Asperger’s and friendships – part 2

Does anyone else miss the days where friendships were formed by arranged play dates and a common interest in beanie babies? You know, before the days when the very word “friendship” meant a social hierarchy, in which kids who talked about cats all the time were not at the top? Yeah. Me too.

Just over a couple of years ago, I was at uni, writing regular online articles about being an autistic student, and I thought I’d give a few pointers on friendship. I didn’t fit in at uni, didn’t see many people outside uni, and was overly-dependent on a friendship that was going downhill faster than if it was rollerskating down a ski slope. In retrospect, I probably wasn’t in a good place to be doling out friendship advice.

I mean, what advice can I offer? That trying to make friends can lead to bitter disappointment, while not trying somehow ends in people bonding over a shared sense of humour before suddenly sharing all their darkest secrets? People in your life can make or break your trust. So just focus on the ones with whom you’ve exchanged secrets, shared your hurts and laughed until you’ve cried. The sheer quality of the friends I have made lately trumps all the social setbacks I’ve had, and I am so incredibly grateful to them.

As someone with Asperger’s, I think true friends are underrated. A few years ago, as a lonely teenager, I thought they were a miracle, as I wrestled with the notion that I might always have trouble relating to others. At best, other kids would come back to me when any boyfriends or cooler friends were out of the picture. At worst, they lost interest completely.

Over time, I have picked up a few tricks of the trade. Observation, for one. What does the other person say that hints at their personality? What do they find funny? What do they like to do? Or talk about? Then there’s empathy. Interpreting faces and body language may be hard, but if you really care when they’ve had a tough time, or are out of their depth, or even talking about something important to them, show it. Listen. Make eye contact. Encourage them to talk more, while respecting their privacy with sensitive issues.

And finally, a little humour can go a long way. If you can joke about how shy you are with new people, or something stupid you’ve done, then you can break through awkwardness. When you feel awkward, you can either metaphorically bury your head in the sand, or laugh at yourself and encourage others to do the same. Why do you think I dedicated an entire blog post to some of my most embarrassing anecdotes?

A group as good as it gets!

 

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Handling conflict

Social skills are often a bit of a mystery to Asperger people. We misread faces and body language. We misunderstand certain instructions. We take a little longer to form friendships. That said, many people on the spectrum get pretty good at learning – or at least compensating for – skills like these. I like to think I’m one of them. But there is one social skill that I just don’t have yet: the ability to manage conflict.

In my last post, I talked about things that scare me. Conflict is one of those things. I sometimes wonder if it’s to do with early memories of family arguments, quickly followed by early memories of leaving behind everything I knew at the time. According to my mum, however, I was no better before then. My refusal to listen to any parts in Pingu story books in which characters got cross was a testament to that; my dear mother never tires of laughing at how often she had to change “shouted” to “said”. So clearly my personality played a part.

Is conflict particularly hard for autistic people? Look at it this way; any social interaction requires the brain to be on high alert for the implication behind words, and the very meaning of body language and facial expressions used. Now throw in some high emotions. Add a little anger, fear of making things worse, and a pinch of difficulty in expressing yourself eloquently. Sound hard to you?

As you know, AS people are often thought of as being logical and insensitive to people’s feelings. For me, the opposite is true. In the right frame of mind, I like to think I’m pretty logical. I can analyse myself, other people, and most situations objectively. Unfortunately, I soak up people’s negative emotions like a sponge. I’m bad at taking criticism, and I know it. I mean, when people have told me that, I’ve been offended, but I can believe it, with a bit of…well, objective analysis.

I’ve also had trouble setting boundaries for fear of offending, and it’s this that has caused many of my mistakes. At school, people would soon learn that they could help themselves to my stationery, or treats from my lunch, and be none the worse for wear. Yet anyone I complained to would offer the same crazy suggestion: say “no” to them, thus being selfish and hurting their feelings. I know, right? Unthinkable…

Fast forward to uni. The place where you form lifelong friendships. I thought the best way to maintain a friendship was to always put the other person’s wants and feelings before my own, and after a while, I became desperately unhappy. Which was a real wake up call.

