Autism Interview #190: Alan Conrad on Shyness

Alan Conrad is an autistic father and author with over 40 years working in the personal injury business. Conrad is the author of several books, including The Shyness Guide, which explores shyness, introversion, autism, and social anxiety. This week Conrad shared his experiences with shyness and advocacy for shy people.

When/how did you become aware you were Autistic?

When I was a small boy, I didn’t realize that I was profoundly different until I went to school. At home I had three brothers and they were different from me, but we played together and accepted each other. But the first day at school, my eyes were opened. In my novel The Birdcatcher, character Chris Stone explains it like this:

….I remembered my own first day at school, that morning in Sept 1953, when I crouched in a corner of the old brick walls, instinctively protecting my back, waiting for the school to open. I remembered the yard full of pushing, teasing, shouting children. Though I couldn’t have put it words then, I felt like an alien child, an orphan from some far away star left behind on a strange and unfriendly planet. Only five years old, I was already contemplating the central problem of my life.

By the time I was in grade 2, I was confronted with the inexplicable fact that every day at recess, among about 250 children, I was still in that corner alone, or, in season, wandering alone in a field next to the playground examining the plants and insects over there, with teachers watching me with worried looks.

Yes, back then I simply self-diagnosed myself simply as someone very different, who preferred being alone. Chris Stone puts it this way:

Like the ugly duckling in the fairy tale, I felt how profoundly I didn’t belong. I didn’t argue with the teachers but I was convinced that they were wrong and for a long time I remained sullenly the way I was. In high school I would learn to pretend that I was like the others, to behave more like them, but I never lost the conviction that I was different in some fundamental way.

I definitely was unaware of the word “autistic” then, though it had already been coined by Kanner and Asperger more or less in the year I was born – 1946. My earliest memory now of the term is about 1980 when I was handling the claim of a woman injured in a motor vehicle accident who had two sons who were severely autistic. But it was only in the ’90s, reading a psychological report for a brain- injured young man who had already been diagnosed with Asperger’s – seeing how much he was like me – that I realized that I too was probably autistic. I was about 50 yrs old at that point.

I started to read about autism – one book in particular convinced me that I was autistic – research psychologist Francesca Happé’s Autism – an introduction to psychological theory – though it was published in 1994, I still consult it – she was so prescient about so many things that the book still doesn’t feel dated – I often recommend it to anyone wondering if they are autistic.

You say you grew up in a family of ‘natural loners’ – Was your aloneness embraced in this setting? Where/when were you pressured to be more extroverted/social, etc?

Though all three of my brothers were much more social than me, one of them never married, another, who had many girlfriends, got married only about age 45, then divorced shortly after. All of us, including my mother who I would describe as an introvert who liked a limited social life, and my father [who died when he was 47 years old, when I was 5] – all of us – were loners in the sense that we all thought outside the box. We were all skeptics of society. I suspect that the scepticism you meet in my blog posts is something that has been passed on for generations.

Though teachers repeatedly told my parents that I needed to ‘open up’ – usually just my mother since my father was soon gone [though I have one memory of them sitting together, with me present too, with a teacher] once we were at home, they never bothered me about it. I think they understood me – “well, he’s one of those, that’s all” and left me alone. My brothers were the same – I never felt pressured at home – I was happy there.

In this age of endless psychologizing, I think we underestimate how much unconscious understanding some people of the past had.

So I only got pressured at school, but I have to say that even there, at least from teachers, it wasn’t much, compared with what a child will get now. Teachers then seemed to show more respect for shy children. And there were no psychologists to refer me to, at least in the schools I went to, in the working-class steel town where I grew up. With my peers, it was a bit different. Most kids were okay, but there were some [male of course] who were offended by my silence. I sometimes had to fight them just because I didn’t want to talk to them.

Would you have described your adult family life as shy (you, your wife, daughter, etc)? When were you all most comfortable as a family?

The first part of this question is difficult to answer – all of us had a shy [or autistic] element in us – my wife [who died in June this year] was an ambivert with many sides to her – her own family showed signs of high-functioning autism in several individuals – both of my daughters have signs of it too – the youngest is an accomplished socialite living (and writing) in New York City, yet since she was little, she has liked time alone. She could play alone for hours, and often did.

What I haven’t said yet, is that my birth family were very argumentative. Though I was the first to get to a university, when I got there, I routinely won debates and I think I own that to my family. My wife’s family is the same (in fact the whole nation of Trinidad where she came from is) so we did a lot of arguing, some of it combative and hostile – it wasn’t always heaven on earth. But both of my daughters tell me they remember the years of growing up as a golden age, and it was for me too. When were we most comfortable together? That’s an easy one – on the many many camping trips we made together – not only were we all happiest hiking, fishing and swimming in the wild settings, but driving in the car on those trips we recounted school and work events to each other, or commented satirically on people and things we were passing, and laughed and laughed. Again, humor was an inheritance from both families.

I’m convinced that the ability I’ve had all my life to stand my ground when criticized unfairly is somehow associated with humor.

How does your book The Shyness Guide offer a different way of seeing the world?

What a good question! I really had to think about this.

Basically I think it portrays the world in a different way because I was born so completely ‘outside the box’ – I’ve had a different perspective all the way – elementary school, university, insurance claims offices. I think being outside the box, you are more conscious about what is going on – for me all of that – school and the working world – was a descent down a rabbit hole – in The Shyness Guide there is a lengthy section that I titled “Working Shy in a Non-Shy World” where I present that world as something akin to Alice’s Wonderland (well ….in fact, under the ‘Working Shy…” title), I quote Alice –where she says “But I don’t want to go among mad people!” and the Cheshire cat replies: “Oh, you have no choice. We’re all mad here”.

