Boundaries – a fine line

From childhood until university, I used to think that the best way to win and maintain friendships was to let the other person have their own way all the time. I mean, that’s what everyone says about friends; it’s important to put the other person first. As a teenager – with Asperger’s, at that – I was never good at interpreting social rules. Though really, how far wrong can you go with this one?

It started harmlessly enough. If other children had forgotten/broken a pencil, they soon knew they could ask me for one. If we were queueing for anything exciting, I would willingly let anyone who asked go in front of me. And if I had any particularly special treats in my lunch…well, you get the idea.

I think my parents realised there was a problem when I began losing some of my stationery to people who needed it more. But who was I to complain? I was trying to be a good friend. I didn’t always like it, but I wanted to make people happy, and thanks to autism, that was the only way I knew how. My first rule of thumb was to put other people first; my second, to avoid offending anyone. And saying “no” to a reasonable request was, in my mind, the epitome of offense. Especially when people took offense if I so much as thought about it. A problem which I could never get to go away.

It wasn’t until I started trying to apply boundaries that I learned that not having them makes it harder to recognise and respect other people’s boundaries. At first glance this makes no sense – the reason many people struggle to set them is because they desperately want to please. I’ve had to learn to not be either offended or overcome with guilt when people disagree with me, or criticise me, and instead, simply work out how to change for the better. This doesn’t mean blindly deferring to the other person; sometimes it takes a bit of objective analysis of a situation to see what you could do differently.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to go through life without offending anyone. Until I left uni, I used to think it was as simple as either keeping the peace at all costs, or showing no respect for other people’s feelings whatsoever, but it’s not that black and white. I couldn’t let go of the mindset that being a good friend meant keeping the peace at all costs, until I realised that setting boundaries isn’t unreasonable. For me, it means:

  • Not being afraid to politely but firmly let someone know if you don’t like the way they treat you
  • Being consistent in the standards you set for how you treat other people and expect to be treated
  • Being able to disagree with someone, while still showing them respect
  • Reminding the other person that their way of seeing things isn’t the only way – while remembering this principle yourself

So, to end on a saying I heard at church once, if you never say no, what is your yes worth?

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Being included

My teenage years were quite a lonely time for me. I’m sure I’m not alone in this. I soon got used to sitting in the SEN* room during breaktimes because it was easier than being alone in a crowd of friendship groups. One or two people made the effort to talk to me, and I appreciated it, but mostly I had to put up with other people talking about social events I wasn’t invited to.

If you’re not reading this while listening to some sad violin music, then you should be.

This is one of many struggles for young people on the autistic spectrum. Despite the “unemotional” stereotype, many of us are weighed down by the need for intimacy but difficulty in connecting. Since secondary school, things have improved significantly for me, give or take a few bumps along the way, but when non-verbal language isn’t your forte, sometimes it’s as if people forget you exist.

But while the stereotype that we don’t care about people is usually untrue, it is true that people with Asperger’s can find social events overwhelming. I was reflecting on this recently; I love feeling like I belong, and that people want to spend time with me. Sometimes, however, I get invited to social events where I don’t really know anyone properly, the activity is something I find hard, or I’m already feeling drained. Then if I say no, I inwardly scold myself for being ungrateful when social isolation used to be a real problem for me. If I get left out, I feel lonely. If people try to include me, I shy away in favour of being alone. Right?

The fact is, I always appreciate any attempts to help me feel included, even if I’m not front-and-centre at every social event. A bit like how a person in a wheelchair may want to be as involved as the next person, but might be reluctant to agree to go on a hike. Besides, I’ve been to a fair few events outside of my comfort zone, and actually ended up enjoying them – a few years ago, I wouldn’t be seen dead in a tent, for example! I just like to know that I’ll have at least one close friend I can stick with who understands autism, and opportunities for quiet time.

So if you’re not sure how someone on the spectrum feels about being invited to something, it doesn’t hurt to ask. They may say no, but if they’ve repeatedly felt left out in the past, they may still want to know that they were thought of.

 

*Special Educational Needs

 

To Hester: a lover of hugs and history

Over the past few years, I have been very lucky. I have found better friends than I ever thought I would, and, more recently, have fallen on my feet at the church I now go to. Now, I could probably get through several blog posts by giving a shout out to everyone I’ve met since my uni years, but for now, I’m giving the spotlight to my friend Hester and her family.

