Monday, June 25, 2018

Why I Believe PDA Social Mimicry and Masking are Hardwired

I have come to suspect that PDA social mimicry and masking, unlike the mimicry and masking carried out by non-PDA autistics, is hardwired.  My reasons for suspecting this are fourfold:

1) Self-reflection
2) Speaking with non-PDA autistic maskers
3) Speaking with PDAer maskers
4) That my PDAer daughter has masked since toddlerhood

Social mimicry is copying what you think is the right behaviour to fit in and get along with people.

Masking is hiding your true feelings by acting as if you feel something else, often happy and relaxed.  Social mimicry can, therefore, be thought of as the ingredients from which masks are made.

Non-PDA autistics have surprised me by talking about having learned to mask as a bullied child and stopped bothering to do so.  However, PDAers I’ve spoken to have tended to describe their mimicry and masking as hardwired.

A study I carried out early in 2018 suggests female non-PDA autistics are far more likely to feel they have learned to socially mimic than female PDAers, who tended to see their mimicry as hardwired (see graph below).

PDA masking for me is not about being afraid to show our true selves, but about not actually being capable of communicating mask-free. Ever.

In telling parents of PDA children that I suspect our masking is all-prevalent, they have tended to accept this, whilst assuming their children do not mask with them.  However, I think we PDAers mask with EVERYONE, including parents and other loved ones.  Our little PDAer daughter, for example, has fiercely denied being hurt from the moment she could form enough words to do so. We’ve never had the attitude that her being hurt is wrong, but she has been inwardly driven to mask her pain anyway.

This is not a slight on our loved ones.  It’s just the way we’re wired.

I think masking with close family is so eased-through-practice that it appears not to exist.  However, it is still there.  With those closest to us, we will have learned that we can communicate our meltdowns *through* our masks without being rejected, but this does not mean our masks actually drop during meltdown. It's like living under impermeable plastic wrap: we can move around inside it, but can never break through.

The fact that our masking has been lifelong and automatic, means we frequently don't even notice we are doing it ourselves.  Masking to family is like a second skin we are so familiar with we don’t notice it’s there.  We are more likely to notice our masking in unpracticed situations with unfamiliar people for whom we must subconsciously create a new mask (an interface of tone, gestures, expression, conversation style, etc) to fit this precise individual.

I think this is why it so hard for me to form new relationships.  I can’t just connect with someone no matter how much I want to.  I need to first create a mask just for them.

Sociable by nature, as a younger adult I was frustrated that I couldn’t relax and talk to people one on one without a current close friend (someone I’d developed a comprehensive mask with).  I’d visit people I’d got on well with in the company of a close friend, but be stressed and word-less visiting these same people alone.  I had no idea why this was.  Such experiences were traumatic for me and frustrating too because I wanted to be independent and be able to just breeze happily around as a confident social butterfly.

At other times, people I’ve attempted to hang out with have bored me stupid. 

Losing close friends has always been a major blow to me.  I can’t, as I have said, just form new friendships. 

As a younger adult, I resorted to heavy drinking and drugs in order to break down my unwanted wall of discomfort and speechlessness. This was effective in that intoxication left me uncaring and unable to judge if my mask was appropriate.  The downside was that I made a social idiot of myself, left myself extremely vulnerable and played havoc with my own health.

These days, I am happy leading a quiet life with my partner of nine years and our masking PDAer daughter. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Hyperfocus over Demand Avoidance

Thoughts on compiling my new book, Neurostrands, which examines four neurodivergent conditions I have (ADHD, autism, delayed sleep phase and PDA) by asking the same questions to members of closed Facebook groups representing each neurotype.

The compilation of the book is very much a product of my combined “neurostrands”.  Seeking a positive way to live with late night solitude induced by delayed sleep phase, I have taken to engaging in quiet online projects, such as producing this book. I feel it also worth mentioning that “DSPS (Delayed-Sleep-Phase-Syndrome)” was the first Facebook closed support group I joined, way back before I even suspected my autism or PDA, and many years before suspecting ADHD (which I have connected with most fully through compiling this book).  Unravelling my inner workings (hence this book) is one of my autistic special interests.  Thanks to the discussions transcribed in these pages, I now understand that the hyperfocus enabling me to undertake this special interest project comes from my ADHD, and, finally, I know from experience that dropping hyperfocus allows my pathological demand avoidance to throttle my plans, so I have produced this book with unbroken momentum, despite polite, but anguished comments from the PDA group telling me that the speed at which I’ve hurled out “book post questions” has been causing them overwhelm, overload and triggered demand avoidance.  I have in response done my best to achieve a slow-as-possible post speed which doesn’t cause my hyperfocus momentum to dwindle enough for my demand avoidance to jump in, and have been aiming to post new questions every two days, instead of daily.  This slowed posting rate is additionally arduous because my PDA impulsivity wants me to post new queries right away and ADHD scatty me feels anxious if I delay posting a query even for a moment in case I forget, but then I feel anxious about overloading PDAers and wonder why the Hell I am subjecting myself to this project in the first place.  It’s a tricky balance!

