Prior to starting this blog I wrote about my Asperger’s on an as-needed basis. When I mentioned it at all, it was peripheral to the story. I didn’t try to avoid it, nor to keep it a secret, but didn’t really focus on it. When I started this blog I didn’t think of it as “coming out” but apparently it was for some people. I know this because I keep hearing things like I never would have guessed you’re autistic. Well, don’t feel bad because for the first 40-odd years of my life neither did anybody else. Do they think I’m weird? Yes. Brilliant? Occasionally. Funny? On my good days. Autistic? Not so much.
The funny thing though isn’t the opening line in this conversation, but the second one. Often the follow up is “so you must have gotten over it, right?” What? Have you met me? Of course you have, because this isn’t something strangers ask. Only people who have known me long enough to feel like “hey, I should have known that about him” are surprised enough to ask. Meanwhile, I’m busy thinking “hey, after this long, I thought it would at least make sense, if not be totally obvious” so I’m surprised too. How did this happen?
Part of the explanation is that I’ve learned to read non-verbal language a bit better and I have developed pretty good social skills emulation. It isn’t great but as long as I confine myself to a few well-practiced social situations I get by. Wander outside those areas, and the clockwork starts to show through. But that doesn’t totally account for the surprise some of my friends have expressed. These are people who have known me long enough that we’ve already wandered outside those comfort zones from time to time.
My theory is that after getting to know me, these friends are simply accepting me as I am. When I interrupt a serious conversation to make a joke, they chuckle – or not – and move on. When they ask a seemingly trivial question and it takes me 5 or 10 minutes to respond, they have faith that there’s something in there worth hearing, or maybe recognize my passion about it so they care too. Of course, this only happens once I get to know them enough that I trust them not to react badly when I relax a bit and just be myself.
Ultimately, what I think is going on here is something we in the autism community have been asking from society at large: in forming a bond based on respect and trust, my friends have adapted to a wider range of communication styles so seamlessly that they did not realize they were doing it.
The third part of the conversation, the part where I point out all the clues and they say “oh yeah, that makes sense,” tends to confirm this theory. These were occasions where the autism came shining through and they didn’t notice, or if they did they wrote it off. A friend’s mother was in town visiting and he wanted to introduce her to some neighbors, of which I am one. The meeting was so awkward that for the rest of her visit if I happened to see her in the yard, she’d stop playing with the grandkids and just glare at me with arms akimbo until I walked out of sight. His comment was “don’t worry about it, she doesn’t really know you.”
She doesn’t really know you.
The implication is that if she did, she’d like me too. Or in other words, he sees the behavior differences but looks past them whereas they are all his mom sees and she can’t bring herself to look past them. When I pointed this and other evidence out he said “OK, I guess that makes sense” but with a hint of lingering skepticism in his voice.
If you are autistic and struggling socially, you may be wondering if you can adopt my strategy. I’m not saying you should, nor am I making any guesses as to whether it would work well for others. Once I explain it, you may feel it’s a bit like selling out. At least that’s what I’ve been told on occasion. Or maybe it will work great and open your social possibilities a bit. Whatever you do with it, or not, I’d love to know. Anyway, here’s what I think is happening when my friends tell me my autism is a surprise.
It’s no accident that I’m a consultant. One of the ways I learned to interact with people was to teach the topics on which I’m knowledgeable. Since encyclopedic fluency within specific topics is a typical Asperger’s trait, this came naturally to me. The more technical and arcane the topic, the more leeway people grant for eccentricity. Of course, acquiring that deep skill requires study and so at times I strike up a friendship based on the other person being the expert and me the student. Many of my friends got to know me first in this teacher/student basis, which is why most people I interact with socially are those I know in a professional context.
The student/teacher relationship is fairly one-dimensional but it establishes a bond of trust and respect. I don’t make a point of telling the other person what my guiding principles are, but they figure out soon enough from my actions that I value personal integrity, loyalty and compassion. By the time we get to the point in the friendship that I feel comfortable relaxing a bit, the other person will have decided the good qualities outweigh the quirky or bad ones and they don’t run off at the first weird utterance.
Some have told me that what I just described sounds a bit “salesy” to them. It’s like getting a foot in the door then talking your way in. There’s an intuition some people have that deliberately cultivating friendships is insincere. I’d like to respond to this because I think it could not be further from the truth. I may come at sincerity from a different angle than you, but I get there and do so honestly.
First, it’s not as deliberate as it sounds. I described a string of events but maybe you read too much intentionality into it. This isn’t a strategy in the sense of targeting someone, it’s just that I’m wired for learning or teaching and those activities put me in the path of like-minded people. But then I believe that’s how we are all wired to some extent. If you are interested in orchids, don’t you meet friends at the botanical gardens? If you like to bowl, don’t you meet people at the lanes? I like computer security so I tend to meet people in that context. It may be insincere if meeting people is the reason you take up orchids or bowling, but finding something you enjoy or are passionate about and bonding over that is natural. In my case, the things I enjoy or am passionate about tend to be obsessive interests. So I may be the weirdest guy at the computer club (often not, bad example I know, but stick with me here) but you don’t mind the eccentricities if I have an encyclopedic knowledge of securing, administering and fixing your PC.
