A World of Expectation
Every adult learns to live with expectation. Work, relationships, family all come with unspoken codes of behavior that strongly shape the rhythm of daily life. Knowing what our partner needs without being told is an important part of a loving relationship. Our jobs are full of emotional undertones and office politics that are vital to the success of the business and your career. Whether you are dropping your kid off at school or greeting neighbors after church, everyday life if filled with social pressures to conform and act out a certain set of roles.
Or at least that’s how I would put it. As an adult on the spectrum, I don’t have access to these unspoken codes of behavior. When I was younger, I would struggle against these codes and try to talk with relatives and close friends about how dangerous and unreflective these expectations are. I would spend long hours pointing out that one of the main tasks of psychotherapy and relationship counseling is to overcome this kind of unconsidered behavior. I would harp on the socially destructive nature of group-think and the circulation of clichés embedded in social conformity.
It’s a quality of youthful rebellion to engage with these kinds of problems, but it is a quality of autism not to understand why NTs might want, and even need expectations to guide their social interactions. At 35, I’ve come to accept – still without understanding – the need for what I call the subterranean fantasy world of the Neuro-Typical perspective. Compared to social norms, my fantasy world is impoverished, something I’m especially conscious of when I play with my four-year old. When I interrupt a game that begins, “I’m a penguin and you’re a rhino,” to ask her if rhinos and penguins live on the same continent, she justifiably acts out a frustration with my literalness that I get in a more mediated form in my adult life. Why not just go along?
I love fantasy, and I often admire it in others. For many years, I studied literature, which is all about fantasy and the subtle worlds that operate at the edges of our literal use of language. Psychology teaches us that fantasy is an important way of filling in the gaps that reality all too often leaves in our understanding of why things happen and what it’s all about. I think that’s why fantasy is especially important when we are trying to read each other in a social context: there is so much going on that we can’t possibly follow it all. At that point, we are supposed to step in with our own ideas about how other people feel and what they want so that we can fill in all the blanks in the unfolding meaning underlying our time together.
Now imagine that you are missing this tool in your toolbox. The world would look like a series of partially filled in phrases waiting for you to complete them, although you have no idea what’s supposed to go into those slots. If you like logic, it’s like an irrational syllogism that everyone else knows how to complete, even though A and B don’t have any relationship to C.
The Infamous Cocktail Party
My favorite example for describing this kind of experience is the cocktail party (or just a party if you are younger), a social space that is so full of expectation that I often dread having to go. A party is a sort of game in which you practice anticipating the social dynamic and then elaborate on these undercurrents. This set of skills is highly rated in our society. Parties and similar informal gatherings are extremely important: many connections and reputations are made that define how other parts of life will go. Like my admiration for fantasy, I’ve often been impressed with people who can pick up on the chaotic flow of unarticulated thoughts and feelings to shape them in some direction. For someone on the spectrum, this kind of unruly chaos is unnerving; it’s hard to know which hints in the conversation to follow, or what a raised eyebrow means within the jumble of possible interpretations. Without a good deal of careful concentration, I find myself accidentally responding to an interaction across the room that has nothing to do with me. That need for concentration takes the fun play out of the party for me, even if I pass through without any gaffs.
The opposite of a party is a project. I love projects for two reasons: I can focus on something in a detail-oriented way, and I know what my role is supposed to be. In a party, you are not allowed to focus on something. We all know the socially awkward person who insists on talking about one thing the whole time, but for me the temptation is always there. From an AS perspective, flitting from one topic to another is a waste of time. If someone tells me they like copper jewelry or that they played soccer last Saturday, I want to hear all about it, and then talk about all the things that we can relate about these topics: Have you ever tried making jewelry? I played soccer in high school, and so on. A project allows you to focus on a topic and work on it consistently.
Many aspects of our society are project-oriented. College classes, a work-related assignment, a church mission all involve projecting in an AS friendly process of defining roles and carrying out a concentrated process of problem solving. But in our normative NT world, it is important to have unstructured time interspersed with work on projects: college parties, chatting around the watercooler at the office, greeting friends at Church, and much more. These breaks in the project stand out to me like a photonegative in which all the defining lines have been disorientingly reversed.
What Would the World Look Like Without Expectation?
Expectation and the fantasy world at play underneath the realization of our expectations are powerful factors in my life, and mostly not in a positive way. I’ve often wished I could convince everyone around me to learn to articulate what they want in clear terms, because I’ve become a very good listener in compensation for all the unspoken assumptions I miss. I have also noted over the years that unexpressed expectation is frequently a damaging factor in the lives of NTs as well, although I know my friends and family would never give up what they love about this rich imaginative world.
As an AS adult, my social map is different than an NT’s. For example, I’ve found friendship much more difficult to navigate than romantic relationships, mostly because in a relationship there is more space to articulate expectations and return to the scene of the hurt feelings when I do something oblivious. Likewise, the formal work environment has always been more comfortable than the informal social occasions around work. I love having a role in which the requirements are clearly laid out, and I get so much satisfaction from fulfilling those roles because I don’t typically have that experience in other parts of my life.
I would never wish for NTs to give up their fantasy world, but I have often had a daydream of my own, where young adults would be given classes or workshops focused on building skills for expressing their hopes, fears and desires in a way that others could understand. That way, we could chose to play the expectation game, and we could also have something clear and direct to fall back on when misinterpretation inevitably sets in – not just for people on the spectrum, but for us all.