Context is Key

Dania Jekel, Executive Director
Blog Post

During this time of physical distancing, many of us have had to move our typical, in-person interactions to online video conferencing. Like all AANE groups, I was recently facilitating a support group that has moved online. During the meeting, with everyone’s live video up on the screen, one group member was sitting in a common area of her house, and her young niece was brushing her hair. The nature of a support group can be very personal, and it soon became clear that the young girl’s activity and ability to listen in on the conversation was distracting and making others in the group feel uncomfortable. I gently explained the problem to the group member, asked if she could use ear buds, and politely asked if her niece would mind occupying herself elsewhere for a while. We continued with the group, with no one being upset.

I am sharing this story with permission from the group member because it illustrates a common experience. This happened because video conferencing is a new and unknown environment to many of us. Adults on the autism spectrum haven’t necessarily learned the “hidden curriculum” of generally accepted virtual communication and social behavior during a video meeting. Neurotypical individuals may intuitively grasp how to behave and how to communicate on this new platform. But for many on the spectrum, they need to learn and memorize the accepted rules. And we see, once children and adults in our community understand the unwritten rules of video conferencing, they are as comfortable, if not more comfortable using this platform. As a matter of fact, some find this new, shrunken social world easier to navigate than the usual in-person school and work environment.

This incident reminds me how vitally important context is in how we behave and communicate. If a close-knit family was catching up via video conference, a child brushing someone’s hair on screen would be perfectly fine and even charming, while this same occurrence happening during a work meeting or a support group is not appropriate. The importance of understanding context holds true when the world is not limited to one’s home and computer, and tends to be a challenge for those on the spectrum.

I’ve seen over and over again people who have been taught or have learned scripts, behaviors, and conversational protocols, which are all useful and usually work to make them feel comfortable. Unfortunately, if the environment is unfamiliar or slightly changed, relying on scripts may only take a person so far. It is easy to use them at the wrong time, in the wrong place, or with the wrong person, which can result in a social blunder. These mistakes (usually immediately known after they happen) can lead to lasting embarrassment, lost friendships, and are often remembered for years, causing lowered self-esteem, and the avoidance of new and unknown environments.

So, what do I recommend to help with understanding context?

  • As always, self-awareness of one’s neurology–how you think and process information as an autistic person and how that differs from others–is extremely important. This might include the challenge of being unaware or unable to assess the environment in real time. In order to manage or live in the external world of school, employment, friendships, and relationships, that awareness of the importance of context is crucial.
  • Since not understanding context results from how a person is processing information and can probably not be rewired, you can find workarounds for this challenge. These include:
    • Observing and collecting information, if possible, about any new environment you will be entering.
    • Have someone you trust, who will understand, as a mentor or teacher who can explain the new rules of social behavior within that particular environment.
    • If you are comfortable sharing your diagnosis, explain to those you trust why this can be challenging for you and ask them to be direct and honest with you. Let them know they can kindly explain what is expected and if you are making a social mistake.
    • Build an understanding of different types of environments that you can draw upon when facing a new environment. The more kinds of contexts you know, the easier it will be to start with what you know from a similar environment and move from there.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that individuals on the spectrum need to pretend to be someone they are not or conform in a way that makes them hide who they are. Camouflaging can take a tremendous psychological toll. But just as we come to learn that a swimsuit is appropriate attire at a beach and not in an office environment, certain behaviors and topics of conversation have their place in certain situations and not in others.

Remember, we all make social mistakes. I recognize that for those on the spectrum who make frequent errors, it can be exceedingly difficult and traumatic. But I hope you can find a way to forgive yourself, put events in the past, and find self-acceptance and a community where you can find understanding.