulating friendship can be overwhelming, but the reward is great ๐Ÿ™‚

I have been so blessed in the friends that I have made in my lifetime, people who love and accept me as I am- even embracing my quirks.

Sometimes people are not always the most accepting of those who dare to be themselves, but that doesn’t mean that you do not belong socially. It took me years to find my pack, but in the end, I found my place ๐Ÿ™‚

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Have a great week everyone! ๐Ÿ˜€

Aoife

Eye Contact and Autism

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Today I’m going to discuss one of the most common autistic traits- difficulty with eye contact. This can be particularly troublesome when it comes to situations such as job interviews where good eye contact is important to success.

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Growing up, I was often told by my family that I had trouble with eye contact, but I never really noticed much myself until I was older. On some level I knew that making eye contact made me feel uncomfortable, but I never really gave much thought as to the reason. We just sort of assumed that I cast my eyes away for lack of self confidence.

In my experience, making eye contact just feels awkward and weird to me. I’ve never really been able to explain why, it just does.

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Over the years, at my family’s insistence, I gradually learned to force myself to make eye contact. There are still times when I find eye contact uncomfortable (if I’m mid or teetering on the edge of a meltdown, any attempt to lock eyes goes out the window!), but I’ve found ways to get through it.

Since receiving my diagnosis, I’ve noticed that I seem to have automatically adopted a coping system for making eye contact in close quarters. I make the contact, hold the gaze for an appropriate amount of time, then look away briefly before returning to centre. Other times, I move my gaze around to focus on different group members, breaking the contact just enough to remain comfortable without coming across as weird (I hope ๐Ÿ˜› ๐Ÿ˜‰ )!

It kind of looks something like this:

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Top Tip: If you feel uncomfortable making eye contact as you’re walking along the street, I find that wearing sunglasses (provided the weather is somewhat appropriate ๐Ÿ˜‰ ) can be a great help ๐Ÿ™‚

So what does the scientific community make of our struggles with eye contact?

One study suggests that the reason we avoid eye contact is actually related to how we process visual information. In this study, children with autism were shown images in both the centre and periphery of their vision. In a neurotypical brain, a large portion of the brain’s cortex is dedicated to processing information in the centre of your visual field. In the autistic brain, a larger portion of the cortex was engaged when the image was shown in the child’s peripheral vision.

In other words, we have more neurons dedicated to processing peripheral visual information, hence why direct, central eye contact is often avoided.

We’ve known for a while that autists perceive the world in a unique way, now we know that we actuallyย see the world differently too! ๐Ÿ˜‰

Have a good weekend everyone! ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife

Autism and Phones

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

So a little bit different today- I know the title is unusual! ๐Ÿ˜›

But the prospect of talking on the phone is something that fills many an autist with dread!

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But why does this seemingly innocuous device strike fear into our hearts?

My relationship with phones is complicated.

On the one hand, I enjoy chatting to my family and friends on the phone; on the other, talking on the phone feels soooo AWKWARD to me!

As if reading a person isn’t hard enough, but when you can’t see them? It really adds to your social anxiety. You can’t tell if they’re bored or if ย you’re cutting across them, not to mention dealing with heavy accents, bad signal and awkward silences- the stress is a killer!

Worse still when someone asks you to answer their phone!

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I don’t mind answering too much if it’s someone I already know, but when it’s a stranger….

What do I say?

What if the person on the other end thinks I’m them?

How long will I have to talk until they can take the phone away from me??

AAAAGGGHHHHH!!!!!

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It makes me feel beyond awkward answering someone elses phone!

