Posted by: E (The Third Glance) | October 12, 2012

Whoops – “Introductions” social (script) failure – autism in academia

I’m working a couple of more in depth pieces (including what will be my “100th post”), but I thought I’d share a little interaction I had yesterday, that is a great example of how my social scripts can get me in trouble.

Earlier in the day, I’d been introducing people to each other. I’m working with an undergrad this quarter on an independent study project, and was introducing him to some of my collaborators. Lots of introductions. So my brain was in “intro mode”. Then about 20 minutes later, I had to hobble over to another building for our weekly seminar. I ran into my advisor on the way there, and we had a brief chat about my morning’s activities, while heading to the room and sitting down. Then a friend of mine came in and sat down behind me. I wasn’t really thinking and asked if they knew each other. Now this would be fine in most situations – rude to say hello to someone when already conversing with another person, and not ensure they know each other.

But I’d forgotten that my friend had, in fact, worked in my lab for a few months before we both became grad students. Of course my advisor knew her. But because my brain was on full-on “introduction” mode, and I hadn’t been really paying attention to the things outside my conversation with my advisor, I made a rather silly social error. Of course, when they both laughed and pointed out to me that I did, in fact, know about their prior connection, I felt like a total idiot – part of the reason I’m friends with this girl is because we had known each other prior to grad school officially starting. But the thing about my amazing advisor and friends, is that they totally understand me, and don’t mind when I make a social faux pas. Usually they don’t even bug me about it after. My advisor was really sweet and understanding about it when I made a comment about my error too. (“Oh. Right… I totally knew that, sorry” “It’s totally ok. You had other things on your mind, and we were just talking about introductions.” – My advisor just gets me like that sometimes.)

And then it clicked – exactly why I’d made the error: I’d been talking to my advisor about introducing the undergrad to various people that morning, then when my friend sat down, I was thinking about introductions. Of course, that’s what I would think to do: introduce! So my brain got stuck on a loop, and caused me to make the error. And it was ok. 🙂 Because I have great people in my life who don’t mind it when those errors happen, and who know I am not being condescending or rude or anything else. And that’s how it should be. When my brain short circuits, it’s nice to know that the important people in my life will help me un-short-circuit it, then leave it at that.

Moral of the story? I have the best advisor an autistic graduate student scientist could ask for. And some pretty cool friends too.


  1. I completely related to this! I’ve done the exact same thing, only I thought it was because of my advancing age!! I know, you’re rolling your eyes and muttering “Broader autism phenotype, anyone?” I know. But I had to tell you – I’ve done this so many times. So, so many times… 🙂

    • Haha yes… see, not just me! 🙂 But an entertaining story nonetheless. My advisor gets major points for recognizing the difficulty though…

  2. I have done similar things myself. Funny, but sometimes I have thought that my son inherited his autism from me, as I seem to have a few “autistic tendencies” myself. Social situations– esp. when I know I’ll have to make introductions– make me so nervous! I’d rather dig ditches than introduce a bunch of people to eachother. I have made many mistakes and said some ridiculous things while doing so. I find myself “rehearsing” introductions and trying to think up some appropriate “small talk” beforehand. E., I’m so glad you have nice, understanding friends (but then they have one of those too–they have you!).

    • 🙂 Thanks for the comment. Have you ever heard of the “Broader Autism Phenotype”? (Google it…)

  3. I have done some work with people with low literacy, who try to hide the fact they can’t read. They will be mortified if they try to push open a door that says “Pull To Open” on it, thinking that everyone sees it and knows they can’t read. But often, people who can read make the same mistake, because they aren’t paying attention, and laugh at themselves, or roll their eyes at themselves, and don’t give it another thought.
    I think the episode you describe may be something like that. NTs make stupid social errors all the time. No one expects perfection. I am sure no one gave it another thought. (Of course there are the people who jump on anyone who makes a mistake, but I think most people are not like that.)

    • Hmm. That does make sense… overcompensating to hide a deficit leads to panic when we think we’ve revealed it…

  4. This is something I can teach you as well. I have dealt with that constantly in an OT conference environment. If it’s a state conference, there will be about 1000 people or so. However, for a national conference, that will be 6000 people or even more. Inevitably in these spaces, I will face the situation you describe often when I walk around the conference space- whether I am by myself or walk along with some friends.

    Since I would be constantly looking around the environment when I am walking (for either looking for directions or checking out what is around me) on top of being aware of time (since the schedule can be pretty tight), I also anticipate who I might see at the conference. Like you with packing, I am also thinking of what I might say in these situations. How much time I have and knowing what I am doing generally at that time will basically give me the clues on what I might say in these environments. Then, I prepare a few questions and go from there. If people in a hurry, I will just leave them alone afterwards. If they want to join me for the thing I am doing, I will continue to walk with them. Meanwhile, I use the scanning motion of noticing what’s around me to continue to try to spot other people I (and/or the people I am with) might know, too. Depending on the circumstance, I then think of the social script related to that potential social situation as well.

    It sounds very complicated, I know. But, it is something I have learned how to do because I know the odds of seeing someone I want to see in the conference space maybe is slim (as I see a lot of these people once a year, or even less!)

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