I do not have an “official" ASD diagnosis. When I was growing up in the 80s and 90s, autism was not yet really understood to the degree it is now, and many of us went undiagnosed. I have tried to pursue a diagnosis, but was informed by my highly sympathetic long time GP that while yes, she agrees that I’m likely on the spectrum, that medically there’s nothing “wrong" with me, and that as I’m “high functioning,” no benefit exists in paying for the private assessment necessary to obtain an ASD diagnosis in an adult subject. However, I tick pretty much every box on the list of symptoms for what was once a separate condition known as Aspberger’s Syndrome, and now falls under the umbrella of ASD.
There are some real benefits to ASD. My grasp of language is one. I’m very good at writing. I’m excellent in written debate, though my social anxiety makes it much harder to argue a point face to face. I am morally rock solid. My rigid thinking allows me to form strong loyalties and convictions and stick to them, even in the face of challenge (this, as one can imagine, can be a double edged sword). I am fair to a fault.
“Aspies,” as we colloquially refer to ourselves, tend to be proud of our neurodivergence. We recognize it as something that makes us special, unique, or different. The problem is, of course, that it also makes it extremely challenging for us to relate to the neurotypical individuals we encounter in our every day lives.
A common theme through my life is the ghost friend. Friends who, upon meeting me, seem to really like me. We hit it off, bond over one thing or another, and get along famously for some amount of time- be it weeks, months, or sometimes even years. However, without fail, I’ll notice one day that the friend has become more distant. She’s not texting me fun things about her day anymore. She’s not asking to get our kids together for playdates. Suddenly I’ll get a tight smile and a forced greeting when I run into her, as though interacting is something she’d really rather avoid. I never, ever know what I’ve done wrong. With a gun to my head, I cannot pinpoint a behaviour or comment I’ve made that has caused this rift, but I know I must have done something, because it just keeps happening. And it hurts every time.
I’ve tried to approach these friends to try to understand what social cues I've missed, but apparently most people find that very confrontational. Sorry. From my perspective, it seems to just make sense to address the issue and resolve it. I’m not trying to be difficult, it just seems like logic to me. I’m not good at apologizing. I don’t understand why people have emotional attachments to ideas, when the ideas can be contradicted by facts. I’ve come to learn (usually the hard way) that when I’m presenting facts, people often feel attacked. That’s never my intention. I simply do not understand why truisms can be upsetting. I’ve sat and thought and tried very hard to understand why that is. I just can’t. I can, however, recognize that regardless of why, it is how people work, and I’m trying hard to respect that and just keep quiet when I want to correct.
Sometimes I am aware enough to recognize that something I’ve said or am about to say is contentious, but I almost never realize the impact I have. In one particularly memorable instance, I said something that I assumed would have a few close friends mad at me for a few hours and then it’d be over (spoiler alert: I was spouting facts). That was nearly 6 months ago. They haven’t spoken to me since.
I often get told that I’m “playing a victim” or feigning innocence in regards to what I’ve done wrong. Time and again it’s implied that I’m choosing to be obtuse. It’s nota choice, and I’m not feigning anything. I really, truly just don’t get it most of the time.
The thing is though, at the end of the day, human beings are social creatures. Even those of us lacking the social know how and the tools to be successful in social situations crave friendship and understanding, and when it’s communicated to us that we are unworthy of friendship, for whatever reason, it’s still a big blow to the self esteem. We don’t set out to be awful, insensitive, narcissistic jerks. We really don’t. And yet that seems to be the impression we give.
Today I stood in a room where I was forced to make small talk with people I don’t know. I find small talk extremely stressful because I never know what topics of conversation are appropriate or how much information to exchange. It’s an active exercise for me, and I find it mentally exhausting. I always wonder what I might say that’s wrong, because I never figure out until much later if I’ve upset someone. So today I stood in this social situation, focusing all of my energy on doing a good job interacting with people, and I soon realized that I had indeed messed something up. I didn’t know what I did wrong, or how I could have done it differently. I’ve racked my brain. But I messed up yet again, left feeling uncomfortable, and went home feeling lonely and sad and cried. At 32 years old.
I'm not writing this for pity or for a free pass at being an asshole. I don’t expect some magic scenario where everyone who’s ever decided I’m far too much work suddenly forget everything and rush to my side. I'm writing this because it would be really nice to feel understood, and the closest I can come to that is through word vomit. I’m very good at word vomit. So just. If you find me acting badly, or weirdly, or annoyingly, please tell me. Just tell me to my face what I’ve done wrong. I won’t know otherwise. And expect me to freeze up and have to internalize for a bit, because it’s hard constantly learning new ways in which you fail at successful human interaction. But trust that I appreciate directness and the chance to understand where I’ve gone wrong far more than I appreciate people just ceasing to send me Christmas cards.
And to all the people who put up with me anyway, thank you. You’re awesome, wonderful people and I’m grateful to you. You know who you are.
Picture courtesy of K. Morris