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.

 

 

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Our New Wine family

“I don’t know what to expect from these meetings…I’m on the outside, wishing I knew someone closely, but not feeling comfortable enough to say anything…”

Ten months ago, I wrote myself a letter. I was at my course’s church, surrounded by other Christian interns, and we had been asked to write to our end-of-year selves. Two days ago, these letters were returned to us, and we were asked to take time to reflect on how far we’d come.

I was enrolled on the weekly New Wine Discipleship course as part of the internship I’m doing at a Christian bookshop. And if I’m honest, there were times when I thought I’d never find my feet there. Everyone was getting to know each other. No-one else had to calm down in another room when asked to write and perform a talk. We were all advised to “go deeper” with each other in conversation, and quite frankly, this terrified me.

In situations like this, you can either go running back to safety, or you can push yourself forward. So when I tried to act sociable and relaxed, or remember people’s names, or make a beeline for anyone I now recognised, that’s what I was doing.

I don’t know how I’ve gone from that stage, to thinking about how much I’m going to miss it, but I have. Each Monday session has been draining, but we’ve done so much together. Our first weekend away. Our Christmas party. The Ukraine mission trip. Jennie and Jan’s wedding. And finally, to go out with a bang, our end-of-year graduation ceremony.

Our last day was the most uplifting and exhausting yet. After opening our letters, we all sat in a circle with someone in the centre, while everyone else voiced words of encouragement and special memories. A real reminder of how we value each other.

But what could anyone say about me, the quiet one who always needs help? Let’s say I was humbled by how many things my friends appreciate about me.

Once half the group had stopped crying, we moved on to Jess’ game. In two teams, we each had to decode clues about where in the city we should go to, take a group selfie once there, receive the next clue, and so on. I don’t know why we had to run everywhere, but when my team decided to race, I started at the back, and out-ran all of them. Just saying.

And onto the most important part, the graduation ceremony! While we were hitting the town, Jess had prepared our paper graduation hats and certificates. Once we were assembled, she even dedicated a short speech to each of us before presenting us with our certificates. A true ceremony if ever there was one!

To end the festivities, we had drinks and a meal at a local tapas bar. Thinking about it, having a cocktail on an empty stomach and zero energy probably wasn’t my wisest choice. I shifted between feeling increasingly sociable, and overly anxious. And lightheaded. But hey, tripping over a downward step, and talking about my feelings to the next person* who would listen proved entertaining, if nothing else.

At this point, I’m going over my preferred word count to conclude with a personal shout out to everyone!

To Ruth B, my first friend on the course who looked out for me from day one, and who always goes the extra mile for the group

To Wole, whose God centred enthusiasm is unmatched, and whose random singing had us all in stitches

To Matt, a good worship leader who can start and finish any theological debate

To Ruth G, who I commute with, discuss the course with, and also happily be alone together with

*To Mary, who translated in Ukraine even though it wasn’t easy, and who let me chatter aimlessly about how I shouldn’t have had that cocktail

To Elijah, who also translated, and helped me navigate Ukrainian cafes

To Jan, who trod the Christian bookshop path before me so we could compare experiences

To Miya, who, in Ukraine, listened to me complaining about how useless I sometimes felt

To Jake, who, like me, started off in super-introvert mode, but is actually pretty fun to watch at a wedding disco

To Alex, whose sense of humour is equally questionable and brilliant

To Cameron, who made a good second-in-command in Ukraine

To Nathan, always the cool head in any tricky theological discussion

To Isaac, who frequently gives positive feedback on this blog

And of course, our leaders: David, who got us through the first tricky term, Jess, mother hen and vicar-to-be, and Simon, who led us through Ukraine and made sure I didn’t get lost. Hats off to everyone!

Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, shoes and outdoor

DISCLAIMER: the photo belongs to Jess, not me

 

Ode to Jennie – marriage, madness, and much more

Image may contain: 3 people, people smiling, glasses and close-up

At a wedding, you hear all manner of speeches. And I never did get to give my “intern of the bride” speech. So here it is.

After 10 months of messing around in a shop together, on Saturday 1st July I got to celebrate the marriage of one of my dearest, craziest friends Jennie, and fellow New Wine course member Jan*. It was fun, it was heartfelt, and it was an event that my colleagues predicted from the moment Jan became the intern at the bookshop where we work. Well, that’s what they say. Jennie hotly denies it.

Anyway. My first memory of Jennie, assistant manager extraordinaire, was at my interview last August, as Jan’s potential successor. Picture it: the bookshop’s back office, papers and packaging everywhere, and me, dutifully answering every question my now-boss was firing at me. Jennie, meanwhile, was sitting to one side silently judging me. If she had a beard, I bet she would have been stroking it.

