A friend of mine once relayed to me the story of a doctor who explained that “autism” is an extreme form of introversion. There are extreme extroverts on one side of the spectrum, then extroverts, then ambiverts, then introverts, and then autists. This is not a very useful way to think of autism in my opinion. I personally know a number of autists who are not at all introverted, for one thing. They are clumsy and inept in many of their social interactions, but they crave social interaction even so. I am an introvert, as well as an autist, but I’m also not entirely sure how much of my introversion is caused by the trauma of being autistic all my life. Let me explain more.
Generally speaking, an extrovert is someone who craves social interaction, seeks it out, and finds it energizing. An extrovert might find it painful to work at home for days on end, without seeing other people in person on a regular basis. An introvert, on the other hand, may understand how to do social interaction well, but also finds it draining. Introverts often enjoy spending hours (or even days or months) alone, away from others. They often find their own thoughts to be enough to occupy themselves, or they enjoy solitary pursuits like reading (or for me, knitting and crocheting).
I have a vivid memory of an event that happened in my teens. I was on a river rafting trip with a group of teens and a handful of adult chaperones who were all part of my local church group. I had brought a book with me to read at night and spent most of my time alone in my sleeping bag. I spoke occasionally to our guide on the raft, but rarely to the other teens or adults. The trip had terrible weather and we were nearly rained out. One night, I was woken by a river of mud taking me away from my sleeping bag and I had to run for a dry spot and didn’t get any more sleep. The next day, it was sunny for the first time in a week. We had a wonderful picnic lunch and then someone suggested that we play tag and chase one of the leading adults. For the first time in my entire life, I participated in a group sport and chased this adult, laughing loudly and smiling infectiously.
Afterward, everyone was amazed that I had “come out of my shell.” They encouraged me to be more like this all the time (extroversion is, in my opinion, often encouraged in church groups like this). But I wasn’t. I went back to being my quiet self and no one paid any attention to me again — which was exactly what I wanted.
I tell this story only because it makes me wonder if there is some part of me that might have become less introverted, perhaps even a full extrovert, if I hadn’t had so many painful experiences as an autist. I got frequent feedback that I wasn’t the kind of person anyone wanted to be friends with. I had virtually no friends my entire growing up years — until my junior year in high school. And I largely didn’t care because interaction with other people was so painful. Children are terribly cruel when they are determined to be. Adults who would sometimes comment that they wished they could go back and be carefree children again made me furious. Were there people who really had carefree childhoods? My childhood was miserable and to this day I wouldn’t go back for all the money or the hope of changing outcomes in the world.
Did I become an introvert as self-protection from the dangers of being around others who hurt me whenever they could? I don’t know. I wasn’t shy, at least not in the sense that I didn’t talk eagerly to others. I was generally a motor mouth — until I was told once too often that no one wanted to listen to what I had to say. Then I leaned into silence, and my own company. I’ve always struggled with unspoken social rules. I do great with the spoken ones, but the problem is that there are always a dozen exceptions to those rules and whenever I followed them, people seemed to think that it was ridiculous to think that now was the time to do so (for instance, when I insisted that other people line up alphabetically or when I told the teacher about someone else’s misbehavior — something I was specifically told I should do).
While I would never wish to go back to childhood, I do sometimes wonder what it would have been like if I’d grown up in an entirely autistic world. Someday, maybe I will publish my book about a world where autism is “normal” and allism is the thing that everyone sees as pathological and in need of correction. If I’d grown up there, maybe I’d be an extrovert. If I felt as if I would naturally understand others and would be naturally understood, maybe I’d trust social interaction more. If I thought that being honest was genuinely valued, maybe I would be silent less. Who knows?