Autism and Friendships Part 1: The Polish of a One-Winged Albatross

It was hard to come out as an aspie (a person with Asperger’s syndrome). I started with some people I thought would be the most safe, but I read that situation poorly. It’s a strong suit, really, almost like a superpower. I can misjudge a social situation with remarkable precision. That will likely be the epitaph on my tombstone.

The next few people I tried to tell were people who had degrees in special education or psychology and who knew a lot about autism. With all the polish and decorum of a one-winged albatross, I just messaged people I hadn’t seen in years with, “I have Asperger’s.” To my credit, I can’t perceive time as linear. Three years feels like three days or thirty years, but in my Aspergian mind, we hadn’t skipped a beat. Mostly, they didn’t respond.

And then, there was Neal.

I had only known Neal for a few weeks. We met the same way most aspies meet people in their local communities, which means that we met online. Both of us were involved in community organizing, and that led to some casual correspondence. But, I really enjoyed reading his social media posts. He worded things carefully, succinctly. And, he regularly did something that pinged the reward centers in my aspie brain… he engaged in metacognition.

Metacognition is the process of being aware of your own awareness, thinking of your own thoughts and how you process information. This is something that we autistics do unrelentingly. I’m not yet sure if we’re wired this way, or if it’s a side effect of seeming to always be on a different page from the people around us. It is a neurotypical (non-autistic) privilege to be able to go on about life assuming that other people think, feel, and process in the same ways… and most people do think, feel, and respond similarly. But, people on the spectrum process information in different parts of the brain and in very different ways. It will take me the rest of my life to map out all the subtle differences in perception, and that is the burden of every autistic person.

Aspies have to learn, in perpetuity, by making embarrassing faux pas according to neurotypical social etiquette, unintentionally crossing boundaries and breaking rules that are unspoken but innately understood by everyone but us. Unfortunately, this results in a lot of lost or strained friendships in our awkward wakes. But, seeing Neal describe his thought processes clearly and thoughtfully felt safe to me, like he was a person who was easy to interpret.

That is until he made a post which, when I read it, caused my stomach to knot. It felt like another reminder that I was just not designed for social interaction with neurotypicals. This is a snippet:

I’ve never been a big fan of people who proudly tell you how “honest” and “real” they are, when what they all too often are is just rude and tactless. I think I absorbed some of the qualities of my Ph.D. advisor […]. He was unfailingly polite and could be so subtle with criticism or even an insult that you were bleeding before you knew the knife was in you.

For an aspie, this is the kiss of death. We put the “brutal” in brutally honest. It’s not because we are being rude according to our own innate social rulebook. We have perceptive differences, and what we think is polite is perceived as rude by many people. And, that masterful social subtlety Neal referenced is the most crippling interpersonal landmine for people on the spectrum. I could have just scrolled on and kept a low-profile, but I wanted to think that Neal was different. To really help him understand, I needed to be honest. I made my first public admission of Asperger’s. It went like this:

I honestly hate tact and politeness as it’s conceived by most people. It’s like being forced to do a choreographed dance with someone when you’re dyslexic. It’s like getting a snake in a Tiffany box. It’s like a fencing match with a dislocated shoulder. By the time someone has “plied” me with all the “no offense,” or the compliments I know are leading up to a truth, I am usually angry. Then, when they finally get to the truth, I wonder why I had to be primed in the first place because what they wanted to tell me was never offensive to begin with. Then I feel like I’m perceived as fragile because someone had to present something (usually helpful) in layers of cushion.

I believe that the cloying approach of the genteel executioner is infinitely more impolite than the direct approach. With the former, I feel that not only have I received a criticism, but I’ve also been subjected to an excoriating game that’s violating and intrusive. Passive aggression is far more profane and offensive than aggression.

Is my Asperger’s showing?

I immediately regretted making my metacognitive post. Sharing my inner world has the tendency to break neurotypical brains and send them running in the opposite direction. I just knew that it was going to be the end of another friendship before it had even begun; however, he did something brave, something no one else had ever done for me. He sent me a message telling me that he was going to be careful in the future to not use any hints or figurative language when he interacted with me.

I was shocked. Though I really have no problem interpreting subtleties, I appreciated so much that he was willing to make an effort. More than anything, I was thrilled to have someone who seemed willing to talk directly about our differences. Mostly, when I mention autism, people either downplay the significance of it, pretend to not have heard me, or compliment me on what they perceive is my level of function. He wasn’t angry or offended by my word choice. I read enough of his subtext to know that what he was saying, really, was that he was going to make an effort to continue being my friend by speaking my language and trying to meet me where I was.

And he has.

Since, Neal has patiently sifted through my winding monologues and engaged in conversations with me, allowing me to explain my perspectives and asking questions for clarification. While our conversations are about much more than just Asperger’s, it has been great that he has taken the time to help break down some social complexities that are natural for him and confusing for me. I’ve benefited more than he will ever know from these interchanges because they have allowed me to make a lot of inferences about the subtle differences between autistic and neurotypical perception, the kind of insight which can’t (yet) be found in publications.

I’ll use what I’ve learned and assimilated from these metacognitive exchanges to share with the autistic community. Autistic people need explicit and specific direction, written by other autistics in our own language. Because of what Neal has shared with me, I’ll be able to pass on to a broad audience the wisdom he has imparted. Neal has benefited, too, in that he’s found a friend who won’t ever judge his thoughts, lie to him, or take his time for granted. I know that he will use what he’s learned to help others in his life whom he suspects to be on the spectrum and to inform neurotypical people who are willing to learn.

Since, I have been much more open about being on the spectrum, and I’ve been really encouraged by the way many friends have responded. I wouldn’t expect most people to invest that same amount of time and effort; however, a little patience, tolerance, acceptance, and validation goes a long way. If you take down your guard enough and withhold your judgement, then you might find a friend for life who will enrich your worldview in ways you wouldn’t have ever imagined.

This is the first piece in a series about autism and friendship. Check back with Unapologetically Aspie to read from the first-person perspectives of autistic people and neurotypical people about how to dissolve communication barriers and find fulfillment in your inter-neurotype relationships.

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