Awkward Social Navigation for the Rest of Us


I was waiting in the drive-thru line at Starbucks recently. A young man in the car ahead of me was placing his order. Except….he had no order. He just wanted to check on the status of his job application.

From the drive-thru.

That guy is not getting the job. He definitely made the employees working the window that morning laugh, but I bet he didn’t get the joke- because he wasn’t trying to be funny. He thought he should follow up in person, and figured it made no difference whether he showed up inside at the counter or outside at the window.

I guess it kind of makes sense. But couldn’t he have ordered a coffee or something? Then maybe casually asked about his application while paying? Thinking about it now, I don’t know exactly how I know not to do things like that. It’s one of a million things most of us just seem to understand. I typically know what others expect me to say or do in any given situation. I have at times pretended not to know, but I have never actually felt unsure about another person’s expectations or meaning- in person, on the phone, or in print. For most of my life I assumed everyone else understood these things, too.

They don’t. 

In at least one way, my daughter has it easy. She doesn’t say hello or goodbye unless someone tells her to do it. Even then it’s hit or miss. Anyone who encounters her will know immediately not to expect much social interaction- and that expectation will be met. No one is typically going to judge her for it, either. This is where kids higher on the spectrum have it much harder.

The more “just like us” someone else appears, the higher the expectation is for social performance. This isn’t just about autism. It’s about all of us, and our very different positions on the social spectrum. People make the assumption that others think like them. Every day we interact with people who seem to mirror us; people who follow the rules of personal space, laugh at our jokes, and know all of the usual small talk. We don’t even think about it. It’s a ritual that was imprinted on our subconscious long before we can remember.

And of course, once in a while we encounter someone who doesn’t quite click with us. They seem awkward. They don’t get the punch line. They say the wrong thing. Sometimes it’s obvious, but often it is subtle. It is human nature to like other people who “get” us, and we form even smaller groups of friendships based on the degree in which others think like us.

But some people will find they are unable to connect with the larger group. They are a minority. And even within that minority group, they may not find common ground with anyone.


The thing is, no one is really doing anything wrong. Not usually. I can be accepting and nice to anyone, but I can’t fake that deeper connection. I can’t even define it. But that connection is often what we are demanding of each other. Not connecting can be hurtful, but it is not always in our control. So, what are we supposed to do? I thought I was good at reading people. The truth is, I am only good at reading a mainstream type of social interaction. The people who don’t understand me- well, I don’t really get them, either. But I’m learning.

For example, I have a difficult time with people who are unable to read sarcasm. Sometimes they are completely unaware of their inability to understand it. I have a sarcastic sense of humor, and to those who read sarcasm well- we connect through that sarcasm. If someone jokes around with me sarcastically, I don’t get offended. It actually forms a better bond between us. We get each other’s meaning and intent. If someone who doesn’t read sarcasm gets offended by our well-intentioned remarks, they sometimes expect an apology.

The solution is always, “well, just stop using sarcasm.” But….I don’t think I know how to do that. I do it without thinking. Also, I don’t want to stop. It is a social connector between me and others who think like me. Now, if you could just let me know that you don’t get my meaning, I would be happy to step back and explain it. But seriously, you are going to have to let me know, because I won’t have a clue.

If autism is a part of your world, you may be familiar with someone who takes things literally. You may be aware of how two people can interpret social situations in completely different ways. You may also feel as if you spend a lot of time explaining this. But it’s not just an autism issue. Where do we draw the line between unacceptable behavior and forgivable social misunderstanding? When is it appropriate to change a behavior, and when is it better to let everyone just be themselves?

I let Teghan do all sorts of (usually) unacceptable behavior because I believe things work differently for her. She needs to tear things, so I may hand her a phone book and let her go. When she gets excited, she often runs back and forth in a systematic way. I let her do it, sometimes in public. I let her tap on whatever she wants for as long as she wants. I understand her differences, so I go against my own social instincts and just let her go nuts. Some people would disagree. They would say I should force her to conform to normal social behavior. Whatever that is.


The funny thing is, I am not so forgiving toward the other people in my world. I make fun of my coworker because she makes her boyfriend sit on the same side of the table with her when they are dining alone. And because I keep having to explain to her that Stephen Colbert is not really a Republican.

Sometimes I run into acquaintances out in public and get stuck talking too long. Just when it is clear that the exit is coming- the other person misses the cue and starts a whole new topic.

I am not even on speaking terms with Dave’s brother. If I use sarcasm around him, I might get a letter four years later about how it made him feel. When I send a “Happy Holidays” email and mention how I bet they have lots of winter activities in Colorado- somehow he will read this as meaning that he isn’t participating in enough of those activities. Which is weird, since I have no idea what activities he is participating in at all. I hardly know him. And I know him even less now that I have taken him off my Christmas email list.


I know there is something deeper going on with him. I have always known that. But he seems to function normally in society, so I feel no guilt over simply not allowing this in my life. Who is wrong? Maybe I should be more understanding…. but what about him?

