The Atypical Introvert?

[Edit: since writing this post, I have come to the realisation that I was wrong in my assessment of myself as an “extrovert”, having misunderstood the definitions. However, I leave this post here as is – I’m still going through the process of learning about who I am, post-formal diagnosis, and this was me back then.]

I’m something of an all-or-nothing Twitter user. I’ve had a public account since around 2009, predominantly used for whatever line of work I happen to be in. My Twitter activity is sporadic: if there’s a CPD event, awards ceremony, conference or marketing campaign going on, I’m there, tweeting everything, drumming up support, provoking discussion, sharing learning. The rest of the time? The odd tweet about gin, tea, the temperature of the office, equality and diversity, and very little else.

In my recently-embraced autistic guise, I have another, anonymous account (although if you know me, it probably isn’t that hard to identify me). And the one thing I’ve noticed is that, Boy, there’s a high volume of autistic tweetage going on. I find myself metaphorically tripping over the sheer abundance of scattered-yet-interwoven, to-ing and fro-ing, quick-firing autistic exchanges. And fascinating and engaging they most certainly are. And there are some bloody wonderful autistic people involved. People to whom I feel connected.

Recently, a user posted something. I can’t remember the exact wording of the tweet, but it was something along the lines of “extreme introversion = high functioning autism”. A fair few folks, I seem to remember, liked and retweeted this assertion. I, however, had real problems with it. I didn’t say anything at the time, but it did get me back to something I’ve often mused upon. Am I an introvert or an extrovert?

A few years ago, a colleague and friend leant me Quiet, by Susan Cain. What an absolutely fascinating read. There was so much in there that I felt I could relate to. Sensitivity to environmental stimuli? Check. Preferring a Friday night in with a glass of wine and a book or DVD? Check. Exhaustion from social interaction? Check. Needing time on my own? Check.

That’s it, I thought. However much I appear to be otherwise, I am evidently an introvert.

Except I’m not.

I have always been talkative. Itching to put my hand up in class. Never afraid to voice my opinion. Keen to point out the error of others’ ways (my way is logical. Why would they take that approach? Seriously!) – although in more recent times I’ve dropped that particular gem in favour of wincing, cringing, quivering, or making squealy noises, or – on very rare occasions when I’m not too tired – tactfully suggesting that they might want to look at an alternative.

An over-sharer of personal information. Always eager to join (butt?) in with a conversation. Almost incapable of embarrassment (in certain situations, that is. More of that later). Bossy, at times (I hate the word “bossy”. It’s grossly overused in relation to girls and women. But that particular rant is for another day). Always the leader in group work at university. Happy to facilitate a discussion. At times, it’s difficult to shut me up. Interrupt me and I’m occasionally furious.

This all puzzled me. What, then, was I? Was I some kind of ‘atypical introvert’ masquerading as an extrovert? Certainly, many of the things introverts apparently feel were things that I, too, feel. But nope. It didn’t. Quite. Fit.

You see, I had the feeling I was pretending. Putting on an act. And this feeling was well-founded.

I loved drama as a child – I loved performing, putting on voices and accents, assuming another persona. In my recent professional life, I have done a lot of teaching, training delivery, and public speaking. And, if I do say so myself, I’m pretty bloody good at it. The observations I underwent for my teaching qualification got glowing feedback. Presentations I give at conferences and other external events are often tweeted about, and often result in a flurry of interested ‘after show’ questions from other delegates. But I was absolutely bloody awful at all this a few years ago. Stammering, stuttering, uncertain; freezing at the slight hint of an interruption or distraction. I decided to ‘pretend’ – both to myself, and others – that I was confident and knew what I was talking about. Over time, with practice, that pretend aspect of my professional self became real. I became knowledgeable about my material, and I continue to add to this knowledge and experience. I grew confident in my delivery. I experimented with new techniques and realised I could comfortably vary my approach, and making things more interesting. Last year, I co-delivered a workshop to nearly 1,000 undergrad students, and I wasn’t remotely fazed. I genuinely enjoy doing this stuff these days. I’m in my element, because, these days, I’m the expert – these days, I know my stuff, I’m well-prepared; and any questions thrown at me are likely to follow particular patterns that I can deal with without bursting into tears or freezing on the spot.

So I had the feeling I was pretending, and indeed, this really was something I was doing. But my interpretation of the origins, the motivations, and the directions, of that pretence were somewhat off.

Truth was, I’d been doing a lot more pretending than even I realised. I wasn’t merely an introvert pretending to be an extrovert. I realised that, actually, I am an extrovert. Just not a neurotypical one.

I was never completely content with being on my own at all times. Sure, there were times when this was absolutely the right thing. But in general, I liked having friends. I wanted friends. I was weird, and didn’t really feel an affinity with the popular kids, but I wasn’t shy or keen to remain quiet.

As a kid, I preferred the type of social activity that involved doing something. Girl Guides; bell ringing; a brief spell in a Christian youth group before I turned forever atheist. Playing music in groups was perfect, because it allowed for that communality, interaction, and sense of shared purpose, without me having to bother with a whole load of social niceties. Later, however,  I wanted to go out. With people. To pubs, clubs, gigs, festivals, and all the sorts of thing young, gregarious, sociable people like doing lots of. I drank alcohol. A lot. I laughed, shouted, talked nineteen-to-the-dozen, danced, snogged boys, fell over…and at times (many times), I made an enormous, great fucking fool of myself.

But the truth was, I never had the desire to stay on the edge. Socially, however much of an outsider I was, I wanted to be in on the action. Fear of missing out? Oh yes. In spades, my friend. And so I observed what others did. How they dressed. What they said. The things they talked about. And I learned to act like them. And yet I often got it wrong.

I would misinterpret friendliness for flirting, and vice versa. And boys and men would do the same to me. I would cringe at how unsuccessfully I’d played the role of indie-pop vinyl junkie, hardcore punk, or jazz aficionado. I would wonder whether my mask had slipped.  I would come home after a night out desperately wishing I hadn’t revealed my innermost secrets to a handful of recent acquaintances. Dissecting and post-match-analysing those times when I’d droned on, and on, and on, and nobody had stopped me, and yet somehow the conversation had drifted away from me.

And yet, it never put me off going out. I never got any sense of ‘pre-going-out’ social anxiety. Of course, I’d rehearse conversations in my head on the walk into town or the drive over to a friend’s house. I’d run through the logistics and practicalities of the night out. And all the while the social occasion was happening, I’d have that endless, meta-analytical inner voice analysing and commenting upon everything that was panning out in front of me, telling me what was going on,  (sometimes wrongly) categorising the nature of the interaction, instructing me as to how to react or respond. That voice that I still hear today.

Exhaustion from social interaction came along more as I get older. My life got busier, and more intellectually demanding. I had less downtime. In some ways, I guess I grew up (in circumstances, if not in personality). There was simply less room in my life for socialising, and less downtime meant I got tired more easily. And that’s where I’m at today.

But I’m still talkative. I still enjoy social interaction. It has to be planned – I get horribly flustered by unexpected, spontaneous socialising. It interrupts my vision of how I saw my day panning out, however much I like the other person. I resent it. And however much that type of interaction might be enjoyable, pleasant, I’m still trying to get away, to get back on track with my original plans. And I’m far better at talking than I am at listening. Listening was, is, and always will be, something I find difficult. But as long as I have some some control, I love a good chat.

Because I’m not an introvert. I’m an autistic extrovert.

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