So the first part of the strategy, if you can call it that, is simply this: find your passion and then interact within that community of like-minded people.
My second objection to the “salesy” challenge is that even if this strategy is deliberate, why is that assumed to be a bad thing? Must “chemistry” be the basis for all friendships? I say no and having recently celebrated my 30th wedding anniversary I feel qualified in making this assertion. That chemical infatuation often called “love” wore off between my wife and I decades ago. But we are still best friends and very much in love because we learned early on that “love” is a verb, not a quality. When I say “I love my wife” it’s not a statement of how I feel but rather of the thousand things I do to express that. For example, when she is uncharacteristically angry with me, instead of getting angry back my first thought is that “she’s in pain and how can I help?” Love is work. It is deliberate. It is a choice to not take the easy way out.
Friendships are the same way. I’m sure that I make my friends work for the friendship. I don’t apologize for that, but I do try to be worth the trouble. Then too, they often make me work for the friendship as well. One friend accused me of jumping on the self-diagnosed Aspie bandwagon. Another said “But you seem so normal!” One described my consulting job as “kissing ass all day” and another thought my motivation for writing technical articles and speaking at events is that I “like the idea of being a celebrity.” If our friendship had been based on chemistry, these people would no longer be friends. But I care enough about them, and they for me, that we worked all these things out. Every long-term friendship is based less on chemistry and more on mutual respect as time goes on. Mine just skip the chemistry part in most cases.
The second part of the strategy then, is to be willing to work at the friendship.
There’s an important third part of my strategy and that is the principle that having no relationship is better than having a bad one. The mistake I made as a child was in measuring my worth by the ability to have friends. I knew that, like me, the few friends I had tended toward limited social circles. But I never thought of us as being “weird” until I heard some of the other kids’ moms referring to our little group as “the island of misfit boys.” I’d seen Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer enough times to understand the reference. I also knew that the misfits were the heroes of the story so I was OK with that. Yet, whenever I hit a dry spell and had nobody to play with, I was miserable. If nobody likes me then I’m no good, or so I thought.
As a teen self-worth meant not just friends but a romantic relationship. Surely if I was a good person, then there would be at least one girl who’d want me that way. Conversely, how could I possibly be a good person if nobody wanted to be my girlfriend? After a while I’d all but given up and you could practically smell the dark cloud of self-loathing that hung about me. After the first couple of kisses turned out to be pranks and dares, I co-opted the Groucho Marx approach – I didn’t want any girl that would have me as her boyfriend.
Eventually, I gave up altogether. I went through a period of focusing intensely on my career, trying to get it on track. Part of my remediation program was giving up all non-essential activities such as a social life. But the work paid off and in building up my career, I was unconsciously also building a belief that I have intrinsic worth not tied to relationships. When I started getting recognition for my accomplishments I stopped worrying so much about friends, and romance. Not coincidentally, this is when I found both friendship and love.
It turns out that in my desperation for friends and romance, I’d lowered my standards. I think at one point “does she have girl-parts and a pulse?” would have been sufficient. Almost without exception all the people I’d gotten close to had used me and then tossed me aside. The relationships were too unbalanced. I needed them a hell of a lot more than they needed me. But once I’d unlinked self-esteem from relationships, they were better balanced. I was able to set higher standards. In setting higher standards for others, I set a bar for myself as well. Eventually I came to believe that the ability to be happy, solitary and self-sufficient is a prerequisite to a fully committed relationship. I am my own person first, and only then can I excel as a husband, father, grandfather, friend, employee, or trusted advisor.
That in a nutshell is my 3-prong strategy for making friends as an autistic. Find your passion and meet people within that context. Walk away from one-sided relationships, but when you find a true friend work hard to keep that friendship. Anchor your self-esteem in principles of good and bad, right and wrong, rather than judging yourself as reflected in the eyes of the people around you.
It is true that “I never would have guessed you’re autistic,” implies a mental model of “us” and “them” where “autistic” is one of the “them” groups. This is the basis for the surprise. “What? You are one of them? I thought you were one of us!” Some people in the autistic community would say this is a bad thing. That the mental model of autistics as “them” is what people use to dehumanize and discriminate against us. But I like to see this surprise as a sign of success. Every one of my friends who at one point said ”I never would have guessed you’re autistic” will have a hard time automatically putting autistics in the “them” group ever again. There’s that image in their head of a non-communicative, stimming kid at one end of a range of symptoms, with me on the other end, firmly anchored in the “us” group and forming a bridge to the autistic community. It’s a small step from there to realization that in every aspect of what we call our “humanity,” all of those characteristics to which we attribute human dignity and intrinsic worth, autistic people are just like everyone else.
So in the end, I like it when someone says “I never would have guessed you’re autistic.” I don’t feel as though my autistic-ness is being challenged. Rather, it feels like I’ve improved my social skills, my friend has learned to interact with my communication style and we’ve managed to meet in the middle. Better yet, it happened so seamlessly because my friend has incorporated autistic traits into their mental model of “us” such that their definition of “us” will ever be expanded. And that’s a Good Thing.