Introvert or extrovert? This seems to be a pretty easy question for most people. For me, though, this question has always perplexed me. Over the years I have flitted back and forth between considering myself an introvert and identifying as an extrovert. Whichever one I leaned towards, it never quite fit right.
The main differentiating feature between introverts and extroverts is where they gain energy from. Extroverts gain energy from other people while introverts gain energy from spending time alone. This often leads extroverts to be very social people who enjoy going out and spending a great deal of time around others. Introverts, on the other hand, tend to prefer a quiet night in to large socially gathering, though this doesn’t mean they won’t or can’t socialize.
I have always craved socialization. My parents signed me up for preschool a year early because I loved being around other people so much. I wanted to go out and do things as much as possible and hated having to spend a day at home. Yet I struggled to make friends and was frequently bullied throughout school. I was the weird girl. The sick girl. The girl no one wanted to be friends with. My childhood followed a pattern of making one or two friends who I clung to desperately. Our friendship would last two to three years before things would end terribly (like the time my only friend at the time passed me a note during a test to tell me that she didn’t want to be my friend anymore and that she had tried to send the message already but I wasn’t getting it). This led to many periods of friendless over the years. These times were awful not only due to the pain of being unwanted but because I so desperately wanted to socialize with people but didn’t have people to socialize with.
During college, I managed to actually make some friends and keep them. This brought the whole extrovert/introvert conundrum back into my mind. I loved going out and doing things with my friends. I wanted to go to parties and events and everything else. Yet I found it all exhausting. Spending so much time with people was leaving me drained and overwhelmed. I found myself needing to retreat more and more.
Then I discovered that I am autistic.
Suddenly so many aspects of my life made sense. My struggles to make friends. My lack of understanding of the social situations around me. My introvert/extrovert status.
I am an autistic extrovert.
I crave socialization. I draw energy from a crowd. I feel alive when I am able to flit between conversations and talk with a variety of people.
I also become easily overwhelmed in large crowds due to sensory overload. Conversation can be exhausting due to verbal processing difficulties and challenges understanding social cues. Staying home without pressure to talk and a more controlled sensory environment is often necessary to calm my overwhelmed system.
I am a walking contradiction. I gain energy from socialization while I am drained by the challenges of socialization. On my good days, when talking is easy and understanding what others say come quickly, when my sensory system is well balanced, I am rejuvenated and happy walking away from a social experience. On my bad days, however, when I struggle to understand speech and find it challenging to put my thoughts into words, the energy I must expend far overshadows the energy I gain leaving me tired and raw and anxious after even short bursts of conversation.
I am outgoing. I am social. I draw energy from other people. I am shy. I rarely go out. I am drained and overwhelmed by crowds. I am an autistic extrovert and I am learning to be me.