Autism And Friendship
flying into the windowpane
It happened again this morning. I saw the flash of movement in the corner of my eye, heard the thud and when I ran to the window and craned to scan the ground beneath, there it was sitting very still amongst a wind-gathered tangle of dry red leaves, a tiny Gold Crowned Kinglet – stunned.
He was upright and conscious so I waited a couple of minutes, watchful on his behalf and gaging his condition. Just as I was readying to go out and wrap him up he took off, swooping up between the cedars and over the fence.
I made myself a coffee, struck by how flying into a windowpane seems a fitting metaphor for my own experience when it comes to autism and friendship. I can count the number of friends I have on one hand.
The ‘How To’ Of Friendship
For some of us with autism, pursuing a friendship beyond the surface superficialities imposed by polite society is fraught with difficulty and self-doubt. The whole intuitive nature of making friends is something I have no inbuilt framework for, so I employ tangible strategies like finding common ground to help me reach out. This makes me liable to overshare which, conversely, causes me to hold a lot of thoughts, ideas and feelings inside. I might repeatedly bring the conversation back to my own experience, not because I’m self-absorbed but because this is the only viewpoint I can speak authentically from.
Many of us will have friendships in our pasts that ended abruptly without our understanding why, so we redouble our efforts to communicate ‘correctly’, training ourselves in the unspoken rules surrounding eye-contact, tone and volume of voice, proximity, stance and posture in conversation. The constant inner dialogue monitoring all these aspects can make conversation exhausting, especially in situations where background noise, movement, and other sensory stimuli have to be filtered out.
Perhaps because of this preoccupation with the ‘form’ of my social interactions I’ve unwittingly befriended more than a few souls who set off other people’s warning bells from a mile away. My husband says I attract weirdos and I tell him not to be so hard on himself, but joking aside, I’m easy prey for Machiavellian types and even those with no bad intent who simply take advantage of an opportunity when it presents itself, because “You know… it’s a dog-eat-dog world.”
Maybe if I learn to ask myself the right questions I’ll be able to filter these out or recognise when someone’s pulling the wool over my eyes. I question the actions and behaviours of myself and others continually. Then again, it hasn’t happened so far. Now in my fourth decade, I’ve reached the point where I don’t expect to connect with anyone. And that’s ok. I enjoy my own company, am never at a loss for things to do alone, and welcome those quiet spaces where I’m free to move about in my head uninterrupted.
Finding Friends Who Value Your Superpowers
I am never more acutely aware of how removed I feel from other people than when I am among them. Mostly, those I surround myself with don’t trigger this sense of being an outsider, or if they do I can recognise it’s due to my own cognitive associations and lay it aside. Now and again, as an immigrant who doesn’t share the cultural background of the people around me, I feel a yawning emptiness when my companions share a deeply-felt sentiment as one. Other times, the situational context renders it insignificant; I have to be feeling pretty low for a polite exchange with the checkout clerk in the store or the receptionist at the dentist to make me feel excluded.
But sometimes it happens in those delicate, formative weeks of a new friendship, and that is the hardest to deal with. You meet someone you get along with, you’re travelling down a road you think could lead to genuine friendship. Time passes and reveals an opportunity to connect over something more meaningful for both of you. You pause…
Are you sure you want to do this?
What if they take it the wrong way?
What if they’re not who they appear to be and you change your mind about being friends?
What if they ask of you more than you can give?
It’s a careful balance, friendship – with humans anyway, animals are vastly more pragmatic despite the language barrier – and one I’ve never mastered. So once again that heaviness settles in my chest: What’s wrong with me? I’ve studied psychology to better understand those around me. I work hard to maintain eye-contact, decode the subtext in social exchanges and not talk too loud when I get excited. But I still end up like that bird – stopped dead in my tracks by an invisible wall. I feel bruised, bewildered, shocked into paralysis. I want to shrink into unnoticeability, escape to some small space where it’s ok to be myself and I’m not, however indirectly, made to feel stupid or embarrassed, where I don’t have to keep falling over myself apologising because, yet again, I haven’t done it right. Perhaps I’ll go and stand in the garage for a bit. Or go for a walk by the lake. Then I’ll take my pain, turn it over in my hands and try to shape it into something tangible with words on a page.
Disappointment and hurt well up inside me and I think to myself, ‘That’s one friendship I don’t have to worry about meeting the standards for.’
I remember a quote from D.H. Lawrence,
I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself. A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough without ever having felt sorry for itself.
Resolving to be more like the birds I’ve rescued, I pick myself up, shake my head, and square my shoulders. People are beyond my understanding. I find them fascinating but I cannot read them. That simply makes the ones who love me for who I am all the more special. Why would I devalue their friendship by lowering the bar for others?