Autism, The Friendship Void, and The Communication Chasm
At a local Autism support group we belong to, we recently covered the subject of friendships. Kids with Autism can find friendships more difficult to form and keep than their neurotypical peers. We went over ways to help out kids, strategies we could employ, and pitfalls to avoid.
Overall, the night was very productive, but it did make me realize that this is one area of life that I’m not going to be able to help NHL much with. As it stands, I have no friends of my own. I have people I feel I can be open with to some degree at work. I have people I can talk to on social media. However, when it comes to actual, real life friends to hang out with our talk to, I don’t have any.
For me, it goes beyond not having any friends, though. I honestly don’t know HOW to make friends. The idea of walking up to some stranger and introducing myself fills me with anxiety. My mind will go completely blank and I won’t be able to introduce myself much less carry on a conversation. If I do manage to get a conversation going, I’m likely to forget about how conversations need to give and take. I’ll dominate the conversation – talking only about myself and not asking about them. It’s not that I’m trying to be rude. It’s just that chit chat doesn’t always come naturally to me.
Work friendships tend to be easier since I can initially limit conversations to work topics, slowly expanding the range as I feel more comfortable. These friendships are self-limited by the fact that they take place at work, though. No matter how comfortable I might feel around a work-friend, there are just some topics are off limits that would not be unusual to discuss with a friend from outside of work. The same holds true for social media friends. I feel more comfortable typing responses rather than talking (more on that later) so social media is a perfect outlet. However, again, this tends to be self-limiting. When I feel like complaining about something or someone, a public forum is not always the proper venue. After all, a conversation with a friend can be private. Tweets are not.
Of course, this situation isn’t new. I wrote about this way back in 2009 and again in 2011. Most days, I manage to hold myself together just fine, but recent changes have been happening in my life that have weakened me. I can’t stand change normally, but change plus a realization of how I don’t have friends? I’m barely keeping it together now. This is where a neurotypical person would know exactly how to express these feelings. For me, though, it tends to be more complicated.
First of all, my emotional cage tends to keep all of these feelings bottled up. I feel like there’s a chasm between me and everyone else. I want to tell the people on the other side how I’m feeling, but I can’t shout it loud enough for them to hear. To make matters worse, the stronger my emotions, the harder it is for me to express them. The worse I feel and the more I need other people’s support, the less I am able to let others know what it is I need.
The one reliable communication method I have is writing. When I write, I can type out my feelings, edit them, reword them multiple times, and hone the message until it’s perfect. Writing also lets me express myself without fear of immediate negative reaction. In contrast, talking to people requires me to come up with the perfect phrasing on the fly (with no undo capability) while risking rejection or mockery if I don’t get it just right.
Then, just when it seemed like interpersonal communication was as hard as it could possibly get, my brain tosses in one more curveball. In Battling My Own Brain, I wrote that my mind will play this refrain for me over and over:
Nobody loves me. Nobody understands me. The world is against me. People are doing things to hurt me on purpose.
This morphs slightly when I plan conversations in my mind. My mind will fill in the replies with the worst possible responses that can be uttered. If it’s a mental conversation with my manager, my brain will have him firing me for no good reason. If I’m picturing a discussion with my wife, my mind will steer it so that she demands a divorce. To be clear, neither of these things have happened and I have no evidence that either one is anywhere in the realm of possibility at the moment or for the foreseeable future. Still, lack of proof doesn’t stop my brain from devising nightmare scenarios.
As you might imagine, this does NOT help with my communication issues. I often begin conversations upset from imagined slights and on the defensive over even the slightest wrong turn the discussion takes. It takes a lot of mental willpower to see through my mind’s deception. It feels all too easy to fall into despair over imagined slights. I also need to use a lot of mental resources to not only push past the emotional instinct to stay quiet but to figure out the proper on-the-fly responses during a conversation. All too often, this requires more than I have and I wind up feeling like a prisoner in my own mind. I’m trying to scream to be let out, but no words come to me. I want to hang out with a group of friends to discuss hobbies, current events, and personal issues, but friendship requires communication which can be very difficult. Many days all I’m left with is a brain that seems determined to sabotage any effort I make to communicate with others.
NOTE: The chasm image above is by Pearson Scott Foresman and was donated to Wikimedia Foundation as public domain. (I added the tiny "Help!")