Autistic and Social: My Son Is the Most Social Person I Know

Despite what the autism label might suggest

Boy smiling
Diego as a kid

One thing I hate about my son Diego’s autism label is that it suggests he’s not social. The implication is to be expected, of course, seeing as the diagnosis requires “Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts.” (from DSM-5 Diagnostic Criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorder)

Merriem-Webster defines deficit as “a lack or impairment in an ability or functional capacity.”

As anyone who knows Diego will attest, the term “deficit” is widely off the mark in his case. Diego most definitely does not lack social capacity or ability. On the contrary, he’s even more social than your average human. It’s just that his social ways deviate widely from the norm.

Once, we were waiting to cross the street and Diego, then 28, initiated this nice little exchange with a man and his young son.

“Hi! What are you doing for Thanksgiving? Are you staying here or are you traveling?”

“We’re just staying here,” the man replied.

“I’m Diego, I was born in 1994. When was your son born? 2008?”

“No, not 2008. Henry was born in 2016.”

“Oh, that’s the year we went to Brazil for Christmas!” Diego exclaimed.

“I really like Brazil. I’ve played drums in Sao Paolo and Rio,” the man shared.

Just then, the “walk” signal came on and, as we resumed our run, Diego waved and said, “Oh, if I don’t see you have a happy Thanksgiving and a great Christmas!”

Spend a few hours with Diego and you’ll soon know that no matter the context, Diego brings any conversation back to his preferred topics, which include holidays, dates, and countries. That’s the autism is him.

So, yes, this short conversation is off and atypical for a “normal” 28-year-old, but, more than anything, it reveals how social Diego is.

Being socially “off” is not the same as being less social.

Some of Diego’s social ways reflect motives purer and more evolved than most people’s. They’re based on profound affection rather than the transactional what’s-in-it-for-me motive underlying much of our social interactions.

Diego, for instance, is the only 30-year-old I know who now and then reminds his parents and other older relatives, “I’m going to take care of you when you’re old.”

Diego might not greet adults at a party with a firm handshake and eye contact, but whenever we go on a walk, he must address every person we encounter with a “Hello. Happy [insert the nearest holiday].”

He checks on people he loves daily and knows what they’re up to. He’s the family cryer, announcer of coming events, and chronicler of memories and dates. He’s a top source of our family’s cohesiveness.

Diego is so social he speaks with the dead and the Almighty.

When we pass the church near our home, he stops in front of the statue of the Virgin Mary, puts his hands together, and prays: “God, I’m going to visit my friend in Cape Cod, and my mom will buy me a new pair of shoes at the mall. And God, take care of Abuela in Caracas.”

To him, God and Jesus are magical beings he can converse with.

He will often look up to the heavens and say hello to the deceased when we go on walks or runs. He keeps those who have passed, celebrities and close relatives alike, as present in his heart and mind as the folks he interacted with just yesterday.

“I prayed for Sean Connery, Nonno, and Matthew Perry today at mass,” he might tell me when he returns from church with Abuela.

Then there’s Diego’s outstanding receptivity to feedback, “Thank you for showing me,” or “Thank you for telling me,” he’ll humbly say. People are awkward about feedback. They say they want it but then they accept it reluctantly. Diego, he honestly embraces it.

Finally, Diego might not get it’s inappropriate to talk to himself, but if anyone’s sad, angry, worried or frustrated, he senses something is amiss and cares. The best part is he will never say stuff like you have no right to be angry, or tell you it’s no big deal or to look at the bright side.

Without passing any judgment, he will hold your hand, pat you, and say “I’ll rub you.”

To the extent that being social entails connectedness and sensibility, Diego is the most social person I know.

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