I wrote recently about how disabilities, and autism in particular, can affect romantic relationships. So I thought it was time to address the related topic of how being an autist has affected my ability to form and maintain friendships. I’ll focus on adult friendships here, because I think they are of a fundamentally different nature from childhood ones. I may blog more in the future about my experiences as a child.
As a teenager, I was a confirmed loner. I simply lacked the skills to form even the most basic of friendship bonds, and most of the time I wasn’t really interested in spending time with others, anyway. But I realized that I needed to be able to relate to people better to succeed in life, and also to avoid humiliating myself, which has always been one of my biggest fears, perhaps because it’s happened so many times. I did get lonely, and more than that, I desired approval– validition– confirmation that I wasn’t as unlovable as I felt. So I devoted myself, over the course of several years, to watching and learning, and by my early twenties, I had developed enough skills that I was able to engage in relatively standard ways– up to a point.
Shortly after my son was born, I moved to a new city, and via receiving breastfeeding counseling and taking my son to a toy lending library, I encountered some other parents with values similar to my own. I was invited to a support group, a playgroup, and several birthday parties, and this led on to occasional one-on-one playdates. Being a parent greased the wheels: We had something designated acceptable and mutually interesting to talk about, and when there was an awkward silence because I was lost, it was easy to redirect attention to something the kids were doing.
Nevertheless, such socializing remained a nerve wracking and exhausting experience for me. I looked forward to it, but I also dreaded it. It was hard to remember what things were rude or too blunt to say; how often to nod, smile and say “uh-huh” to show that I was listening; how much it was okay to talk about my special interests without seeming weird; when it was time to talk without interrupting. And I never did get the hang of eye contact (and still never have.) If I tried, I simply stared, which made it appear I was being creepy or romantically interested, and it made me uncomfortable anyway, so I just gave up on that part.
Partly because of these difficulties, I never really considered my “mommy friends” to be real friends– more like acquaintances. We spent time together because of two factors: our childrens’ ages and our parenting style. I liked some of them a lot and wished I could get to know them better, but I didn’t know how, and frankly, they didn’t show any interest or make any effort, so I felt that I would be imposing on them if I tried.
In some cases, this was really deeply hurtful. In one case, I met two women at the same time as they met each other. I chatted with each of them, and I went on to spend time with both. I really liked both of them. However, it was clear that they “hit it off” with each other far more than they ever did with me. It went on that while I would have the occasional playdate with either of them, they became very, very close. I knew this because I heard each of them talk about the other, and because I was privy to their Facebook interactions. They went for impromptu walks together. They called each other on the phone just to talk, and talked about their feelings. They invited each other to family gatherings. They talked openly about how much they “loved” each other. (Note, this was a platonic relationship; both were involved with members of the opposite sex.)
I never did any of these things with either of them. I wanted to. But I didn’t, and I didn’t know how. I cried about it. I drank because of it. And I felt pathetic for doing both. I didn’t know when it was and wasn’t okay to call someone, or what to say if I did. I didn’t think it would be okay for me to talk to them about my feelings, because they didn’t with me. If I messaged them and suggested a walk or lunch on the same day or the next day, they invariably had something else planned (or said they did.)
At one point, I found out on Facebook that they were having a crafts group with several other mutual acquaintances. Now, I was and am one of the most crafty (in the sense of making crafts, not of being manipulative) people I know, and I knew that they knew this because I would make things to give to them. Yet they never invited me to this group, and I was at a loss as to what to do. Could I invite myself? Was there any point, if they clearly didn’t want me there? I was devastated, not so much by not getting to go but by feeling left out and unwanted. I blamed myself– probably rightly? maybe not? I don’t know even now– for being awkward and unlikeable. It seemed like a confirmation of the way I’d judged myself all my life.
One of the things about autism is that it doesn’t just make you awkward, it makes it impossible for you to know what other people are thinking. You spend all your time wishing fervently that people would just tell you what they want from you. I constantly thought, “What exactly am I doing wrong? Why won’t they just tell me if I’m being rude or inappropriate? Or if they just don’t like me that much?” I expect they were sending out plenty of cues that I just didn’t have the capacity to read– my experience with watching, mimicking and practicing had taught me how to go through the motions, but not really how to understand the content.
After that experience, I distanced myself further from my “mommy friends,” because I felt alienated and unwanted. For several years, I really didn’t have any friends at all. I never saw or talked to anyone except family and my abusive romantic partner. Then I went back to college and entered a new relationship, and both of these introduced me to new people who seemed to have some interest in spending time with me. By this point, I’d further developed my skills; I understood roughly how to “hang out” and play video games or make some somewhat stilted small talk. I finally managed to accumulate a handful of people I’d call, as the Brits might, “mates,” if not close friends, and interacting regularly with them allowed me to relax some, be myself a bit, and feel like we shared an actual connection.
That’s basically where I am now. But I’ve continued to experience difficulty and disappointment. I generally find that people do not take the initiative to spend time with me or call me, and that I must therefore always do so; even when I do, I frequently fail to get any response. In some cases, I’ve interacted fairly regularly with a person, only to have them suddenly stop responding at all, or blow me off every time. This confuses me. Again, I am left wondering, am I doing something wrong? Do they really not like me that much? My best friend, my former Person of Interest, gets irritated when I worry about this, and tells me, “That’s just how friendships are. It takes hard work, and most people don’t put in the effort.” Okay, so if that’s the case, how do they ever manage to spend time with people other than me? How do I develop a close enough bond that they will actually think of reaching out to me of their own accord? How can I be sure that the problem isn’t actually that I’m screwing up in some way?
So my message to fellow autists is, keep trying, and things will get better; they won’t be perfect, but don’t feel alone when it doesn’t always work out or you have trouble making and keeping the friendships you’d like. It’s not your fault that you can’t read people. It doesn’t make you a bad or worthless person if you do get rejected, or think you are. There are loads of us out here who feel the same.
And to the neurotypicals who care about autists, please, just be straight with us. If we’re acting inappropriately or just in a way you don’t like, say so– not in a mean way, mind you, but with kindness and care. Interpersonal relationships are harder for us than you can know, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want them and want your approval. Maybe take the time and put out the extra effort to let us know if you do want us around, because otherwise, we’ll likely assume you don’t. Chances are we’ve been hurt a lot, and when you just exclude or ignore us without giving us a reason, we really don’t understand why.