At what point is someone so socially dysfunctional that they can no longer be held accountable for their own words and actions?

I am trying to be more understanding, but when it comes to social behavior- we all have our disabilities. You can teach me the ways of how somebody else processes information and struggles with literal meanings- but requiring me to always respond with that in mind is like telling me to start  expressing myself through drawing pictures instead of writing words. I am not going to be great at it. I feel like there are so many expectations all around, and not a whole lot of forgiveness.

This rambling offers no answers. I over-think human social behavior a lot. I notice all sorts of things that don’t matter, because nobody else is looking that close. No one wants an explanation of why they say or do something; they just want the reaction that meets their immediate need. At this point, figuring out how to communicate with someone who has autism or Asperger’s is easy. Everyone’s social cards are already laid out on the table.

It’s navigating the rest of the population that gets tricky.


5 thoughts on “Awkward Social Navigation for the Rest of Us

  1. I totally agree with how you feel. I have been thinking a lot about my perception about others and what their perceptions are. My son will soon turn 8 and was diagnosed with autism about 2 years ago. He is high functioning. This year we are having some behavioral issues.Not eveyone “gets” him. Thanks for writing this.

  2. Yes! This is so, so true. Trying to explain to my 4 year old Aspie why we do xyz, or why we don’t, has been one of the hardest things for me to deal with. I see all these other kids who function “normally” and don’t need to be told a hundred million times to do/not do the same thing. Once is enough or they have that built in “common sense” that our kids don’t. I really struggle with this. It’s so frustrating but I know it’s my frustration and my issue to deal with, not something about him that needs to be changed. There are so many subtle variances between social interactions in an NT world that throwing the spectrum in there can be truly overwhelming as you try on a daily basis to teach your child the ins and outs of it all.

  3. As someone who has never quite figured out all the social rules, I can say that it is frustrating. As a child I was bullied regularly for being different. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out why I was different, how I was different and why people punished me for it. I never understood why other people, most people, thought that we should all be the same, dress the same, like the same things. I still do not understand it. Perhaps, for those who think in that way, it is a comfort to them. I was always fascinated by other cultures, languages, music that wasn’t on the radio, etc. I still am. As a child, I often took things people said literally. I eventually understood and mastered sarcasm, perhaps after some tears had fallen. I have noticed that sarcasm seems to be a very common mode of friendly conversation in the Midwest that is not often appreciated or understood by those from other places. In fact, many of the people I have met from other countries/cultures have a much more sincere conversational style…something that would be uncomfortable to many Mid-westerners!
    My biggest challenge has been how to advise my own children on a topic I have never quite figured out myself. I did teach them these few things: People who are bullied tend to respond in one of a few ways, perhaps their response changes over time : they become bitter and become bullies also, they withdraw, become depressed, etc. or they do as I did and as I advised my children to do : they make the decision that they never want to be responsible for causing pain to another human being because they know how awful it feels. I also advised them to do some of the things my parents suggested (things that didn’t work for me but I had hoped would work for them – what was I thinking?) such as don’t worry about what other people think, etc. I did, however, add a condition to that suggestion — do you value that person’s opinion and why? Why value the opinion of someone cruel? In this way, I tried to teach them (and remind myself) that it is important to decide which opinions you value. I value the opinions of those that I admire and respect. I do not value the opinion of creeps!
    As an adult, I still can’t shake the feeling that I still don’t quite fit in, even among my friends. It seems that they all have things figured out that I will never quite understand. I am not wired like other people. I can’t help it. I have suffered for it. I have also triumphed over it: I am glad I am not like everyone else. I sometimes think that the “mainstream” people I am often surrounded by will never enjoy the things that I do know, that they will never see or understand. I am passionate about things, a fault in the minds of some, however, this passion has brought a richness to my life that many will never know. I am happy that I am the way I am (sometimes)…I just wish other people “got it” or “got me” more often.

  4. Thanks for reading and responding everyone! It’s a complicated topic, and one that I have spent a lot more time thinking about since autism entered our world. It makes me less critical of other people and their lack of social grace. The good news is that we are living in a time where there is more understanding than ever before. We have some work to do, but in general we are going in the right direction. It is much easier to be a kid going to school on the spectrum now than when I was growing up. Everyone was clueless, and conforming was a requirement.

    And Julie- I think it is rare to find others who truly “get” us. People who play the social game best may have more acquaintances, but we all come out kind of even when it comes to very close relationships. Great matches are universally hard to find. I have always found that comforting 🙂

  5. Thanks for sharing your amazing writing talents and thoughtfulness with all of us. Your honesty is inspiring, provocative and therapeutic. Reading your comments is also so very timely for me as I am expecting a grandchild in November and find myself reflecting on these topics and my parenting. Milestones and change inspire such reflection. Again, thank you. I am so impressed with you and Dave as parents and as human beings. Thank you for sharing these moments and reflections.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.