Star Ford

Essays on lots of things since 1989.


on 2013 January 5

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.

Micro-interaction experiences

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.

5 responses to “Micro-interactions

  1. ianology says:

    Afterthought on my own post: When people say “non-verbal”, one really has to know, do they mean “super-verbal” (as in the nuanced symbolic manipulation with gesture, style, etc) or do they mean “sub-verbal” (as in the direct animal/emotional communication)?

    In the case of intimate encounters, it ideally takes place on the subverbal level (to me anyway), but then I’m wondering if people who have completely repressed subverbal communication (afraid of being exposed with no control) try to mimic that by being non-verbal in the opposite way, so intimacy becomes a power play of hints and allegations, which doesn’t seem very intimate but does seem like how it is represented in the media.

  2. Anonymous says:


    I really enjoy what you’re writing (sorry for my bad english).

    For school I’m writing about neurotypical syndrome and asperger syndrome and it seems to me you have similar experience with other autistics. I was with an autistic girl for 1 hour without anyone else, and we directly were excited about each other. What I think is interesting about your vision is the NT and ASS spectrum of communication and I think it’s very important we need to bring it into reality instead of just talking about it. I’ve seen many autistic people share some common views, but they just didn’t could bring it into reality.

    I think the intense world theory has some interesting stuff too, I don’t think we need to downplay all the research in autism. The intense world theory could be very helpful in helping autistic people, creating special environments for autistics. To me their is no doubt that human society exist of the creativity of autistic people and not neurotypical people.
    But autistic people are in my opinion almost slaves.

    I’m now 18, I want to study psychology and neuroscience. I’m especially interested in the empathy (between people instead of the ToM in people…). My own view on the ToM is against the traditional view, ToM is not an ability in your brain but just something which appear between similar people. I believe the intense world theory is right in hyper empathy between autistics (they can look much deeper into the thoughts of other people, which could be creating potentially lock down behaviours.).

    Goodluck on your project.

  3. ldfjgij says:

    My understanding of neurotypical versus autistic is this:

    NeuroTypical Asperger

    Gluten / Casein sensitivity
    None Sensitive; Opioid-like effects

    Social prowess in typical settings
    Excellent Poor

    Social prowess in “geeky” settings
    Poor Excellent

    Number of friends
    Many poorly known acquaintances Few, but very close

    Desire for social power
    Large Small

    Voice inflection / tonal variance
    Widely varied, even from childhood Monotone, pedantic (early in life, sometimes continuing later on)

    Suceptibility to being taken advantage of
    Low High

    Low High

    Literal interpretation, semantics
    Uses and understands metaphor and pragmatics with ease Very literal and pedantic

    Tactful, Deceptive Brutally honest

    Childhood / Workplace bullying
    Is a bully Is often bullied

    Political interests
    Very political Apolitical

    Logical reasoning abilities
    Poor Excellent

    Verbal communication
    Indirect, deceptive, more interested in social contact Direct, honest, more interested in information transfer

    Answering questions
    Often answers “why” questions with “what” or “how”, etc Answers with a semantically literal and true response

    Extremely charming Lacks panache

    Body Type
    Ectomorph Mesomorph

    Relative Body Temperature preference
    Warmer Cooler

    Dwelling preference
    Urban Rural

    Metaphor use
    Frequent, with ease Rare (especially during youth), and often convoluted

    Engineering skills
    Poor Excellent

    Physical Laziness
    Lazy Industrious

    Selfish Selfless

    Slitty, closed partway Open wide

    Feeling about socially adept people
    Strongly like and respect them Strong aversion, find them to be untrustworthy

    Written communication
    Poor grammar and spelling Impeccable grammar and spelling

    Nonverbal communication
    Has immediate nonverbal instincts, knows how to “read between the lines”
    Has trouble with nonverbal cues, eye contact, and frequently misses unspoken social norms

    Social Tendencies
    Instinctively Antisocial
    Instinctively Social

  4. ldfjgij says:

    The biggest difference is Monotropism (Autism) and Polytropism (NT).

    Monotropism is the ability to focus on a single task at the exclusion of all else. It is a general way of thinking that often occurs in autism and asperger’s and makes it difficult to read non-verbal cues while simultaneously in verbal conversation, but makes it easy to concentrate on a single task to a very deep level of understanding.

    Polytropism is the ability to focus on several tasks, activities or stimuli simultaneously. Polytropic individuals find it easy to have several overlapping conversations with different individuals simultaneously and to read non-verbal cues while speaking and listening all at the same time. Polytropic individuals have a difficult time focusing their whole attention towards a single task for long periods of time.

    Our society is built for monotropism individuals today. Thought most people are NT because of the past. More and more Geeky monotrpoistic individuals are being born.
    To me it’s obvious that most girls in my school are more attracted to monotrpostic individuals instead of the polytropic individuals. Most autistic people have difficulties in early brain development because the environment should be like a fetus in an autistic child becasue of the hyper-plasticity and hyper-connectivity (Markram, 2010)

  5. Harry says:

    I’ve identified the same phenomenon. The terms I’ve been using for it in my writing are ‘connection’ and ‘resonance’, and I think of it as an empathic thing. The Intense World Theory of Autism, which I’m a fan of, talks about greater attention to detail and perception of nuance, and it fits that if you have these facilities that you might be able to engage more microscopically than normal.
    It is very rare that I find somehow who is receptive enough for me to have this experience with them, but when I do I find it’s possible for us to just effortlessly follow each other’s focus, direction, mood, and whatever else. I think it applies to varying degrees even when I’m just walking down the street with someone. The less receptive to my pace they are, the more they just go along at their pace and it’s up to me to keep up with them/wait for them, and if I have a problem with the pace they would expect me to say something. With more receptive walking partners, we mirror each other more equally just as we can also work out what to do together intuitively rather than in the form of some kind of organised negotiation as if we were entirely separate, self-interested parties.
    All it takes to spoil a good ‘connection’ is being joined by an extreme neurotypical who instantly has to formalise the scenario, imposing a role-play on it. If it’s a guy, he establishes himself as an alpha male, and dominates over the rest of us. We follow him and have to play the reciprocal roles that we get allocated. I see that our leader is completely oblivious to the minds of everyone present and ignorant even of the possibility of the kind of seamless interaction that he just destroyed when he imposed himself on the situation. Any female in the group is socially untainted by the fact that they are following a male, but because I’m a guy there are implications to the fact that I am following another guy. Effectively, I’ve accepted that I’m subordinate to him.
    Another term I use in the context of the phenomenon you’ve written about is ‘group mind’, which I think of as what an autistic person attempts to form in the company of others.

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