Not to mention the awkwardness of dealing with telemarketers and scammers…I try to brush them off and don’t want to be rude… but then when they keep pushing their product on you, I feel too awkward not to listen! I just sit there burning up, waiting for an appropriate opportunity to tell them ‘no’ and run! ๐Ÿ˜›

Sometimes I just want nothing more than to throw my phone at the wall! ๐Ÿ˜›

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I will do everything that I can to avoid calling someone, ifย at all possible. I will email, text, Whats App, Facebook etc. before I will ever go near my phone. If the phone rings in the house and I’m closest to it, I have been known to get up and leave the room for the bathroom to force someone else to pick up the receiver! ๐Ÿ˜›

This meme is a pretty accurate transcription of actual conversations I’ve had with my mother ๐Ÿ˜›

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Over the years however, I have gotten more comfortable with the phone. When I was younger, I never really knew how to act appropriately on the phone. When someone asked to speak to another member of the house, I would freeze up and throw the phone at that person while the caller was still talking! ๐Ÿ˜›

Since then, I’ve gradually developed my phone etiquette and learned to relax a little more when answering the phone. Practice makes perfect I suppose ๐Ÿ™‚

Making calls can still be a little tricky.

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A lot of it is tied up in the anxiety of not being able to see the person on the other end. When you initiate a conversation in real life, you know if the person is amenable to talking. If I call them however, my brain starts worrying about disturbing them if they’re busy or whether they really want to talk to me or not.

And then there’s the added stress of “I’ll call you back,” and the panic that ensues when they don’t.

“Did they forget?

Did they not want to talk to me?

Oh God, do I need to call them back???!!”

But as you grow older, these worries begin to fade. You just have to take a deep breath, press call and go for it! ๐Ÿ™‚

An email is not going to fix your internet (for obvious reasons ๐Ÿ˜› ) or secure your hair cut! ๐Ÿ˜‰

Top Tip: It helps to remind yourself when calling strangers that they can’t see you, they don’t know you so they can’t judge you if you say something stupid ๐Ÿ˜‰

Have a good week everyone! ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife

Curiosity & Autism

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Today I’m going to explore an aspect of autism that’s not widely discussed- curiosity ๐Ÿ™‚

Many people find that curiosity is in fact diminished among members of the autistic community because of our preference for routine. In my experience, the opposite is true.

To quoteย Albert Einstein, who is widely believed to have been on the autistic spectrum:

I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.

Passionately curious.

That’s how I would describe my insatiable sense of curiosity about the world.

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Throughout my entire life I have been driven by my desire to acquire knowledge. The words who, what, when, where, why and how are rarely ever far from my lips. For me, it’s more than just a desire, it’s a need.

I need to know how the world works, I need an encyclopedic knowledge of those I care about, I need to know why did the chicken really cross the road??!!

If I had had Google as a child I would have been a nightmare! ๐Ÿ˜›

If I don’t get the answers I crave, it drives me insane, getting under my skin like an itch I can’t scratch. A friend recently told me she had news for me right at the exact moment I lost my WiFi signal! I nearly screamed with frustration over the next two hours trying to reconnect long enough to find out what her news was!!

Curiosity does have its uses though when it comes to the likes of science, motivating you to stick with the building blocks that will one day lead you to understand entire systems.

Buuuuuttt…as we all learned from ‘Alice in Wonderland’, curiosity can sometimes get us into a spot of bother…

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Many autists have issues with impulse control (which I will explore in detail on Friday ๐Ÿ™‚ ) ย and as such, in my experience, curiosity can be impulsive.

For instance, I scorched the kitchen door as a child when I set fire to a drawing with a candle out of curiosity…

Another such incident (which I have no memory of but have been assured happened ๐Ÿ˜› ), saw my younger cousin and I trap my kitten between two buckets until my horrified mother caught us in the act!

The only explanation that I can offer for my behaviour based on similar experiences is that I was interested to know what would happen! ๐Ÿ˜›

Thankfully in this instance, curiosity did not kill the cat! ๐Ÿ˜‰

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Curiosity can also be an issue in social situations. Countless times I’ve landed myself in hot water for asking inappropriate questions, often unintentionally coming across as nosy. As with all things autism however, with time, you learn to reign in your curiosity and channel it towards something more positive, like keeping up with the latest research ๐Ÿ™‚ (even if the unasked questions do irritatingly press on the brain ๐Ÿ˜› )

But why am I so curious?

Unfortunately, I don’t have much to offer in the line of concrete scientific explanation I’m afraid. There doesn’t appear to be much research in this aspect of the autistic experience.

