A woman in my Aspergers Facebook group was complaining recently that her whole life felt like a series of repeated social failures. I can relate to her so much, it has made me question – would I see my life in terms of social failure? Most of the time through school and uni, I thought friends were something that happened to other people. Others seemed to acquire them without trying, wherever they went, and I tried so hard and still wound up with none.
Some facts about me – At primary school I spent most playtimes alone, thinking about my network of imaginary friends. Other kids did ask me to play, but I really wasn’t interested in their type of games. I joined in sometimes because “it was what you did” but they were rarely fun. People, even those closest to me, thought I wanted to be left alone. I didn’t, at least not all the time. I just wanted to be around people who understood me.
Secondary school started off well socially, but after the 2nd year I realised I was faking it and went back to having virtually no friends. This time it didn’t feel like a choice and was a lot harder to deal with. I was also being called names and laughed at on a daily basis, only by a small group of kids but enough to affect me.
After the day of my final A level exam, I never saw or heard from anyone at school ever again (that’s not quite true -one person did contact me 10 years later through Friends Re-united and we met once for lunch.) The same happened after my last uni exam – I left the exam hall, and I was totally on my own. I didn’t choose it that way, it’s just how it happened. I was and I wasn’t sad about it – I had plenty of good stuff going on in my life at the time that wasn’t social so it didn’t bother me too much.
As a young woman, often when I saw people I knew, I would cross the road to avoid them. Not because I didn’t like them or thought they would be unpleasant to me. It was just easier at the time.
On a recent survey I took, “How Autistic Are You” (ridiculous title I know,) I got the worst possible score in the Social section. It didn’t surprise me. I now, since my diagnosis, know it’s very difficult for me to make friends for at least 10 reasons:
1) I have social shutdowns. After 1 1/2-2 hours of anything social, however fun it is to start, my whole body will be screaming to leave and I’ll struggle to form words or process others’ speech.
2) I have mild face-blindness. I can be chatting to someone one day, see them the next day and have no idea who they are or what we chatted about. After 3 or 4 times of seeing someone I will probably remember their face, but still struggle with remembering the full content of their conversation.
3) I feel like an alien in most social situations. With the exception of my partner and many of my family, most other people – however lovely they are – just seem too “other.” I am pretty fluent in speaking neurotypical, but it still remains my second language.
4) I need a lot of time alone, to process and recharge. If I don’t get it, I become withdrawn and less functional.
5) I can’t deal with socialising in loud crowded places or large groups, as I can’t filter out the background noise, or I can sometimes but it’s very hard work.
6) I now realise, looking back, I had selective mutism with my peers in my teens. It wasn’t a choice, I literally could not find words. Not talking at all did not get me very far with friendships at the time. So I didn’t learn the give-and-take of mutual exchanges that most people pick up naturally when they’re young.
7) I can’t do emotional conversations. If someone starts telling me about their partner leaving or their parent dying, much as I would like to comfort and support them, I resort to cliches and/or shut down and walk away. I’m not at all proud of this, it’s just how my brain works.
8) Humour – I can’t always tell when people are joking, or laugh when everyone else laughs. Sometimes I can work out intellectually why they are laughing, but it doesn’t tickle me. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a sense of humour, just not a neurotypical one.
9) I’m not good at reading others’ body language and non-verbal signals.
10) I have the common autistic habit now and again of “putting my foot in it” and blurting out socially unacceptable things.
Would you want someone like me as a friend? Probably not, if all you know about me are these 10 reasons! (I could also write at least 10 reasons why I think I make a good friend, but that’s another blog post!) To expect me to be socially successful in neurotypical society’s terms would be like expecting a runner to win a race when they start off a mile behind everyone else.
My diagnosis has helped me so much to make sense of all this and to see that I am not a social failure, and not alone by any means. Actually I see myself as pretty successful when I look at how far I’ve come since my school and uni days. I rarely feel lonely now, if at all. I still don’t really have any close friends except my partner (now wife!) of 17 years, and almost all the emails and texts I get are work – or junk- related, but I have a number of acquaintances – people I’d cross the road to chat to even if I wouldn’t especially seek out their company. Now, on a good day, I’ll go up to strangers and start conversations. I’ll even make the odd joke and get a laugh. It’s all about re-framing: this is how I am, that was my past, this is today and this is how I get on with it! It’s like someone who maybe left school unable to read, and now after a lot of hard work over many years they can manage to read a novel – it may not seem a huge achievement to anyone else, but to them it’s massive. I hope the young woman who posted on Facebook, and others in similarly lonely situations, will someday see their life in these terms too.