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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“Things Not To Say To An Autistic Person”- my reaction

If I had a pound for every time I read or hear the statements below, I wouldn’t be job searching…

Today I thought I’d take a different approach to usual and have a look at a video: BBC3’s “Things Not To Say To An Autistic Person” available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d69tTXOvRq4. It’s part of a series in which people in a social minority share with each other – and the viewers – what sort of things they constantly hear from people. And after watching the one about autism, I thought why not share my thoughts? So here are the statements covered.

“But you don’t look autistic!”

Can you tell me what an autistic person looks like? I’ll have a go. Human sized. Hair, mostly on the head. Two eyes. One mouth and nose. Four limbs, but only two are used for walking. I can’t really give much more detail, though, because no two autistic people are alike…

Autism isn’t a physical condition. In fact it’s not even one condition, and I’m well aware that those on the severe end of the spectrum may present as being obviously different. But it’s only their behaviour that shows it.

“What’s your special ability?”

The assumption that people like me have a special ability is, to be fair, loosely based on truth. It also implies that people on the spectrum have superhero alter egos. Which isn’t the case, because frankly, life’s not fair.

It is common for autistic people to have an above-average IQ, and an intense, detailed fascination with their area of expertise. I mean, not every five year old would know a polymorphic snake when they saw one. And yes, assuming someone is gifted is better than assuming that they’re dumb. But blatantly assuming anything can sound annoying, and anyway, it’s not always as simple as autistic people having one super-talent and struggling with everything else. Autistic obsessions may be rigid while they last, but they can change and overlap.

“Everyone’s a little bit autistic”

Nothing wrong with this statement exactly, but does everyone who coughs have a little bit of asthma?

“Autistic people don’t feel empathy

Let me stop you there. Many autistic people aren’t as expressive as neurotypicals. We don’t always know how to respond to people during immediate, face-to-face interaction, and yet somehow, we over-empathise. If someone I’m with is unhappy, it’s like the air is thick with it.

“You could be normal if you tried”

I don’t try. I just am. For me. Don’t even get me started on healing

“How would you describe autism?”

A hard question, but not necessarily an inappropriate one. Having Asperger’s, i.e. at the mild end of the spectrum, I’d say poor co-ordination, difficulty reading people, a mix of detailed and innovative, and overall a bummer, but also perfectly normal. Well, “normal.” If you want a lengthier description, you’ve got one right here.

“What is the best thing about autism?”

To be honest, it’s a nuisance. But hey, I can joke about lacking empathy or humour in a way that would be insulting coming from anyone else. I have life experiences, and an understanding of the world, that are apparently different from neurotypicals’. Plus, if I didn’t have it, I might not be writing this blog.

There you have it. Personally, I wouldn’t put a ban on those last two points, but other than that, please try to remember the issues touched upon. And while you’re at it, watch the video, and tell me what you think. How can one deal with these statements? Could they be replaced with something more appropriate?

The importance of being empathetic

When trying to summarise Asperger’s Syndrome to people, I tell them I lack three basic things. 1) Empathy. 2) Emotions. 3)…sarcasm. You get it? Come on, I was sarcastically saying I lack sarcasm…oh never mind, thought it was funny.

A few years ago, I found an article about a groundbreaking new theory: that AS people do not lack empathy but instead are overwhelmed by it. I mean, I could have told them that, but I’m just glad that somebody did.

True, some people with more severe autism may genuinely struggle to empathise. And you could argue that AS people who seem to show it are just demonstrating learned behaviour without any feeling behind it at all. Which would be dictating how a person on the spectrum is feeling, without actually knowing. And they say autistic people lack empathy!

For me, the theory in the aforementioned article is very much true. I have been able to pick up on others’ emotions very acutely since before I can remember. When someone I care about is crying, I genuinely struggle not to cry with them. Also, I hate conflict. Even when it doesn’t involve me, I can see where both parties are wrong, feel the heated emotion, and am powerless to do anything.

What I find harder is knowing how to react to people’s emotions. As a teenager, I would have been completely at a loss for what to do when someone was upset, then hated myself for not helping. Now, I’ve honed my natural empathy so that I know what a person needs from me, as well as how they feel. It gets easier once I’m in tune with how they think – having a similar personality, or knowing them a long time, helps.

A while ago, my stepsister-in-law asked me (not unreasonably): what are my thoughts on AS people typically being Thinkers, and how does being a Feeler* with Asperger’s work? I can answer now. Speaking logically when it’s best not to isn’t the same as being unemotional. It’s just that an AS person may not realise they’re being inappropriate. It doesn’t mean they won’t be upset if they offend someone. Trust me; my whole life, especially at secondary school, would have been a whole lot easier if this didn’t bother me. Or maybe I would have been even less popular? I don’t know.

Sharing my struggles – and having friends open up to me – has taught me a lot about the importance of empathy. It’s not just sympathetic words and and forced optimism. It’s feeling someone’s emotional burden and working out whether they’re seeking advice, practical help, cheering up or – most likely – someone who listens and understands.

 

 

*Basic Myers-Briggs terminology, you can look it up anywhere.