Autism, Guilt, and Shame

I’m probably carrying internalized guilt for episodes of what amount to other people acting abusively toward me, but I can’t know that it’s not my fault, and I’ve learned to always question my own behavior.

I am a 38 year old man with Autism Spectrum Disorder. I was diagnosed with Asperger’s when I was 24. I understand that Asperger’s has been erased from the DSM, so I would be considered now to have ASD. I am employed in a full-time professional job as a government contractor, have a side gig in music journalism, and I just started dating someone. I have a master’s degree, and originally wanted to be an academic.

I say these things to indicate that I am a reasonably functional adult, a productive member of society. (And I am fairly proud of pulling this off despite dealing with chronic pain from a badly deteriorated spine — I’ve had four operations on my low back, and my neck is in bad shape, too. Monday, I’m getting a ketamine infusion for headaches.) And it’s hard. It’s really, really hard.

I am told that “neurotypicals” — a term for people without autism — have something called “instincts.” Apparently, they have strong natural inclinations about social situations, about what they mean, and how to react and behave in them. When they’re told to “act naturally,” this statement apparently make sense.

For autistics, there is no acting naturally, because we just don’t have instincts when it comes to reading and acting in social situations. We are constantly trying to brute force our way through by reasoning out what makes sense. It is enormously burdensome process, exhausting and draining. I have to think about almost everything that is said to me, and how I should respond to it.

This lack of instincts can be profoundly disorienting and confusing. We can’t tell when a bad social interaction is our fault, as opposed to someone flying completely off the handle. I am forced to question, at times, whether I am a terrible person, because I simply don’t have the instincts to judge for myself whether someone else is behaving appropriately. This kind of brutal self-examination is blistering and painful.

I carry a lot of guilt and shame for social interactions that have not gone well in my life. It haunts me that I will really never know where I have gone wrong, and what is someone else’s fault. I’m forced to constantly question my own behavior, because I know my own social skills are not the best, and I just don’t know if other people’s behavior towards me is appropriate.

When I talk to my friends about wayward social interactions, I’m often seeking to find out what they think of my behavior. Often, I need an external gauge to help me make sense of the situation and get my head around my responsibility for the situation. I’m trying to improve and be a better person, and part of that is understanding what I’ve done and accepting responsibility for what I’m responsible for. But sometimes I just need a little help figuring out what that is, because I can’t read the social dynamics at work.

In closing, thank you to my friends who’ve been helpful and supportive. Thank you to everyone who read this. I hope that this shed some light on what it’s like to live with autism and, at the same time, try to be a functional, responsible adult.

Mark