At risk of gaslighting myself — very popular contemporary terminology — I am prepared to concede in my mid-forties that I may have completely misread and misunderstood events that occurred all around me in my youth. This concession is, of course, the result of hours spent reading research papers investigating different aspects of the impact of a chromosome disorder that I am wholly unqualified to interpret. But such is the quest for understanding.
Longtime followers of my blog will know that I have written about the gaze for years. Why? Because in a Muslim context we are taught to lower the gaze. But also because both my gaze and gaze-avoidance have long troubled me — or caused trouble for me. Sometimes it would be interpreted by others as a leering or lustful gaze. I would then often try to compensate by averting my gaze, which would invariably be interpreted as arrogance, hatred or prejudice. As for my own interpretation of the gaze of others: I would have to conclude that this too was often problematic.
So to research literature concerning this disorder, and I am now found reviewing everything I can find about the social gaze, social functioning, social attention, social avoidance, social communication and social cognitive impairments. The early inferences I draw from the research — again, based on my wholly unqualified analysis — is that the difficulties I have encountered throughout my life in relation to the gaze may indeed have been directly linked to this condition.
Based on these initial explorations, I am prepared to concede that many of the difficult social situations I once found myself in were my fault — not in a deliberate or malicious way, but as a result of the psychosocial impairments linked to this condition. If I look back to events at college or university which long troubled me, I would now recognise that my initial behaviour was likely the source of all that followed.
Or maybe that is just too simplistic, as if to suggest there was a simple binary in interactions. In reality, there were multiple factors at play. There was my unwanted and unwelcome gaze. But there were also cultural expectations, racism and prejudice. There was my passivity and emotional immaturity. But there was also body-image bullying. There was anxiety and depression. But there were also the words uttered by a friend on my behalf. In short, a huge multifaceted mess.
At the time, I didn’t understand why people were openly hostile towards me. It wasn’t that I believed they had to be nice to me; they could take a disliking to me if they wanted to. But I was perturbed that others felt bold enough to confront me so brazenly, attacking me in public, loudly and without shame. They would say plainly to the few friends I still had, “We know he’s your mate, but we don’t like him.” Later, they would directly intervene the moment I spoke with someone new. “Don’t sit with that guy,” they would tell them, giggling inanely.
There were some explanations I could not control. I could not control what had been said by a friend, which I can only conclude were notions I would never myself have countenanced. I could not change that I was a nerd, with an atypical body shape, extremely thin and gaunt. I could not change that I was wandering amongst people who at that time were fixated with the concept of honour. I could not change how others chose to interpret my actions, judging even the smallest act of kindness corrupt and insincere.
But still there was the gaze — my own and that of others, misinterpreted and misunderstood. First, my own, truly unwelcome, at first misconstrued, as others had to contend with nerd-face glancing at them all the time — a habit they found extremely annoying. But perhaps it was even more annoying because my gaze exhibited characteristics common in those with this condition, which I was simply not cognisant of. And perhaps because those with this condition commonly exhibit slower processing of emotions and lower levels of empathic ability, perhaps my eyes would linger excessively. All pure speculation, of course.
On the other hand, there was the gaze of others, which I clearly had difficulty interpreting correctly. The most significant of them seems quite preposterous, looking back on it now. Here, a girl who unambiguously disliked me — who would do everything in her power to make clear that she held me in total contempt, explicitly articulating this on her tongue for months on end — whose own lingering gaze I came to interpret as meaning she liked me!
After reading through so much research on the social cognitive deficits common in people with this condition, this doesn’t really surprise me, however. Some of the research suggest that those with this condition often have difficulties understanding the emotions, thoughts and intentions of others from facial expressions, with difficulties processing information expressed in longer reaction times. Perhaps we just don’t get social cues that others would understand straight away.
In this sense, I am prepared to concede that my understanding of those events, and others like them since, was incomplete, potentially swayed by cognitive impairments. I could just as easily have misunderstood as have been misunderstood. I don’t doubt it. On the other hand, I should not take these factors in isolation, pretending that this was all that was at play. I do believe I was bullied based on my appearance and character. I also believe I was operating in an environment that was unnecessarily harsh and unkind. It honestly didn’t have to culminate in the threat of violence. I wasn’t so cognitively impaired that I couldn’t have accepted a few kind words of explanation.
In my new paradigm of the self, I have to recognise that many of my social interactions are hugely impacted by traits as yet beyond my control, governed by the way my brain developed as a result of an error that occurred in the formation of my originating cells at conception. And therefore I must either learn how to function as close to normally as possible, or develop strategies to compensate. Here begins the onward adventure.