To successfully answer this question, you must first understand that autism is a spectrum; no two autistic people are the same, in the same way that we will not find two neurotypical people with the same characteristics. There are extremely chaotic and messy autistic people (despite the generalized stereotype of the autistic perfectionist and with a lot of attention to detail), and there are other autistic people who prefer to have everything perfectly organized in order to be more calm in their day-to-day life.
And this example works like this in many other areas or facets of life: in the need for anticipation, in cognitive rigidity, in emotional regulation, in conflict resolution… and, of course, in social skills and in the need to socialize with other individuals. Yes, it is true that all autistic people, to a greater or lesser extent, diverge from the norm, but we all do it in very different ways; some have serious problems holding a conversation in a group, and others perhaps talk “too much”, if we pay attention to what the ableist norms of this society dictate (autistic people who are too direct, or those who talk for a long time about a specific topic of interest). Why, then, are autistic people often thought to be very withdrawn and prefer solitude to company? Is it just a myth, or is there a real explanation behind this statement?
Social skills and communication problems
The problem of socialization for the autistic community dates back to childhood. I don’t know of any autistic person who, in fact, claims to have felt comfortable, listened to and included when they were little (and especially in adolescence, when the need to have a united and cohesive group is more important). Why does this happen, if we have already stated that there are autistic people who are very sociable and eager to have a group of friends? The answer has to do with a different way of processing information (external stimuli, the gestures of others, background noise, group conversations), and, consequently, in a different way of communicating and establishing links with the others.
It is very common to find autistic people who, from childhood, feel misunderstood, “out of place”. And it is very easy to understand why, if we pay attention to our hypersensitivity (or sometimes hyposensitivity) to external stimuli. Eye contact often overwhelms us (we may notice a drop of sweat on your forehead, or try to decipher facial expressions, and lose the thread of the conversation), improvisation is difficult (when is my turn to speak? What should I say in this situation?), small talk bores us and seems terribly uncomfortable (why do people constantly talk about the weather, or about things that don’t genuinely interest them?), and simultaneous conversations are a conflict for us when it comes to discriminating who we have to listen to, what is the relevant information or how to answer two or three people at the same time. Obviously all these examples are generalizations (we have already said that no two autistic people are the same), but we do all have challenges in the field of communication, and this is something that we already perceive from a very young age.
In childhood, we are not very aware of these differences, but, unconsciously, we begin to imitate others, to copy gestures and attitudes that we see rewarded (by teachers, for example), to go out to the playground even if we don’t feel like it because everyone does it and, ultimately, to adapt to an environment that seems hostile to us, although we do not know why. In this process (called masking or camouflage) our identity is blurred to the detriment of the dominant behavior, which is that of the rest of the group. And this also happens in sociable autistic people who, due to a different way of understanding the world and communicating, do not end up finding a positive response from their environment.
In the end, many of us enter adolescence with damaged self-esteem, with a trace of bullying behind us (sometimes subtle, sometimes much more explicit), hating our sensitivity or our hyperfocus or our stereotypes (because they keep us from being one more within the group, which is what, on many occasions, we wish with all our strength), and without knowing who we are or if it is legitimate and valid to preserve our particularities in a world that does not understand or accept them properly.
Diagnosis and/or self-knowledge
If the diagnosis arrives in childhood, it is much easier for autistic children to have the appropriate support and adaptations to manage themselves better in society, although, despite this, they will continue to encounter challenges and difficulties in communicating with others. It is likely that, due to this early diagnosis, cases of abuse by others can be detected earlier, and that the boy or girl receives optimal support in their process of understanding others without forgetting, and this is very important, of its own peculiarities, its talents and the characteristics that make it unique and special.
On the other hand, if autistic people do not receive this love and care from childhood (that is, if nobody reminds us that being autistic is okay, that there is nothing wrong with it), it is much more likely that, instead of valuing our own characteristics as something positive, we try to repress them, deny them, or even destroy them, and all this with the purpose of fitting into a group and appearing as neurotypical as possible. This is when, in many cases, the concurrent conditions in autism appear: anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, etc. We must understand that many of these problems are not inherent to autism, but rather are caused by a capable society that does not accept difference and that condemns us to ostracism much more than we would like.
With the diagnosis and/or self-knowledge of ourselves, we can begin to demand changes. It is no longer us who are broken or defective, but simply have a different way of encoding external stimuli and therefore reacting to them. But we have the same right to inhabit the world as neurotypicals. It is at this point that we begin to feel empowered to set limits, ask for accommodations (in, for example, our workplace) and explain to others how we feel or why we react in certain ways. Learning to love ourselves again is sometimes a very difficult process, but we all deserve to feel that peace of mind in our daily lives.
Are there social autistics? Yes, there are a lot
We now return to the question we started with: why does the myth of the withdrawn autistic person exist, if in reality there are many extremely sociable autistic people? In large part, this is due to these particularities in the way we communicate, which hinder our goal: to create strong and lasting bonds with others, as any other neurotypical wishes. Both the solitary autistic person and the sociable autistic person almost always find themselves, throughout their lives, with laughter and derogatory comments, with professional negligence (teachers, doctors or psychologists who treat us with condescension or skepticism, especially people perceived as women during the socialization process), with constant disqualifications towards us (many times we are too “clumsy”, or we focus too much on our topics of interest, or we are excessively rigid in our routines, always from the point of neurotypical view), or with gaslighting (they stop talking to us, they consciously isolate us from groups) and bullying or mobbing at work because of our differences.
What is the real problem, then? The treatment we receive from society. It would even be understandable that the most sociable autistic person in the world would voluntarily give up relating to others if several of the situations mentioned above converged in him. As can be inferred from this, autistic people can be extremely sociable and insistently try to forge bonds with a group of friends, but the constant failures in this objective can lead to frustration and a feeling of uselessness that will make it difficult, even more, his process of fitting into the world.
But the sociable autistic is still there, the desire to socialize is part of his identity, he just needs a little help; neurotypicals also have to build bridges, bring their hand closer to ours, ask us if this bar we have chosen to spend the afternoon is too noisy for us, treat us with kindness when we express things that embarrass us, respect our routines, explicitly explain jokes that we do not understand because of our literalness, giving us space to speak without interruptions, understanding that we do not need eye contact (sometimes it is even violent for us) to listen carefully, and, in short, asking ourselves what we need to feel comfortable. This is the treatment that we should receive in all areas of our lives in order to enhance that sociable side that many of us carry inside.