I’d like to say I’ve learnt a lot since then, but I still find conflict hard. I want to be able to let other people’s quarrels wash over me. I want to know how to manage disagreements in a way that strengthens a relationship. But over the past couple of years, I’ve realised that standing up for your needs isn’t selfish, or unthinkable, because you can do so without tearing the other person down. Most importantly, everyone deserves to be heard. If nothing else, try to hold onto that.

Asperger’s and Chris Packham

Have you ever marvelled at how much you can learn about something just by reading what people are saying on Facebook?

The other evening, I saw part of “Asperger’s and Me: Chris Packham”, in which Chris Packham, TV presenter and nature photographer, discloses his Asperger’s diagnosis and talks about how it affects him. Having not watched all of it, I can’t do a detailed analysis of the whole thing. Instead, what I thought I’d do is explore a couple of issues brought up by people discussing it on Facebook, and also share my thoughts on what I did see.

I’d never heard of Chris Packham until now, and this is thought to be the first time he has talked about having Asperger’s. In response, some people have said that this film has shown him in a whole new light, and that they had simply thought of him as socially awkward and hard to relate to. This may make them sound bad to you, and is definitely part of why having Asperger’s is lonely. But no-one’s a mind reader, and this is why disclosure is important. It’s hard – I couldn’t face telling anyone for years – but people need to learn, and many are willing to try.

One part I did catch was where he visited a school and a clinic in the US, where Asperger’s and other forms of autism were seen as something to be cured. I’ve said what I think about healing autism, and honestly, this bit disturbed me. The clinic tried to treat patients with shock therapy – electric shocks into the brain that were supposed to realign certain parts of it. The school was chaotic, noisy, and disorganised. The headteacher likened autism to cancer. Worst of all, frightened, screaming children were physically punished for showing any autistic behaviour.

Another issue that came up was: do people “suffer” from Asperger’s? Or is that offensive? Well, it’s not an illness, I’m very firm about that. You don’t catch it, develop it, treat it, stop having it, die of it, or pass it around. With a loving support system and good education, you develop and grow, but you don’t get off that spectrum!

So in that way, you don’t “suffer” from Asperger’s. What you suffer from is being autistic in a world made for neurotypical people, for whom body language and facial expressions make up the native language. You suffer from prejudice, and living with the knowledge that some people want people like you “bred out”. You suffer from people not warming to you because you don’t know how to make friends. That’s a lot of suffering, for a condition that doesn’t cause suffering!

Do I agree that people “suffer” from AS? You don’t suffer “from” it, but I can’t deny it can cause you to suffer. What do you think?

The challenges of change

People say there’s good change and bad change. A while back, I expanded on this. Some things should change, some things will inevitably change, some things shouldn’t change, and some things will never change. Sound about right?

This is definitely true in a broader sense, but at the time, I was actually thinking about people as individuals. People change all the time. Some refuse to budge when push comes to shove. Others make a conscious effort, and there’s a very fine line between putting on a show just to impress, and changing so that you grow and improve.

You’ve probably heard that people on the autistic spectrum – like me – struggle with “inflexible thinking”. In response, I’d say I’m a flexible thinker, and a less flexible doer. I’ve willingly dealt with, and sometimes even welcomed, something new. I don’t have a meltdown if one week has a slightly different schedule to most weeks. I’m wary of getting so stuck in a particular thought pattern that it’s impossible to see outside it. See? I can handle change.

But my parents would point out that, in spite of all that, I still find it hard. And actually, they have a point. If things are going to be different, I like to know about it in advance and prepare as much as necessary. Right now, post-internship, I’m at a bit of a crossroad. This past fortnight has had some rather unexpected ups and downs. On top of that, I’ve had one-to-one meetings with new people, job applications and an interview, and a new editorial role on De Montfort Uni‘s magazine, the Demon. I can’t deny, it’s all very unsettling.