This entire project, in fact, entails a complex mental ballet of holding multiple conversations in my head and weaving them into coherent order via subheadings.  I am certain that I can only achieve this via my hyperfocus.  Hyperfocus is a kind of superpower, I think.  It supercharges my mental capacity for a single focus and, in shining clear, bright light on all that falls under its beam, allows me to spot tiny details I’d entirely miss without it.  That I have diagnosed dyslexia and Irlen syndrome (word blindness) as well, perhaps shows how powerful ADHD hyperfocus is.  I have slow reading speed and jumble the words that I do see, but my hyperfocus blithely overcomes this and enables me to pick up gists, hold them in my attention drifting mind and weave them into the right strands of the compiled text.  If I stop for an instance, demand avoidance tells me it’s too difficult and not to bother.  Even writing this introduction requires hyperfocus in the face of demand avoidance.  I have learned from compiling my first book, PDA by PDAers, to pre-empt demand avoidance hurdles by “jumping” them while in hyperfocus.

In creating PDA by PDAers, I had serious demand inertia with regard to making section summaries and writing the introduction, so here I am, midway through compiling the book and in full hyperfocus thrall, writing this introduction and adding subheadings when conversations are first transcribed then collating these as section summaries.

Using subheadings to avoid future demands has, to my delight, reduced demands even further by making it easier for me find my way around the text. I’d not have used subheadings if I hadn’t been pre-empting future demands, because doing so would have felt far too demandy to bother with!  Yes, it’s complex!

And it is unravelling this complexity of interconnected “neurostrands” that has prompted me to compile this book.  I am very glad that I have because I have learned so much about myself and my fellow neurodivergents as a consequence.  My demand avoidance had put me off learning more about my potential (now known) ADHD and finer, comparative points about the impacts of autism, DSPS and PDA prior to my taking on this project: I had been paralysed by my demand avoidance telling me it was too difficult; too tiring; too time-consuming and just not interesting.  Well, demand avoidance (and thank you, autistic special interest and ADHD hyperfocus) you were so very wrong!  This project has been, and remains very worthwhile and fascinating.

I’m going to use this as a blogpost, because I have been aware and anxious that I haven’t posted anything for some time.  I still have demand avoidance issues against blogging (can’t do it, what do I write, etc) and my hyperfocus is, as you’ve seen, currently running wild pulling my new book together.

Edit: the PDAer-more-friendly-delay I've self-imposed has, I've discovered, all but killed my hyperfocus :/ It's such a hard balance to strike, especially as I don't want to upset "book post" viewers by driving them too hard.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Appearing sociable, but lacking depth?

"Appearing sociable, but lacking depth" is counted as a PDA trait.  The National Autistic Society in their description of PDA say we “appear sociable, but lack depth in understanding”  PDA Society, describing this as surface sociability, explain it as:

Appearing sociable on the surface, e.g. People with PDA may have a more socially acceptable use of eye contact. Their conversational skills may appear better than others on the autism spectrum, but this is still often lacking depth in their understanding. For instance, not seeing a difference between themselves and an authority figure, having difficulty in adjusting their own behaviour in response to the needs of others and not always understanding how, or why their behaviour can affect others at an emotional level and thus have a negative impact on their relationships.

The above PDA Society explanation can be broken down into a cluster of subtraits:
    •    Using more eye contact than non-PDA autistics

    •    Having better conversation skills than non-PDA autistics

    •    Often lacking depth in our understanding

    •    Failing to differentiate between ourselves and authority figures

    •    Failing to adjust our behaviour in response to the needs of others

    •    Failing to understand how our behaviour affects others emotionally

While I confess to being socially shallow in some ways (who isn’t?), I feel the above PDA “shallow water map” makes various false assumptions based on external appearances as observed from the neurotypical perspective.

I will examine PDA Society’s definition point by point, and explain where I agree and disagree with it.

Using more eye contact than non-PDA autistics
I cannot speak for all PDAers, but for me making eye contact does feel uncomfortable.  I am aware, however, that it communicates to the observer that I am listening and interested, so I use it both as a courtesy and to communicate my intent more fluently.  Therefore, although I find eye contact uncomfortable, I am aware people may misconstrue my attitude towards them if I don’t use it.  I like to reassure people when I speak to them and put them at ease.  Similarly, I make a point of learning a few words of the native language when I visit non-English speaking countries.  This is not easy for me as I am dyslexic, but I like to communicate my respect and good will.  This is, I feel, a manifestation of my PDA masking and social mimicking drive (which I believe to be a hardwired part of me); I have an instinct to bend my being (mannerisms, expressions, gestures, vocabulary) in order to interface with whomever I talk to.  This takes effort, but I don’t resent it as it is a natural process for me.  I may however avoid social interaction because it is tiring.  So rather than saving energy by avoiding eye contact, if tired, I avoid interaction (fullstop).