Weeks later, and the dynamics in our relationship had changed enough to be able to communicate “difficult customer alert!” with just one glance. We bonded over our love of to-do lists, and it wasn’t long before the ones she wrote for me included “squash the world in a garlic press” or “High five yourself and then the nearest apple.” And when our conversations got too weird, we mastered the ability to stop whenever a customer came in, and resume without missing a beat once the shop was empty.

For all Jennie’s quirks, the main reason we’ve become so close is that we never felt under pressure to befriend each other. I mean, we’re super introverts. We don’t thrive under high social demands. Although I did rely on her to show me how things were done, other than that, we happily kept our heads down until we were comfortable enough to talk properly. I’d say that was a major breakthrough.

And somehow, we just connected. I love it when that happens. She has shown infinite patience with me, by the way, no matter how many times I screw up because I thought I knew what to do. Wedding preparation has been stressful for her, but throughout it all, she has remained kind, funny, and brilliant at everything she does.

She has also very generously given me a say in certain aspects of the wedding. I have to say, I think my suggestion of a giant, hollow chocolate orange as a carriage was a stroke of genius, even if she did say I’d be the one pulling it. And her hen do: 9.30am – 5pm, in a Christian bookshop, selling books, eating biscuits, and winding each other up.

And now the wedding has come and gone. Apart from anything, it was fun! It was another bonding experience with the other New Wine interns, and we had a lot of laughs playing air guitar in time to some good old disco music. I feel honoured to have attended, and know that they will have a wonderful, long life together. Jan is friendly and funny, and it has also been a pleasure to get to know him along with the other interns.

Now, in just a few weeks, they are moving to Mattersey, Nottinghamshire. Jan will be going to Bible college. Jennie will have a new job. I’ll be twiddling my thumbs in a shop where no-one sneaks up behind me, then laughs when I scream. Or finds endless good things to say about me no matter how wrong I prove them.

Jennie, thank you for a great year. Keep on doing amazing things in life!

 

 

*Think German, and pronounce the J as a Y. Please. He gets sick of being mistaken for a woman.

 

Little things I have needed to learn as an Aspie

That no matter how much I genuinely like a present someone has given me, if I don’t look at them, smile, and act enthusiastic, they will think I hate it. My mum had to teach me this as a kid.

That if someone (usually one of my parents) is trying to get me to say goodbye to someone not directly in my line of sight, simply shouting “bye” will not cut it.

When someone is talking at length to me, listening means more than just taking in what they are saying. It means looking at them on and off, sounding interested, encouraging them to say more, and saying a few things yourself where appropriate. Comes naturally enough now, but completely bypassed me at primary school.

To remember to make eye contact, to some extent (more on that here).

To be able to say, when I am feeling confused or overwhelmed, “I’m autistic, I find hard, could you just explain…” etc.

That actually you have to stand up for yourself, say no, and set firm boundaries, even if it means someone else can’t completely have their own way. At school, I hated the thought of upsetting people by saying no, when they so desperately needed my stationery, or even treats from my lunch.

That there are some people who are fine with this, as long as it works both ways.

That the worst case scenario in a new social situation is that I’ll find it kind of boring and be happy to get back to the privacy of my room.

That the best friendships aren’t forced.

The difference between when friends need advice, reassurance, or a listening ear. Advice: they don’t know how to deal with a situation and are asking your opinion. Reassurance: they’re saying “I feel so stupid, guilty, embarrassed, etc.” or “I’m not weird/stupid/in the wrong, am I?”. Listening ear: they’re not asking anything of you; they simply want to talk something through or explain something to you.

That feeling sad about someone else’s struggles is a double edged sword – you can either be overburdened by feelings of helplessness, or keep the focus on them and pay attention to what they need.

How to recognise when my batteries seriously need recharging. As a child playing at someone’s house, I’d frequently go and spend time with any grown-ups available. Though I didn’t realise this, I was feeling mentally exhausted and was giving my brain a rest. Now, if I’m socialising and enjoying it, sometimes I don’t realise how much I need alone time until I get it.

 

 

Kind or patronising? Just ask

One of the things that I had no idea how to deal with at school was when people spoke to me as if I was a toddler. I would be muddling through a lesson with as much difficulty ease as the next kid. Who, if they weren’t ignoring me, would be trying to do stuff for me, explaining the simplest things, and telling the others “it’s not her fault she’s slow.” Or weak. I even had one person ask me – completely innocently – if I had brain damage. Seriously.