I think the reason people like me struggle with change is because there is a lot we don’t understand that comes easily for others, and so we feel a strong need for our environment to make sense. When there’s a lot going on, and I’m always asking what’s happening, when, where, etc. it’s like I can’t see all that, and am feeling my way in order to get a picture of my current situation.

I suppose the main thing to understand about change is that it’s unavoidable. Also it’s hard to pinpoint any specific way of handling it when every situation is different. I guess if something new is coming up and you know it, prepare and learn, even if it means asking the same things more than once. New things that you know nothing about are harder, but they’re not always bad. When things do go wrong, be aware of your needs and emotional reactions, and think about how you are going to get through. As for good change, it might help to think about why it’s happening, or what good may result, and if you don’t know, even if it feels difficult, that’s ok.

 

Lonely in a crowd

Parties. Love them or hate them? If I know people who will be there, I’m happy to go. Once I’m there, I can expect one of the following outcomes. It’ll be a great bonding time with friends, and social energy well spent…or I could be watching everyone having fun together, wondering how they click so easily, and not knowing how to join in.

To start with, I have more friends now than I ever had growing up, and I’m so grateful for what they’ve done for me. But I’ve been to a few social occasions lately, and during one where I was watching the others talk, laugh, and have fun, it kind of hit me how lonely Asperger’s Syndrome can be. I can, and usually do, get on well with people individually, but it’s so frustrating still not knowing how to really get noticed in a group.

I mean, tripping over a step in front of over 10 people this summer got me noticed. But possibly not for the right reasons.

I’ve blogged about Asperger’s and groups. I’ve also, in a fit of uncharacteristic optimism, covered what’s good about the condition. What makes it so lonely at times?

Most of the time, I don’t even know what I’m not picking up on from other people. Experts would say non-verbal communication. Or lack of eye contact. Or needing alone time when it gets too draining. I know. I’ve heard it all before. Whatever it is, it can make people think I’m not interested. And that’s really hard.

You know the saying “three’s a crowd?” Couldn’t have said it better myself. Threes always make me anxious. No two members of the group will have the same relationship dynamics, and you can bet two people are closer to each other than the remaining one. Fair or not, it’s only natural, and I don’t know how not to be that awkward third person. At least if you feel invisible in a big group, it’s understandable when there are so many others to talk to. When you’re one of only two people for someone to bond with and they still prefer the other person? Dispiriting, to say the least.

One of my biggest insecurities – no matter how kind people are – is the thought of being the one who always needs help, but has nothing to contribute. You need help understanding what’s happening. You get confused by too much going on, or too many instructions. Occasionally you’ll say something inappropriate that seems logical to you. It’ll always take longer for you to learn to read people. I’ve heard these things over and over, and trust me, it would be an easier burden to bear if they weren’t true.

I know it all sounds a bit negative. But hey, we all get lonely, and sometimes the best way to reach out to others is to share your struggles. I don’t sugarcoat these things. Or exaggerate. Nor am I asking for special treatment. I’m just being real. And if you have similar worries, I hope this helps.

 

 

The digital age – smarter, better, faster, stronger

Does such easy access to technology make us smarter? This was a long-car-journey-thought of mine ages ago. People believe we’re cleverer than ever before. There’s more knowledge and news circulating, and doing so more easily than even a generation ago. So there’s definitely some truth in that.

I don’t think it started in this generation, either. The main reason TV, radio, and the telephone took off so quickly was because people were gaining access to news. Since then, inventions like that have been upgraded over and over, with new inventions being added to the mix. Now we can scroll through Facebook like our own self-updating newspaper, only better, because it (mostly) caters to our interests, and includes friends’ news, as well as general headlines. Phones aren’t just communication devices – you can take pictures with them, count your steps with them, beat them at checkers even on the hardest level, hehe… You really have to marvel at the brains behind technology.

A common complaint about so much digital entertainment, social media, etc. is that we are forgetting how to use our brains. I can believe that; kids these days are given iPads, phones, computers to play with, when the whole point of toys and pretend games are to help them develop their brains.