However, in terms of the general science of curiosity, the neurotransmitter dopamine plays an important role. Curiosity activates brain regions associated with pleasure and reward through the activity of dopamine, giving us that pleasurable feeling of satisfaction when our curiosity is quenched. Many addictive drugs operate through this pathway, so you could say that I’m addicted to learning! ๐Ÿ˜‰

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In autism, dopamine levels are dysregulated, which may influence curiosity as a result. Moreover, increased activity in the midbrain is associated with curiosity. Brain analyses of autistic individuals reveal structural changes in this region, suggesting that perhaps these changes contribute to and account for differences in curiosity levels among autists.

Stay tuned for Friday’s post where we’ll be putting impulsivity under the microscope! ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife

Social Awkwardness & Autism

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Soooo today we’re going to talk about perhaps one of the biggest banes of my life- social awkwardness! ๐Ÿ˜›

I’m not going to lie- social awkwardness is not fun. The constant fear of saying the wrong thing or not knowing what to say, the burning sensation in your face that’s never far away (huzzah for unintentional rhyming! ๐Ÿ˜€ ).

This article sums up the feeling pretty nicely through gifs’ s:

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Sitting awkwardly by yourself waiting for friends to arrive in a pub, tapping your glass and constantly sipping just to look like you belong, the pitying glances of bar staff when they see you at a table alone-the awkwardness can be all consuming.

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I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to run from/avoid social encounters because of this awkward feeling.

Awkwardness is worse still when you’re hit by memories of previous awkward encounters! It’s a real domino effect- one awkward memory brings dozens more to the surface until you’re drowning in the red hot embarrassment of a cringe attack! ๐Ÿ˜›

I am constantly haunted by memories of my social awkwardness, buuuut as time goes on, you eventually learn not to dwell on your social failings ๐Ÿ™‚

It’s a struggle yes, but you can push through the awkwardness. Over the years I’ve devised ways to navigate the rapids- making self deprecating jokes, keeping a mental list of backup topics for awkward silences, chugging a drink you’ve been bought (but don’t like) while your friend is in the bathroom so they don’t see your disgusted facial expressions ๐Ÿ˜› ๐Ÿ˜‰

Social awkwardness may be a pain, but ultimately you can’t let the fear of getting wet keep you from swimming the social seas ๐Ÿ™‚

Who knows-you might even put your awkward stories to good use in a blog some day! Comedy is tragedy plus time after all! ๐Ÿ˜› ๐Ÿ˜‰

But is there any scientific reason for our social awkwardness?

Remember oxytocin?

Scientists have linked gene variations in the oxytocin receptor (which allows oxytocin to bind and interact with the body) to autism. Evidence indicates that people with autism have a specific variation in the oxytocin receptor (rs53576) which makes it more difficult for them to empathize, read facial expressions and social situations- predisposing us to social awkwardness.

In addition to this, psychologists have suggested that social awkwardness is all about perception. Awkwardness is thought to be influenced by the individuals perception of how a social situation should play out versus reality. If a social interaction does not go as planned…then the awkward turtle swims into view!

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This is a particularly interesting hypothesis. Oftentimes I find myself feeling awkward when silence falls in social settings as I perceive conversational silence to be awkward….aaaand then I tend to ramble on nonsensically to fill that silence! ๐Ÿ˜›

In reality, the silence may not in actual fact be awkward. Companionable silence is perfectly natural; the awkwardness I feel may inadvertently be of my own creation!

So it seems that perhaps social awkwardness in autism comes from the disparity between perception and reality in social interaction.

Social awkwardness is also thought to ironically help people improve their social skills! It has been theorized that social awkwardness acts as a warning system to help us to recognize that we have made social mistakes so that we will not repeat them in the future.

Seeing as autists struggle with social communication and interaction, it stands to reason that we often feel awkward so that we might improve our social skills in the future.

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So social awkwardness may in fact serve a purpose in autism! ๐Ÿ˜‰

Enjoy the weekend everyone! ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife

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