And it wasn’t just kids. I remember a teacher talking about our latest homework assignment, and mentioning how I’d been allowed to skip certain parts because they were too hard. Or classroom assistants who would follow me like a shadow in front of other kids, when all I needed was to ask a few extra questions.

What I found hard was knowing what to say. For the most part, I’d internalise the inner conflict between not wanting to offend and hating feeling patronised. Very occasionally I’d speak up, but the other person would act like I’d just karate chopped them! So much for not offending.

It’s hard to know where to draw the line here. If you have a disability or illness – whether physical or mental – you will probably have extra needs that require accommodation. And you don’t want to be ungrateful to someone who wants to help. Don’t wait until you feel like exploding. Just explain to them the nature of your needs – and be sure to add what you don’t need.

And if you are someone who wants to help, you might want to look at these pointers.

Don’t be afraid to ask your autistic/partially sighted/depressed (etc.) friend what sort of help they need. Do be discreet, especially if they are with other people – you don’t know how open they are about their needs, and they will appreciate you trying to learn without embarrassing them. One of my new discipleship course leaders took me aside recently to ask me about my Asperger’s and how it may show itself on the course. I gave a brief explanation, told her about my blog, and later brought in this letter. Both parties were happy.

Don’t make assumptions about their abilities. Any writing about their condition only describes exactly that – the condition. Not an individual who has it. Just give them the help they ask for. No more, no less. I find I’m more comfortable asking for help if I know it won’t make the other person act like I’m stuck in a burning building. Trying to help always comes from the best of intentions, but when repeatedly done unnecessarily, tells them “I don’t think you are capable.”

Note the difference between sympathy and pity. Pity is when people say “I feel so sorry for *insert name* because of that thing he/she has.” Sympathy is paying attention to what someone is actually struggling with, and offering moral support because you care. As for words like “cute”? Babies are cute. Pets are cute. Mature adult humans? Forget it!

And finally…remember that not every aspect, or even hardship, of a person’s life is linked to their condition. Special needs or not, anyone appreciates friendship from someone who takes them as they find them.

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.

Fresher’s week for the autistic student

When I was new at De Montfort, I had an idea to write an article for the Demon newspaper about Asperger’s and starting university. When I was in my second year, I actually wrote said article for the Demon website. Come third year, and it has just occurred to me to adapt it for my blog. As follows.

As a new student, you may have been given all sorts of university related advice. Make the most of it, have fun, work hard, play hard…sound familiar? But being on the autistic spectrum can make a new and busy environment feel more bewildering than exciting. So if you’re unsure what to make of it all, here are just a few things to bear in mind.

Don’t rush into joining social groups.

Joining societies is an easy way to make time for what you enjoy doing the most, as well as an opportunity to get to know people. Remember, though, that the university lifestyle is a busy one, so you may want to get accustomed to your routine first. Societies are always worth a try, but make sure you know you have time before you make any definite decisions.

Be open and matter-of-fact about your condition.

That doesn’t mean it should be the first thing you tell people, but when the opportunity arises it will help them understand any difficulties you have. If you are talking with someone about your uni experience so far, explain that you are autistic and struggle with change or being around lots of people. Similarly if anyone is confusing you, explain that you are autistic and ask them to repeat what they just said. They will understand you better, and you never know if they are having similar experiences.

Look for opportunities

May sound simple, but as an Aspie, retaining information that hasn’t been told to me directly is something I’ve always found hard. Listening out for events that your lecturers might mention or noticing posters or Facebook announcements is a good start. However, if you’re like me, it might be easier if you think about what sort of opportunities you are interested in (social events, work experience, voluntary work, etc.) and research them.

Don’t take on more than you can manage

You may feel like there is a lot of pressure to join societies and be as sociable as possible. Do go a little way out of your comfort zone if it means finding activities you enjoy, but don’t push yourself so hard that you are too exhausted to enjoy yourself – or, more importantly, study. Most students’ goals for uni are to learn as best as they can and have fun, so don’t be too busy to manage either!

Chat to people

It might feel difficult, but if you look around you during a lecture, these are the people you will be working with for the next three or four years. Don’t worry if you take a while to make friends – this is surprisingly common. When you sit next to someone, introduce yourself. Ask them where they’re from, what they think of any work that’s been set, how they’re finding uni, and be prepared for them to ask you the same. Remember to listen as well, when it’s their turn to talk, and try to show an interest in what they are saying!

Hope that was helpful. Now go on and make the most of it!