Birthdays can be a difficult time for people with aspergers. Both our own birthdays, as well as the birthdays of other people pose challenges, most of which are tied in with our difficulty in understanding neurotypical social nuances, but which also come from the neurotypical perception of our own behaviours.
Because autistic brains have difficulty picking up on social cues, it can be difficult for aspies to decode the hints you drop about what presents you want, even more so because we can find it difficult to put ourselves into the perspective of other people, especially neurotypical people. The message here then is that it’s generally best to be upfront with an aspie if you expect to receive a present from them – it makes our lives easier, and you’re more likely to receive a present which you actually want!
When I was younger, birthdays were a bit of an awkward time. As a child, I was actually quite popular, as it happened, (despite being a massive introvert I tended to ‘accidentally’ make friends without meaning to) so I inevitably got invited to a lot of birthday parties. Now, I wanted to go to those parties. I definitely liked the idea of parties, and I loved getting dressed up (fancy outfits were exciting, so long as they weren’t too itchy). However, inevitably, when we arrived at the party, I would withdraw into myself. I would stay on the edge of the room, hanging on to my mum’s hand, not interacting with the other children. I wanted to watch, but I didn’t want to participate – the only times I would get involved was if the activity didn’t involve talking to other people. This was prior to my ASD diagnosis, and my parents were stumped, and would always apologise for my behaviour. They didn’t know why I acted the way I did – they knew I wasn’t that shy. Yet, to every neurotypical at the party, it looked like I had an awful time. But consistently, in my own mind, I’d had a great time. I’d be buzzing after the party, and talk about it a lot.
In addition, for me, both receiving and giving presents used to be particularly awkward. When on people’s birthdays we would all gather round and hand over presents, and I would be the one who didn’t really engage in the celebration. My mum happened to talk to an autistic adult who explained that he found not only receiving but also giving presents very awkward and my mum could directly relate this to what she observed in my behaviour. Following this, she directly asked me how I felt, and I was able to explain to her how I felt awkward because I didn’t know what to do in those social situations. And so from then on, we had a routine where, on special occasions, for example her birthday, I can hand over her present, give her a hug, and stay for as long as I am comfortable, but then I can leave freely and nobody takes offence at this.
At my own parties, I would always accept presents, but I often seemed rather ungrateful; I wouldn’t really say ‘thank you’ unless prompted, and I often wouldn’t even appear excited about the gifts I received, even if they were exactly what I had been asking for. A memorable incident which my Mum recalls was when five-year-old me received a gift I had always wanted (a Fifi and the Flowertots playhouse), and I replied – ‘I always wanted that,’ in the most deadpan voice imaginable.
Looking back, it’s easy to see why people thought I was ungrateful, or rude. On the surface, that’s what my reactions seem to show. However, these reactions were actually related to my aspergers – my ASD and subsequent lack of innate social skills meant that I didn’t express my happiness in the (neuro)typical way – so, even when I got exactly what I wanted, I didn’t know how to express my excitement in a neurotypical fashion to show my gratitude.
So what’s the solution? Well, as much as aspies can be taught acceptable social skills to better communicate with neurotypicals, I think the reality is that the problem is not with us, but with a very human bias that all of us have in some form or another. We have a habit of interpreting other people’s behaviour through the lens of our own biases.
When talking specifically about ASD, it all comes down to a key idea: neurotypicals need to recognise that because our brains are wired differently, our reactions sometimes differ from the neurotypical norm.
Let’s try a potentially useful analogy – the distinction between cats and dogs. They’re different animals, right? Thus they have distinct brains and behaviours. So far so obvious. Now, in slightly oversimplified terms, when a dog wags its tail, that means it’s happy. But when a cat wags its tail, that can be a sign of aggression. It’s the same reaction on the surface, the act of wagging one’s tail, but it means completely different things because cats and dogs, obviously, have different brains.
So, how does this apply to aspies and neurotypicals? Aspies may not express their gratitude or excitement in the same way that neurotypicals do. An action that, when done by a neurotypical, expresses rudeness or ingratitude, when done by an aspie, can mean the complete opposite. The important thing is to avoid imposing our own perceptions about what certain things mean onto the actions of other people who have different neurotypes to us. If a cat is wagging its tail, don’t assume it’s happy just because you’ve seen a dog wag its tail when it was happy. In a similar way, recognise that autistic brains are different to neurotypical brains, and that we have different responses.
It’s also important to recognise that (as long as the behaviour in question is not harmful) neither set of behaviour, neurotypical or autistic, is inherently better or worse than the other: we have to treat these different behaviours for what they are – that is, expressions of our different neurotypes. You wouldn’t say a cat’s expression of happiness (i.e. purring) is better than a dog’s expression of happiness (i.e. wagging its tail), nor would you expect a dog to purr just because that’s what cats do and therefore it’s ‘the right way’. No, instead you recognise that they are just different modes of expression. So we shouldn’t expect autistics to automatically conform to neurotypical standards of self-expression, or assume that just because a neurotypical majority behaves one way that it’s the ‘correct’ way, and everything that differs from that is wrong.
Going to parties, for example, can be highly stressful for aspies, because of the overstimulation they can cause. Some aspies tend to dislike surprise parties for themselves too – we need warning of these in advance in order to mentally prepare, and springing it on us, as is the nature of surprise parties, can cause a lot of overstimulation. This can often be difficult for neurotypicals to grasp, but it comes back to the idea of acknowledging our different neurotypes. As much as you, as a neurotypical, might enjoy surprise parties, you shouldn’t assume that an aspie will – our brains are wired differently.