Because I did a lot of contract work in the last 2 decades of my career, I worked in approx 30 different offices and all of them, some to an astonishing degree, were madhouses. It can be a real challenge to work effectively in a place like that, while retaining your sanity.

So in The Shyness Guide, I give advice for shy and/or autistic and/or solitary people on how to negotiate the unpredictable psychological minefields of workplaces.

For example, in one piece titled ‘Be Careful What You Say’, I demonstrate how a satiric comment you make during a coffee break can get repeated, go viral, until it reaches someone in management and you are now an enemy of the company. I then add “Your natural reticence is a useful instinct – pay attention to it.”

You don’t get this kind of advice in other shyness books, at least not in the ones I’ve examined.

In a couple of reviews of The Shyness Guide, the readers have said they liked the humor in the book. I think it’s primarily that section that they are referring too.

However, there is another section (I think it’s in the part where I give advice to ‘love-shy’ people] where I go on at length about the need to learn the psychological skill of detachment to defuse your anxiety. I offer several methods, and the last one is learning to laugh – both at the world around you, and at yourself. The latter especially defuses anxiety.

In this more and more hostile world where people divide routinely into enemy camps [not just in politics – workplaces are notorious for it] I think what is more and more lacking is the ability to laugh at ourselves. To learn that especially, is to learn to see the world in a different way. Which is what The Shyness Guide tries to teach.

What inspired you to write it?

What happened was this – I started a website blog to promote my novel The Birdcatcher, then one day, when a woman who was a follower of the site and had just read several posts, commented – “There is so much to read here!” – I suddenly realized that I had a book there – with a little organizing and editing, I made it a book – then a few years later I revised it, almost doubling it in size to what it is now. As long as I’m still alive, I intend to keep revising it, make it better and better.

In your opinion/experience, what are some important ways to raise a child with an autism-positive identity?

The first thing I learned from my children was that the more time I invested in them, the more they paid me back – well, that applies to all children, not just autistic ones – you can’t put in too much time – but that doesn’t mean being overbearing or worrying. Autistic children are famous for their interest obsessions – ‘special interests’ is the phrase they use – While that is often portrayed as a problem, Hans

Asperger didn’t see it like that at all. He was fond of his “little professors” – If a child wants to know as much as possible about something, I’m a believer in encouraging that interest, and the next one when they switch. Somewhere along the line they may get into something that will become a career. If not, they may become like me – a generalist who is interested in everything (you can find me on websites arguing about astrophysics). They may not get rich doing that, but they will enjoy life.

What are you most passionate about?

Well……. my first inclination is to say that I’m passionate about everything. Yet that isn’t true of

much of the social world’s activity. I guess I would have to say that walking about in wild places is the most important thing of all. On one of our pre-covid hikes together in New York [the area just outside New York abounds with wildness, especially Long Island] my youngest daughter, now age 40, said to me, “You know, I sometimes get tired of the world, but I never get tired of places like this.” That’s how I am too.

Is there anything I didn’t ask about that you’d like to discuss?

Well, my first thought is that I’ve probably said too much already, but there is something I’ve begun to think more about.

When I was in grade 7, age 12, still suffering sometimes from ‘selective mutism’, I was in a music class one day where the teacher – who was a full-blown extrovert – always talkative and enthusiastic – gave us a test. Each student in turn had to stand up beside their desk and sing part of a song she had just taught us. Maybe she just wanted to find out who could sing. When she came to me, and I stood up, nothing came out. I couldn’t utter a peep.

Suddenly, after a couple of tries, she saw the problem – she took me into a storage room where we were separate from all the others, and I was able to sing a bit. Just like that, she solved the problem. She, an extrovert, was the only teacher who showed any real understanding, and the only one who was able to help me directly like that.

In her book, The Highly Sensitive Person, psychologist Elaine Aron says a third of HSPs are extroverts. In the course of my life, I’ve met a few intelligent sensitive extroverts who were also confident [not all extroverts are confident Aron says] – people like that, in my experience, are gems – they stride through the world head and shoulders above the crowd – they are loners too in that way – I’ve known a number of them (I think my wife was one) and all of them also had a fine sense of humor. The few long term friends I’ve had in my life were all more or less of this type. They seemed to be attracted to me, maybe to my independence. They are never bothered by social avoidance, because they are too happy on their own interesting paths. You can disappear for a couple of years, then when you meet them again it is as if you parted only yesterday.

Sadly, narcissists and/or sociopaths often present themselves as this kind of person. I caught on to them fairly quickly, but many people don’t until it’s too late. Unfortunately, I’m still not sure how it is that I’m able to spot them, so I’ve pretty much avoided this subject.

In the meantime, while I obviously empathize with shy and autistic people, and I have sometimes tried and succeeded in helping them – I can’t spend much time with them. When I’m required to deal with them in family or workplaces, introverts and assertive autistic people (there are many of those) can really wear me down.

In many blogs of autistic people, ‘neurotypical’ people are bashed over and over. Yet introverts who deny that they are introverts and people on the spectrum who don’t know they’re on the spectrum, when they are supervisors/managers, or parents, often severely oppress shy autistic people.

In that revision of the The Shyness Guide, I began to touch on this aspect of extroverted, outgoing people. When I revise the book again, I hope to expand on it.

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