By now we’ve all seen them. The videos, articles, posts, etc that declare how “fake” social media is and stating how important it is to interact with “real people” in the “real world.” Since we’re still in the middle of the “new year, new you” period, such posts are plentiful right now, but you can see them any time of year.
And I’m not saying there isn’t some merit to some of what they are saying. When possible and desired, it can be very rewarding to have face to face interactions with people. I’m not saying that social media should totally replace hanging out with people nor am I denying that sometimes it can be refreshing to take social media breaks or reduce the amount of time one is online.
But I am saying that these types of articles are written from a very biased, very neuro-typical point of view, and what they are implying about some of us is quite ableist and quite unfair.
Lemme break it down for y’all a bit.
Cue the 80’s and 90’s music. Before social media there was a little brown girl. As no teacher seemed to be able to pronounce “Morénike,” she was known widely as “Nikky” (which all my old friends still call me, which is totally cool). Even as a little girl, she was better at writing than speaking. She got in trouble quite a lot from elementary school up through high school because she would write and pass notes to friends. The note-passing was not to be insubordinate, but it was her only true way of getting her real thoughts out. The thoughts that didn’t come freely when she was speaking because speaking was so much mental effort, even though everyone considered her a pretty good orator, especially when it came to debate. Her best ideas always came when she had a pen and paper in her hand. The same was true for academics, not just social interactions; her written reports were always far better than her oral reports. An undiagnosed autistic who was also hyperlexic and gifted, especially in verbal reasoning, she considered, and sometimes stated, that writing was her true “first language.”
She didn’t hate “being with people.” She actually loved people. But it wasn’t easy. She was both introverted and very social at the same time. No one knew the secret inner panic she felt about crowds, or parties, or groups of people. She hid it well. But sometimes it still came out, both in childhood/adolescence and in adulthood. In her late teens/early twenties, for example, it was not uncommon after a night at the club with friends (and/or after hours of socializing in big crowds) for her to become emotional, get into a disagreement with someone over something seemingly trivial in the car on the way home, and literally jump out of the vehicle and attempt to walk home. Her friends didn’t understand these outbursts, though they tried to support her through them. She didn’t understand them either. But she knew that she felt “caged” and that getting out of the car and walking was the only way she knew to regain control, to clear her mind, to get some breathing space away from everyone. Even though these were the people she loved best in the world, it was too much sometimes.
Might sound odd, but it was – is me. Fast forward lots of years ahead, and there are many such scenarios like that. Perhaps not as dramatic as exiting a vehicle at 3 am in the morning and trying to walk home in high heels and short shorts in the dark, but the same theme emerges. Requesting, and paying extra for a single room in college to have some space. Working through lunch breaks at work to avoid having to socialize with co-workers. Declining the invitation to a party or other outing out of fatigue. Etc, etc. Not even really conscious of how or why at the time, I’ve always needed to build in “space” and “breaks” for myself to be able to function. Socializing takes a lot out of me. I enjoy it, but I have to be prepared before it, and I have to be able to “come down” after it.
But not all social interaction is built equally. I don’t feel the same, nor act the same, in all settings. My special interests are learning, advocacy, and social justice, and I shine in social interactions where those areas are involved. Whether having a one-on-one conversation or presenting on a stage in front of a crowd of hundreds, once I get past the first few moments of jitters, I’m totally cool. I’m in my zone when I’m talking about and doing things that I am passionate about. When I am advocating and educating, the social anxiety can’t reach me because I’m much too high. In those moments, my “deficits” – perseveration, intense focus, preoccupation with details, verbosity, atypical prosody, heightened sense of feeling and memory, etc – in those moments, those things aren’t weaknesses. They’re strengths; they’re gifts. They’re me. And they’re freakin’ beautiful, and real, and right.
However, this same woman (me), who can speak effectively and without fear in front of the world’s leading researchers, or in front of government officials, or in front of celebrities…this same woman has to spend fifteen minutes in the car praying and doing deep breathing before volunteering at my children’s schools (oh, the small talk!) or before calling up an old friend (texting is so much nicer), etc. These are people I LIKE, and yet it’s hard for me. It is exponentially harder in forced interactions with people I don’t know or don’t like.
