Learning the Rules of Friendship

I’ve been thinking this week of an incident that took place when I was 7 or 8. I was on my own in the school playground as usual, pacing up and down and making up stories about my imaginary friends, when two girls from the year above came up to me.

“Oi. You girl. What’s your name? Why are you always on your own?”

I told them my name.

“We’re Lorna and Naomi.”

“I know that.” It was a special interest of mine to learn the names of all the girls in the school, a large multicultural inner London primary. I also knew from astute observation, which girls were considered cool  and who wasn’t, who was picked on by teachers, who were the ringleaders and who stood on the sidelines. Lorna and Naomi, I knew, were neither cool nor uncool, neither clever nor thick, just fairly average “nice” girls who always hung around together. We were in the “girls’ playground” which was literally on the roof, 3 floors up. The boys were on the ground floor playing football. Girls played tag, skipping, elastics, 2-balls, clapping, mums and dads, rounders, grandma’s footsteps. That is, all the girls except me.

“I don’t like the games they play. I’m no good at running, skipping or catching balls. I just get caught out all the time and they laugh and call me handicapped. Not fun at all.”

“Hey, we’ll be your friends! We don’t need to play any of those. What games do YOU like to play? How about clapping… “A sailor went to sea, chop, knee, toe………..”

“OK, I’ll  try that one.” They taught me how to clap up, clap down, clap together, clap under my knee in sequence. I could do it, slowly at first. Then the bell rang for in-time.

“Cool! You can be our new best friend. See you next break, yeah?”

I thought, how lovely – rarely did anyone say that to me. So for a few days I hung out with Lorna and Naomi. For once I had some actual real-life friends, or so I thought. They were in the year above, too – super cool.

I don’t know whose idea it was to play “Tell her what to do, and she does it.” Lorna’s probably, she was the one with ideas. They must have latched on pretty quickly that I was quite vulnerable and easily exploited.

“Stick your finger up your bum and then lick it. Go on, I dare you.”

So I did. I thought one of the rules of friendship was, you did what you were told. It was pleasing for your friends, to have their wishes granted. What I was being asked to do wasn’t that difficult. They would like and respect me more for it.

“Ugh, you actually did that? OK, now see that girl Julie over there, she’s the fat one turning the end of the skipping rope. Go and tell her she’s a fat bitch. Don’t say anything else. Just say “Oi Julie, you fat ugly bitch.””

(It didn’t exactly happen like that. Actually, I’ve blocked out the details of the actual incident that landed me in the headmaster’s office. The finger-up-the-bum part of the story is 100% true, I’m ashamed to say.)

Mr C was the best headmaster ever. Kind, gentle, really caring towards every kid in the school. I liked him a lot. I was a good kid and it was my first 1:1 encounter with him for anything negative.

“So, I’ve been hearing reports from Julie that you have been calling her names. Why?”

“I dunno, sir.”

“That doesn’t sound like you at all. We need to get to the bottom of this. Has Julie been picking on you?”

“No sir.”

“So why did you do it?”

“Lorna and Naomi told me to, sir.”

“What? If Lorna and Naomi told you to go and jump off a cliff, would you do it?”

“Er…..no sir.”

“Glad to hear it. Go back out to play, say sorry to Julie and I don’t want to hear any more of this silliness.”

After that day, I went back to playing on my own and never spoke to Lorna and Naomi again. Lesson learnt: true friends don’t exploit each other for a laugh. Unfortunately, variations on this story are probably common in young autistic girls. People can see that we are easily manipulated, and take advantage of that. I’m glad I learnt this lesson young, before I got into more serious situations. I just fear for all the other girls who are different in any way, out there in school playgrounds today. I hope their lessons will be easier to learn.







“Affected” by Autism?

Some people could look at me and say I’m not really affected very much at all. I have been asked several times why I bothered going for a diagnosis in my 40s. I have a good career involving my special interest, a great marriage, a supportive family, I have not had any significant mental health problems, I can pass as neurotypical if I need to, (at least for short periods of time.) For all these things, I’m extremely grateful. I feel I’ve been very lucky in my life.

So, I’ve been thinking about how autism affects me – and though you might not notice, it does, every day.

1) Feeling like an alien. Happens most of the time. Being around people and thinking “You are not my tribe. You could never be my tribe. We can get along ok for short periods of time, but overall we are just too different.”
2) Conversations can be hard work – processing what the other person is saying, reacting to it, getting my tone of voice and body language right, talking enough but not too much. Also memory for past conversations – I often don’t have a clue what we talked about last time.
3) Face blindness. I often have to meet people 3 or 4 times before I recognise them, unless they’re very distinctive looking, and even then I may get it wrong out of context.
4) “Zoning out.” If social situations get too much for me, I’ll just look blank and barely respond. People think it’s lack of interest in what they’re saying. It’s not, it’s brain overload.
5) Emotions. As soon as conversations turn to anything emotional, I will speak in cliches or just zone out. Again, it looks like I don’t care.
6) Getting a balance between social stuff and time alone. It’s a very fine line. Too much socialising, and I need to retreat back in, desperate to return to my solitary pursuits. Too little, and I feel lonely and unconnected to the rest of the world.
7) Because of all these things, and especially in my formative years, there have been long periods when I’ve had no friends to speak of. That is thankfully no longer the case, at present anyway, but I could at any time in the future be thrown back to a place where I have nothing and no one.
8) Facing Change. I get this sinking feeling in my stomach every time a change is coming up, e.g. Transition from holiday/weekend to work day & vice versa. I’ve always just felt the fear and got on with it. But that’s not to say it’s not there.
9) Some days I feel like I am only just on the right side of coping.

So, please don’t tell me I am not “affected” by autism. I’m not complaining, this is who I am. I don’t want in any sense to demean any autistic person who is perhaps more severely affected than me. I can probably relate to at least some of what you are going through. As I said, I feel very grateful and lucky.