Micro-interactions are just interactions, looked at in small scale. A main interaction might be that we are eating dinner. A mciro-interaction might be that I reach for a napkin and you move the ketchup out of the way, while you continue to talk. That might seem too little to bother talking about – people might say it is random or trivial. But I want to talk about it anyway because this level of interaction feels really important to me lately. It highlights our neurological connections and differences, more than when you look at it on a larger scale. Sometimes the micro-interactions are very supportive and sometimes they are repressive. If you moved the ketchup, it means you cared and noticed what I was doing.
The most recent example that brings this to life is: I had a friend from Autreat visit last week and she brought her partner, and the three of us went out to eat. After that we wandered on the college campus, only because we didn’t know what else to do and it was very windy. We explored art exhibits and theaters in the fine arts complex. When something caught the attention of one of us, we’d stop and allow the thing to make an impression on the others. As we got to a door or intersection, or some other choice in where to go, there was no effort to control the other two people; we were all attentive to the others and would stop and wait for the direction to become a three-way decision. We stood there until the direction took shape, without looking at each other or even always explicitly saying “let’s go this way.” I saw much more in the signs and murals and other objects than I would have without my friend. Little things became bigger.
On another day I was with my wife and noticed that walking in the snow on a hill would send little snowballs down the hill, for a long way. Sometimes they went 200 feet before stopping, and they formed wheels that made different tracks – dotted lines or wavy lines. If you went out to make snowball tracks on purpose, you would probably find it was impossible because the conditions have to be very precise for that to happen. But we weren’t looking for that; we were just open to anything. I remarked that this kind of stopping to notice small things rarely happens with more than two people. Most social conditions are loaded with power differences that make me shut down and incapable of noticing these small things. But it does happen with intimate partners.
A few years ago I was putting a set of board games into a big canvas bag and my autistic friend helped. She alternated with me, putting the next box that would fit properly, all without words. We were equal agents in a larger goal of cleaning up, and seeing this happen was a surge of happiness. Others might use the games-in-a-bag situation to try to win, force me to do it a different way, try to get ego points for “helping”, or some other competitive reason. We just flowed, so flowingly that no words or eye contact was needed, no putting oneself out there, no propping oneself up, no polite gesturing, so much that someone watching might think we weren’t interacting at all. If they thought that, they would be missing the micro-interaction. We were under the radar.
At another time I was at a table with an autistic person and a neurotypical one. The NT was trying to get us to be “social” and was failing. Her questions were dull to me. When she had to leave she apologized and said something revealing that she thought she was the necessary link that made it possible for us two autistics to talk. But in reality she had been the barrier. As soon as she left, the two of us moved closer and looked very intently into each other and quietly shared much more important things than the NT was trying to pry out. This intimacy was there; it is always there and is similar to kind of intimacy you build in a partner relationship, but it wasn’t that; we weren’t even really friends and didn’t touch. All the professionals don’t seem to know about this; why can’t they see it?
At a dinner table with six autistic people another year, it was so memorable because the silences were so supportive of the real. One person would share a feeling, another would share a mental puzzle, another would share her vision of sacredness. It was unbounded by anything, as if no ego was present, and so intimate.
Another year a dinner table of all autistics and one NT really burned into my memory because the two levels of communication were so blatantly separated from each other. The NT carried forth as if she felt no one else was doing anything. She may have felt she had to make the conversation go on all by herself, so it felt like she was all the traffic going over a bridge – loud and visible. Yet the rest of us with higher perceptive sensitivity could interject lots of other things at the same time and carry on another level under the bridge. It was as if we were kids secretly kissing under the table while the adults provided a cover of noise above.
Another time I picked up an autistic person from her house, neither one of us having seen the other before. She skipped everything that would normally be called “social” and said “which one is your car?” It took us about three seconds to get beyond what most people need 15 minutes to do, and it was a relief. A minute later we were talking about childhood memories.
I met another friend last summer, which went so deep so fast, without many words. I wrote about that already.
All of these experiences among autistic people share some features: They are intense, empathic, non-verbal, and under the radar. There is no agenda or ego. There is tremendous space and openness. There is intense reciprocity – watching each other and being responsive. According to theory, we do not do these things. And we don’t normally do them when being watched by people who make these theories. Sometimes we do them in plain sight and are still not noticed, but normally we cower and just wait until no one is watching to be that way.
I experience this a tiny fraction of my life. Is this available to all autistics? To everyone? Do others experience this a lot more often than me? I don’t know.
I want to set up environments where this happens more. In the retreat center (that I’m planning) I hope that there will be enough autistic leadership that even though non-autistic people may be frequently in the majority, we will be able to keep this going without cowering. Maybe we can be open enough that other people will notice; maybe they will open up to it at times.
I want to capture it on video too. It isn’t one of those paranormal things that defies being recorded. But it may be hard to capture because it is fleeting. I want to capture all kinds of micro-interactions, not only these energizing ones that I describe here, but also any interaction – painful, neutral, or otherwise – that reveals neurological affinity and style. I think that having people know about this in general would be a great thing.
NT’s seem to connect power with language. Is all symbolic communication a power game? It all seems intentional and premeditated, and that is a form of wielding power. But at the emotional level, there is no hiding and no winning and that’s what feels so great about it.
Perhaps our best communication is less based in language, more sub-linguistic, somehow under the radar of the NT’s understanding. I’m not making a distinction between verbal and non-verbal, but more of a distinction between symbolic and emotional. Typical communication is said to be mostly non-verbal, but the non-verbal parts are still symbolic and intentional. Autistics tend to be better at catching the verbal than the non-verbal, but at the same time we seem to be better at the emotional than the symbolic.
I had started this line of thought with the idea that spoken words were somehow the highest or most evolved form of communication, but now I’m seeing it more like this diagram. Like any diagram, it isn’t true; it is forcing a mental concept onto reality. It puts the spoken language in the middle and suggests that the NTs shift towards the upper levels which are power-wielding, while autists (when in the flow?) tend to focus more at the lower levels which are more equalizing and direct.
I’m not sure any interaction is “macro”, except a belief that the little interactions add up to more than the sum of the parts. When I fall for that belief, it tends to be more scripted and I don’t feel I’m participating in any interaction at all. Somehow when the interaction is tiny, it feels more authentic and I’m part of it. Has this happened to you? Why do you think it is related? Maybe the more direct interactions are just faster because words and power plays don’t slow them down.