Having better conversation skills than non-PDA autistics
Again, I cannot speak for all PDAers (nor autistics), but enjoying wordplay appears to be a marked PDA trait  This coupled with our masking tendency (as described above) makes our having good conversation skills unsurprising.

It should, I feel, also be borne in mind that, by modern definition, autism is a much broader spectrum than earlier incarnations (which largely comprised “classic autism” and Asperger’s).  The PDA trait of masking and social mimicking is shared with female-pattern autism, which is a more recent “discovery”.  It is unclear if the above definition takes female-pattern autism into account when it states that “[PDAer] conversational skills may appear better than others on the autism spectrum”.

Often lacking depth in our understanding
This statement, being part of the definition of PDAers’ proposed lack of depth in understanding, is recursive (like Russian dolls) and, as such (with the greatest respect to PDA Society who I have massive admiration for) suggests in its failure to elaborate lack of understanding of our supposed lack of understanding!  It’s like explaining that a tiger is a mammal because it’s a mammal. Does your head hurt?  Mine does!  As this subtrait is the same as its “mother trait” I will move on from it until my conclusion.

Failing to differentiate between ourselves and authority figures
Unless I’m very much mistaken, this refers to our PDAer non-compliance with social hierarchy. I will write a dedicated blogpost about this in the future (note to self: do not let this plan become an internal demand or I’ll never write it!) but, in brief, we PDAers are motivated by individual merit rather than arbitrary status.  As far as I understand neurotypicals and other non-PDAers, adherence to social hierarchy is the norm for these “neurogroups”, kind of like they are neurologically hypnotised into social hierarchical compliance.  We PDAers are, I think, perfectly aware of hierarchy, but not hypnotised by its glamour.  I cannot therefore see that our imperviousness to hierarchy equates to lacking depth in social understanding. If anything, it demonstrates far deeper understanding rooted in an ability to evaluate individual merit.

Failing to adjust our behaviour in response to the needs of others
Whilst I concede that I can on occasion be impervious to what others feel, in having discussed this with fellow adult PDAers, I think a number of additional contributing factors can come into play here.
    1.    Demand avoidance: we may be perfectly aware of what others want, but avoid complying because we experience it as a demand.  This to me equates to non-compliance as opposed to lack of depth in understanding: we know what’s wanted, but avoid.

    2.    Our masking and social mimicking drive often causes us to hide our true, deep feelings behind a bland mask: the depth is there, but observers would be hard pushed to see it.

    3.    Slow processing speed: it is common for PDAers to need additional time to process communication, delaying our responses.  It can sometimes take me hours, weeks even to digest what someone meant.  To me this does not represent shallowness, rather temporary incomprehension.  This, by the way, is one of the reasons I prefer text-based communication over “live” as it gives me time to mull over what is said.

    4.    Social nuance blindness: this is a common autistic trait entailing neurologically-rooted blindness to the more complex social cue reading neurotypical children develop aged seven or eight.

My social nuance blindness causes me to miss body language that neurotypicals take for granted at a subconscious level and, in turn, causes them to feel (rightly) that I am missing important chunks of their communication.  I try to compensate via my acquired repertoire of social mimicry, but this “social-blindness” leads to inevitable social blunders. I have been perplexed throughout life to have been treated as an idiot by my peers.  My discovery of female autism and resulting diagnosis five years ago was an explosive light bulb moment… no, not moment, but extended clarity as to why people had misread me as stupid.  So socially shallow in this respect?  I don’t think so, just not conversant in neurotypical nuance lingo.

Failing to understand how our behaviour affects others emotionally
I do relate, to my deep regret, to having failed to understand how my behaviour would affect others and I have, I have been able to see – oh too clearly – in retrospect how deeply I have betrayed and/or hurt some people and, in other cases, pushed them too far.  I may have appeared manipulative (another negative trait we PDAers are assumed to have, which will be the subject of a future blog) and I may have appeared heartlessly lacking in emotional depth, but I feel this is in large part due to the slow processing speed I described in the section above.  Further, my nuance blindness can cause me to totally miss “obvious” signs of emotional affect in others.

In conclusion, I feel that while we PDAers may in some ways "appear sociable, but lacking in depth", in reality we have a lot more depth than neurotypical observers may imagine.  I feel there has been far too much theorising about PDA from the outside looking in and, additionally, the focus has been on children.  Mythconceptions abound: that PDAers feel no shame during meltdown; that we are manipulative; that we are socially shallow.  The many PDAers I have come to know are anything but shallow.  We are highly compassionate and empathic, often driven to champion the underdog.  Yes, I have clumsily harmed others in my social naivety, but once realised these blunders have haunted me, even in my dreams.  I said on video at the PDA Society Conference in April (2018) that researchers and theorists should listen to us adult PDAers: what we say might not match their theories, but that is why they need to listen to us. (I fled the room before seeing myself on screen!)  So if you’re reading this, theorists, please consider that we PDAers are perhaps not so much “appearing social, but lacking depth” as “social, but with depth often concealed or delayed”.