Monday, September 3, 2007

Accommodation vs. Exposure

I came across a discussion on whether a sheltered, accommodating environment leads to failures of adaptability in people with disabilities or quirks, which is quite relevant to a conversation I had with my bf this evening.

See, last night, I'd taken him to a party involving people he didn't know well acting, at times, kind of rowdy. I wasn't expecting him to feel as out of place as he did. But he felt very out of place and withdrew a lot, and was willing to put up with the situation far longer than he was comfortable with. By the time he wasn't responding to my affection anymore, I knew it was time for him to go home, and alerted the hostess.

This afternoon, he had an enjoyable conversation with someone who was on the train with us - someone from socio-economic-educational-religious background similar to his own, who wasn't wild or crazy or rowdy or anything.

And tonight, over dinner, we talked about how he seems to have trouble dealing with people who are different from the kind of people he's used to with his narrow background.

My folks have assessed him as sheltered and spoiled, and think, like one of the commentators in the link above, that his sheltered life impaired his ability to adapt to people.

But I think that my bf's sheltered background actually might have been helpful to him socially.

Why? Well...I think being exposed to a relatively narrow range of "how people behave" gave him enough consistency and stability in social situations that he could figure out at least a little of what was going on, and learn at least a little about how to get along with people that, even if not as generalizable as it could be, is still better than nothing.

Whereas if he'd been exposed to a much more heterogeneous group of people, spanning a variety of classes and subcultures and religions, he might not have even gotten an idea of where to *start* getting along with people. He might have just given up hope on even figuring any of it out.

Given that my bf thinks in terms of binary inputs and outputs, he would have needed some kind of rule that would apply most of the time in order to have any success with making friends. With a homogeneous group (basically Conservative to relatively liberal Orthodox Jews with an upper middle class, highly educated background), any social rule he came up with or learned from his parents or others would have a better chance of applying across people and situations than in a heterogeneous group. The input and output modulation for heterogeneous groups may have had to be too refined from the get-go for my bf to have a chance to figure it out.

So yes, my bf finds it hard to adapt to people for whom the rules he learned for dealing with "his own kind" don't work (and even though I'm not from the same background as him, they happen to work well enough for me in general). But he's fortunate to have been able to learn any rules for dealing with people at all, rather than having just given up on it as a hopelessly chaotic mess, and that those rules in combination with the rest of his personality actually managed to land friends over the years.

I suppose it's possible that he could have adapted rather than given up if he grew up in a less sheltered background, but I don't think it's obvious that the sheltered background in itself hurt him, and it could have been just what the doctor ordered for a person of the so-called broader autistic phenotype. Build confidence and learn basics in an environment in which there is not too much variation and chaos so as to overwhelm and confuse the autistic-type. Then expand on those basics.

Maybe it wouldn't work for building a varied palate...but even in that case, throwing too many different kinds of foods at the person too quickly still might not be wise. They might instinctively cling to the first few foods anyway. Deprivation of comfort might just promote further defensive clinging to a narrow comfort zone.

Autistic-types might not be able to avoid sensory overwhelm ALL the time, but a comfort zone they can retreat to when they need it is probably a good thing. We don't usually take away neurotypical children's blankies or shock them or deprive them of candy we just waved in front of their faces when they suck their thumbs, do we? Some degree of comfort and chaos management is probably necessary. A semi-sheltered life, with some of the hard knocks that come with any life even if it is sheltered, might not be all that bad for an autistic-type.

No comments: