This is an article about acceptance. A fitting topic as we enter the ever-evolving Autism Awareness, Acceptance, and Appreciation month of April. We have moved beyond awareness to discussions of accepting the neurodiversity the autism spectrum offers and making room in our world for all the possible ways of being. Which brings me to my question….how big is your social gas tank?
What Am I Talking About?
Imagine that everyone has a “social gas tank” full of fuel to be used during social interactions. Just like with cars, gas tanks vary in size and in how fast the available fuel is used. There are some people with enormous social gas tanks and others with smaller ones. There are some people whose social fuel provides great social mileage, so to speak, and others whose fuel is expended quickly down to empty resulting in social encounters that are brief. Some people refuel their social gas tank while they are socializing (like a hybrid engine), while others need varying amounts of alone time in order to refuel.
And this applies to autistic people as well. They have social gas tanks filled with social fuel, but the way they use their fuel, how long the social fuel lasts and how long it may take to refuel might look a little different from what we might expect. Certainly some autistic people can use their social fuel in fairly typical social situations like hanging out with friends or attending events. But others may find they use their social fuel more efficiently if they are around other people but not necessarily interacting with them. That might look like being in the same room as others, but doing a solo activity while the others are engaging with each other. Others may find they get better social mileage by interacting with people online, rather than in person. And still others may find that their social fuel is used up quickly and they need to remove themselves entirely from the demands of social interactions or they can only handle in-person social interactions now and then, instead of daily.
How Does One Refuel Their Social Gas Tank?
For me, I refuel my social gas tank by finding time to do the things I personally enjoy (a few online games, taking a walk and listening to a podcast, for instance). Refueling the social gas tank for those with autism can look the same but may take more time. For some diagnosed with autism, when the social fuel is gone, they are also out of fuel for everything else (I am looking at you, homework!). For others, time doing a preferred activity for a set amount of time is needed before social and other demands can occur. Maybe it is a few minutes or hours, but it could also be days. It depends on the person.
How Does This Impact Supporting and Accepting Autistic Children and Adults?
Understanding how this applies to the people you love and support who are on the autism spectrum is important. Here are some tips for supporting and accepting who they are, rather than trying to change the people we care about:
- School is an extreme social enterprise. A school day is seven hours long and our kids are amongst peers and adults for the entire day. We must consider how this impacts their behaviors, as well as their bandwidth to comply with the demands of school. When my son was in school, we always planned for quiet, down time throughout his school day to do preferred activities (drawing or reading books) so he could refuel his social gas tank, and his general energy, to meet requirements. Consider providing breaks in the day to allow the social gas tank to refuel. Consider too whether that student has the general emotional and mental capacity after the school day is over, in addition to social fuel, to continue to do more work at home.
- Have realistic expectations for planned social activities like family gatherings. Do not force someone with autism to socialize beyond their limits. If they are showing signs that their social gas tank is empty (signs of distress or disengagement), then respect those signs and direct them to something that allows them to refuel. Come prepared with items that allow for refueling. This can be preferred snacks, a stuffed animal, hand-held tech device, or just being able to leave the room to go somewhere quieter and less socially demanding. Someone asked me recently whether it made me mad that my son was on his phone at the dinner table while we were in a restaurant. I said I was not mad because the sensory demands (sound, smells, visual stimulation) were taxing for him and limited his social ability and fuel in that setting. His phone was allowing him to be present, and that was good enough for me and was okay for him.
- Prepare them for what is going to happen during a social activity using a visual schedule or social narrative. Knowing what will happen in an upcoming social situation, especially a novel one, can lower anxiety and extend social fuel consumption.
- Remember that social fuel efficiency will increase when one is doing something they enjoy, so support individuals with autism by finding outlets for their interests. This can look like sporting or arts groups, community clubs (found in schools and through local libraries, gaming stores, bookstores, etc), and more. Your local Autism Resource Specialist may have suggestions for your area.
What Does This Look Like in Real Life?
There was a day when my son was eight, that in noticing him sitting alone reading half-a-dozen books simultaneously, I had a pang of sadness that he was not out in the neighborhood with his sister and other kids playing. I asked him if he wanted me to help arrange time for him to play with a few other kids. He thought about my question, and then responded, “Mom, I’m a solitary kinda guy!” And that was the moment that I stopped trying to change him. This did not mean that we stopped teaching him social skills, because when he did want to socialize, he would need them. But it was then that I realized he was happy doing what he was doing. And what I want for him more than anything is to be happy; not for him to be like all the other kids.
Today, as an adult, he enjoys going to activities with other adults. If it is something he is keenly interested in, he is actively social with those he is with. Other times, he may attend an activity and spend the majority of the time on the fringe, pacing and flapping and in his own thoughts. But he is happy. He also has an active online social life, involved in numerous virtual forums, and playing Dungeons and Dragons online. He goes to work at a local grocery store during less busy hours so he can focus on his job. And he spends lots of time alone enjoying videos of cats, owls, Pokémon, and listening to music, writing, drawing and refueling his social gas tank. I have learned to accept that this is who he is and what he needs to do to be happy. I don’t get it right 100% of the time, but this is something I try to be mindful all the time.
The social gas tank concept helps us understand one facet of those with autism. Acceptance and inclusion of autistic children and adults into our families and communities requires us to respect how this applies to any given individual. Accommodating their needs in this area rather than trying to change them to be someone else is what acceptance is all about.
Nancy Popkin is an Autism Resource Specialist in the Charlotte region. Autism Resource Specialists are available to help individuals and families in every county of North Carolina. To be connected to the Autism Resource Specialist near you, please fill out this form.
Tags: autism, autism acceptance, autism advocacy, autism anxiety, autism asperger parenting tips, autism awareness, autism behavior, autism communication, autism resources, autism social skills, Autism Society of North Carolina, Autism spectrum