And it doesn’t stop there. If I’m bored, it’s tempting to see what’s available on YouTube or Netflix, especially if I’m supposed to be doing something else. We can spend so much time procrastinating online, that we have less time for reading, hobbies, or going out. And, more worryingly, achieving our goals.

There’s no harm in having fun with our devices. But they don’t have to stop you from having a mind of your own, and a productive life. And, for many people, they don’t. Ironically, I’m hoping I’m one of them, while sitting behind a computer trying not to get sidetracked by Facebook.

Being able to communicate so freely is a double edged sword. I’ll start with what I do like about it. For a start, staying in touch is easier than ever. If I want to catch up with someone, or even just ask how they are, I only have to whip out my phone. It’s not the same as actually seeing them – I mean, you can’t hug them (!!!) – but if one of you needs emotional support, the other person is only a few clicks away.

Not forgetting how quickly you can make yourself, and your work, known. As if to prove this point, I am currently writing this blog post about it, which I plan on sharing to my millions thousands hundreds 150 or so page fans.

One thing that scares me about the internet is just how easily people tear each other down. There’s always been too much negativity flying around. Now we can hide behind a screen and a profile picture, and say what we like about that trashy celebrity, or that guy who disagreed with a comment we made. Something YouTubers like to do is find an entertaining way to show off all the hate comments they get, and I envy their ability to laugh it off. But why do people get such a kick out of spreading hate so freely?

When communicating publicly online, perhaps the trick is to ask ourselves if what we are saying is in any way kind or helpful. If not, then is it really necessary?

Customers versus shop assistants

A while back, I found a quote on Facebook, which – to paraphrase – went something like this. When a shop assistant goes home, and someone asks how their day at work was, you, as a customer, are part of the answer.

I’m coming to the end of my Christian bookshop internship, and I have seen all manner of customers. Different ages, races, walks of life, you name it. Many interactions I have with them are fairly bog standard. Hello, can I help with anything? I’ll have a look…they’re right there/no we don’t have that in stock. That’ll be pounds, do you need a free carrier bag? Thank you, have a nice day!

And some people know exactly how to brighten someone’s day. Some regulars actually give us chocolate. Or a bottle of juice each. Some even need a listening ear. They’re ill. Lonely. Disillusioned. They see the shop as a safe place to vent, and I always feel honoured to have gained someone’s trust.

But of course, some drive you crazy. They expect all shop assistants to know everything. They take it very personally when something they swear we had 10 years ago is unavailable. Before opening time, they might be waiting outside the unopened door, then getting huffy with us for not opening, because they need to get back to where they’ve parked illegally. Or they come waltzing in straight past the opening times stuck at face level, one minute before closing time, and ask when we close. Before spending ages browsing.

Another thing that frustrates me is when people ask for a very specific item, but can’t give me a title, author, or publisher. A Moroccan leather Bible? Tempting to say “Damn, sold the last one five minutes ago.” A Church of England booklet on the rite of confirmation? Said customer was very cross with me for not finding this, when they’d come “all the way from London” and we’d “never let them down until now!”

Yes, some people can be downright unpleasant. We recently had someone ask us to change a £20, and make it quick, thank you very much. We were reluctant; having done so earlier had left us short of change, and we needed to preserve what was left for real customers. The person asked if we would give them change if they bought something, and got angry when they realised we had enough for that. They were more cross with my poor colleague, who was trying to explain to them, and even said so to “reassure” me. You know how it is when you feel more angry when someone messes with your friend than with you? I do!

This, by the way, was hours after my other colleague, who speaks English as a second language, got yelled at by someone for struggling to understand them and not speaking clearly enough. And about a week after I listened to a customer’s complaints about life and compliments on my job performance, only to learn they had been banned for making sexual innuendos.

To finish, I would like to thank every customer who shows nothing but respect, good manners, and the occasional treat (!!!). And to the minority? Kindly remember that shop staff are not God, or computers. We just want to survive the working day, and get home to our families. Don’t you?