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The Social Battery

A vitally important concept, the social battery is a measure of how long a person on the spectrum can handle a social situation (outside of organised or structured interactions like business or sports.)

Aspies and AS people in general crave interaction and want to be social, but the rules of social interaction are unwritten, contextual, implied, inferred, and most frustratingly of all, changeable. Neurotypical people ‘get’ social rules and structures instinctively, and often can’t conceive of this not being the case. Those on the spectrum have a very different experience. Our minds are often very literal, and the contextual meanings in fluid social dynamics are most definitely NOT literal. 

Example: A child may be secure in their parent’s love for them until they observe their parents telling some friends ‘I love you’, and then speaking ill of them after the fact. As adults, we realise this duplicity is almost a necessary evil in our social politics, but to the AS child, the faith of being loved has now been shattered; love must be re-earned, and can be taken away at any moment without notice.

As a result, our attempts to fit in are often copied and learned behaviours, mimicked without any real understanding of context. This leads to labels of social awkwardness, quirkiness, and often, weirdness. Throw in sarcasm, irony and back-handed humour, and typical interactions become mine-fields for an aspie. Social anxiety is the inevitable result. We get that we said or did something that was out of the social context, but we are often clueless to understand why. The ‘why’ is part of the instinctively acquired social understandings mostly foreign to those on the spectrum.

The aspie mind often can not isolate or filter noises, sights, smells, or sounds. In social situations, the aspie mind tracks as much as their senses can offer; a learned or conditioned sub-conscious or even conscious behaviour to not miss any cues that may offer context. This is a behaviour born of many previous moments of embarrassment and isolation. Tracking so much data and remaining attentive to the conversations of immediate import, the AS mind is working far harder than a neurotypical mind in the same situation. This leads to exhaustion. This is also why aspies are famous for having a maximum number of people around whom they can be comfortable, often limited to 2-4 visitors at any time. The greater the number, the greater the amount of data and variables requiring tracking.

This is the basis of the ‘Social Battery’ concept. 

The social battery, once run down, requires quiet, often solitude, to recharge. Some just need a good sleep, while others may need a few days to recover from a social engagement. How big each person’s social battery is remains unique to them and their manifestation of the spectrum of differences marking autism.

Example: When invited to a birthday party two hours away from home, we [my partner and I] happily travelled that distance to be with friends I love dearly and wanting to introduce my lady to some I hadn’t seen in quite a while. At about the two and a half hour mark of the party, I reached my capacity, finding what was absolute enjoyment and engagement in the previous moment was now anxiety driven endurance of the very same situation. My friends, thankfully, accept my need for withdrawal and know it is nothing personal at any stage. After driving another two hours home, my [aspie] partner and I were very glad we’d gone, and celebrated those we’d talked to, but we had both reached that point where staying longer would have been staying for the sake of others and at the expense of our own mental wellbeing.

An important point, work and organised activities with structure are not the same as a free-wheeling social engagement. In my younger days, I did a little DJ’ing for some rather well attended events, and organising and running of many more, and in that context of hierarchical structure, my AS mind was easily able to stay in the role of organiser, outside and separate to the social currents of the event. It’s when we need to get into those currents we find our social battery running down. Sports events are similar. I play/ed team sports, lectured, and was the ‘social director’ of my circle of friends for many years. In each of these roles, there is room to retreat from the constant bombardment of data; something not available in a purely social context.

For those on the spectrum; please be brave and describe this concept to your friends. Offer them this page to read, if this works for you. Tell your friends to please keep inviting you, and to not take your refusals as disinterest on your part. Explain to them these concepts, in your own words, if you can. I often decline an invitation to a larger social event, offering instead to catch up as a small group a week or two later, something I enjoy far more than larger social gatherings.

For friends of those on the spectrum: please understand that your AS friend is probably fiercely loyal and wants to celebrate life with you, but finds social engagements of more than a few people to be very tiring, taxing, and stressful. When your AS friends come to an event, please allow them to slip quietly from the event without fuss when they’ve reached their point of social exhaustion; it has nothing to do with you or your friendship, but everything to do with how the AS mind perceives and processes data.