I’ll start with a few key points. Firstly, I met Hess and her family through various Navigators* events and activities. I distinctly remember meeting Hester the first time I went to the Navs weekend away in Blackpool, but given that I spent the whole weekend hiding behind the only person I knew, I fully understand if she doesn’t remember this. While I was at uni, her parents took me under their wings, inviting me over, giving me lifts to places, and showing me endless kindness. And Hester herself, despite any emotional upheaval of her own, is one of my go-to friends and text recipients when life has taken a plunge. Panic attack on a trip abroad? My sister getting dangerously ill? She always has a listening ear and words of comfort. And a hug like no one else.

I’m pleased to say, I’m not the only person who appreciates this. Cue a brief introduction to James: fellow student Nav back in the day, medic-in-training, and a generally great guy. When Hess started coming to weekly Navs Bible study evenings, they bonded over a love of history, castles, and other brainy topics. I had my suspicions about how this would end up when I was waiting in town for Hester and she arrived under James’ arm. Last Saturday, my suspicions came true: they got married!

Given that history is her main forte, I was rather pleased with my suggestion that she should wear a suit of armour on the day, and a little disconcerted when she turned up in a wedding dress instead. I stand by my opinion that this is a highly original and creative idea of mine, but actually, it would have made disco dancing awkward, come to think of it.

In all seriousness, I’m honoured to have been so involved. I was invited to her hen party, and felt like a kid again. This may have been from playing games like pass the parcel and Blind Man’s Buff. It may have been from the sheer amount of cake I consumed. Or it may have been me shadowing her mum the whole time, relapsing into my childhood habit of staying close to the grown-ups when I could be mingling with the other children…

Finally, last weekend, I got to play my violin in the church band! Having got back from holiday two days previously, and arranged to stay with different people the night before and after, I felt a bit like I was on tour. I also felt like my playing gave off the (correct) impression that I’d only been around for one rehearsal, and that I didn’t know at least two of the songs. But whatever my playing sounded like, I loved every minute of the day. In conclusion, I am proud to be friends with Hester and James, and have high hopes for their life ahead. To the bride and groom: a big, Hess-style bear hug from me!

At the hen party

Castle cake!

 

 

*A Christian mission organisation which included a student group in Leicester that I was involved in.

Asperger’s and faith

Last year, during my weekly New Wine discipleship course, I had to lead morning devotions for one session, and I was asked to discuss how being on the autistic spectrum affects my faith. My immediate reaction was to think that having Asperger’s Syndrome isn’t relevant to every little thing in my life. I mean, there are plenty of factors that have shaped my beliefs, and my attitude towards church. But is AS really one of them?

It would be nice if I had some fascinating backstory of how I became a Christian, but the truth is, I was raised going to church. I was very lonely as a teenager, and it was while my confidence was at rock bottom that I got more involved with church youth activities. I went from being unable to talk about autism to being able to explain how it affected me without being afraid of judgement. Here was a social scene that was outside the norm, and as well as fitting right in, I was learning what being a Christian was really about. So in that sense, autism did have a role to play.

Churches in general are often a real mixed bag. From the outside, it would be easy to see Christians as either deluded, self righteous fools, or as people who cannot be anything but kind and inclusive to their neighbours. But people just aren’t that black and white, and Christians are no exception. And I would be lying if I said Christianity has been an easy ride for me, because it hasn’t. There are opinions I struggle to agree with, and many more issues I don’t even understand.

Besides, a church community is a social group like any other, and that means people, and mixed messages, and complex relationship dynamics. At the beginning of my discipleship course, I was surrounded by other young people who I would be spending a whole day with every week. Some people already knew each other, some didn’t, but we were encouraged to “go deeper” with each other from day one, and the very idea spooked me.

While other people bonded within the first month, I got off to a shaky start and I thought I’d never get used to it. It would have been so easy to withdraw and keep everyone at arm’s length, but I made myself get to know them, remember their names and make friends. Before I knew it, I had completed my first mission trip and was talking about everything I had learned in front of an audience. Seems that God really does see us through these things!

Which brings me back to my morning devotions talk. Having been on the course for three months, I reflected on my experiences at church so far, and the message I wanted to share came to me. So that morning, I got everyone to discuss the passage in Genesis in which Moses insists that he doesn’t have the skills to lead. And the thought I left open to discussion was: We all have something that shakes our confidence in our potential. Moses’s was his fear of public speaking. Mine is having a form of autism. What’s yours?

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!

 

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 – or communicating to – other people. Experts would say non-verbal signals. Or eye contact. Or me 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.

 

 

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!

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DISCLAIMER: the photo belongs to Jess, not me