People often ask me how I manage to do things like lead seminars, or do stand-up comedy, given I have significant anxiety and Asperger’s. They often describe it as their ‘worst nightmare’, and can’t seem to reconcile it with my apprehension and avoidance of generic social situations. The only way I have been able to explain it is that my anxiety levels are pretty binary – they are low or they are high, and they are high most of the time. Due to the fact that talking to just a few people pushes me almost to my limit, it is not much of a jump to go that little bit further.
For non-anxious neurotypical individuals, there appears to be a gradation in the amount of anxiety produced by different types of speaking. They perceive a gap between talking to a group informally, such as at a gathering, and addressing them formally, like in a seminar. This is a gap which just doesn’t register on my radar – if there is another person involved then my anxiety is automatically at maximum.
Ok, I may be exaggerating slightly for dramatic effect, but it really does feel like that (I suspect this is part of my Alexithymia). Let’s think of it in terms of a graph of different activities against a scale of 0-10, where 0 is not anxious at all, and 10 is ‘about to run out of the room because it’s unbearable’ anxious. I represent myself here as AS, and non-anxious social creatures as NT (again another broad binary grouping for illustrative purposes).
If your normal everyday anxiety levels are 5 or below, with the occasional peak above 5 when asked to talk in front of a large group, then I can see why you might not understand. But if you know that I’m already at level 9 in most everyday social situations, and that it makes little difference what I am doing or who else is present, then my activities may make a bit more sense.
Discussion of this with my good friend S, made me realise that there are other issues at play here, for example perspective-taking. If I am performing in front of a group of people but I can’t ‘read’ their body language, or imagine what they are thinking, then I might be less self-conscious than a person with good theory of mind. I can’t feel the audience’s nerves and anticipation, so it doesn’t feed mine.
The other is that my anxiety is more around unpredictability than social contact per se. Giving a presentation, or doing stand-up, is a performance; it is safe because it is scripted. I can rehearse it and prepare until I am comfortable, then call upon it like any of my other social ‘scripts’ for given situations. It is also a one-sided conversation that I can concentrate on without having to think about what the other person is going to say or do.
Part of what makes me so anxious about spontaneous social interaction (for example at a party), is that I don’t know who will try to talk to me, what they will want to talk about or what I should say. When I was younger I used to try to practise how a conversation might go, acting out the various different permutations of what the other person might say, and what I could say back to still appear witty and interesting. It never worked. When I am ‘performing’, I am carrying out a prescribed activity where all parties know what is expected of them, there are specific rules and expectations governing the situation, and there is a definite finish point after which I can leave, no questions asked.
Weirdly, even when I am under great amounts of stress, people often tell me that I come across as calm and confident. This probably doesn’t help people to understand my anxiety levels (“she’s so confident, and she does stand-up, what does she mean she has anxiety?”). I put it down to not giving out exactly the right non-verbal cues – those who know me well, and others on the spectrum, can tell when I’m anxious. However, if on the whole it serves to make me come across as composed, knowledgeable and believable, I’ll just consider it a perk!