With writing, though, none of this applies. I’m so free. This whole post, for example, would have been very hard to convey if I had to “tell” it to you aloud. When my fingers are on a keyboard, or screen, or writing utensil, the real me emerges so readily. I’m free. Not that the “me” that is there when I’m in person isn’t real; it is. But just less certain, less meaningfully communicative, less…me. Kind of like a person speaking a foreign language. You can live in a country for 20 years and the language of that land is now very familiar to you. You now speak that language quite well, but it will never come with the ease and natural comfort of your native tongue. In your second language you might be “good,’ but in your native tongue you are almost “great.”
However, social interaction is a part of life, and cannot be entirely avoided (nor should it be). Those of us who aren’t the best at it still have to engage in it. And I have done so for years and did okay. Some years better than others, but still sorta okay. But then something happened that changed the dynamic quite a bit. If it was a book title, I’d call it “Six Kids in Six Years: The Accidental Family.” My family has grown exponentially in a short period of time, and it was the best “accident” I could have even been blessed with. Once, in what seems almost like another life, I was facing the prospect of not knowing if I’d ever be able to be a parent; now my “cup runneth over.” I have a large, loud, loving, neurodiverse family, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. They are my world, and they have my heart.
They have needs. A lot of them. They need support. Encouragement. Nurturing. Guidance. Care. Love. They need a lot from me, and I am here to give it. But that means I don’t have a lot of me left for other people sometimes. Not in a bad way; I care deeply for others, and try my best to be there for them. But my family comes first, last, and always before anyone and anything. Kid gets sick on the night of my high school reunion? Y’all have fun; I’m staying home. AIDS Walk falls during an important international conference? I’m leaving the conference; flying home early to walk with my people. Got an invite to a cool concert, but my kid starts having meltdowns/panic attacks/seizures before I’m supposed to leave? I ask another friend to go in my place. I don’t mean for it to be the case, but life happens…and when you have a family as big as mine, life happens a lot. And without regret or hesitation when life happens to my family I know exactly where I want to be and where I choose to be – with my family.
And then sometimes life doesn’t happen. There are days that things are pretty calm (our version of calm anyway). When things aren’t super busy and nothing chaotic or catastrophic is going on. A lot of days are happy, and fun, and filled with memories. Thank God, more days are good than bad. But even on those days, my emotional capacity, my mental and physical energy, my socializing quota…all of those things are finite even on my best day. And you might find that even on the days when the sky is not falling and my face has been full of smiles, I still may not be able to socialize face to face. Because on good days I still have to drive four hours or more roundtrip getting the kids to and from school; I still might have to host a conference call; I still likely have to deal with things that require some of my “spoons.” So even on a good day, when that phone call is coming in I might (not even “might;” probably “will”) have to let it go to voicemail (which I almost never check). On a good day I still might have to let a little time go by before I check emails or texts. Because I just may not be able to handle communication at that moment…just because. I have a limited amount of “spoons” to expend each day, and most of them are going to be reserved for my family. Whatever I have left is for everyone and everything else.
So…that doesn’t exactly make for a hopping social life in the “real world.” In fact, about a month or so after my sons first joined our family a few years ago, one of them asked me, “Mom, do you have friends? Hardly anyone comes over here.” Lol!
I have met AMAZING people who I care for deeply on this “fake” social media. People I’d fight for. People who are fighting for me. People I will happily support if they need me, and who are doing the same for me. People I would have likely never met “IRL” (in “real life”) for various reasons. And this same “fake” social media has allowed me to see a different side of people that I DO know in person, and has often helped me to actually like them more and feel like I can better interact with them socially in person as a result of our interactions online.
But just because there are some bad elements of something, that doesn’t make it altogether bad. Or fake. Or weird. I am MYSELF online. I don’t create a fake persona of someone who is perfect or gorgeous or rich or super-important. I’m just me.
We respect people’s right to small talk, being around people all the time, and socializing the way that works best for them. Please respect the right of people like me to socialize the way that works best for us.