Like a lot of autistic people, I’m horrible at small talk. It’s easier for me to plan and present a scientific study at a major international conference than it is to strike up a conversation with a woman in a bar. Probably because I need plenty of time to contemplate, plan and rehearse what I’m going to say; I need to be an expert in what I’m about to say, for fear of failing. I need facts and figures to back up what I’m saying. Whatever I say must be honest, to the point and logical. Actually, instead of small talk, I prefer emails or written instructions. If I’m given verbal instructions, I prefer time to write them down. Generally, whatever I write down is acted upon; it becomes concrete. However, writing doesn’t get much love in social situations.
Whenever I’m in a social situation – pub, nightclub, staff-room or restaurant – I’m always taken aback at the incredible din; everyone starts to sounds like a bunch of exotic birds to me. I’m amazed that people can go on and on forever about nothing in particular, completely engrossed with one another. They seem to do this for hours on end, their words swirling around me like hornets, while I sit stiffly – hoping not to get stung. I cannot do that at all. I don’t get it. I don’t want to sound harsh, but I don’t see the sense in it and those few snatches of conversation I can make out I find superficial and of no consequence. Santa gave them the gift of the gab and I got a lump of coal; if I meet a lovely geologist I’ll have the ideal conversation starter.
It’s tough, when you don’t get the basics. It’s tough enough when you do get the basics! I used to love going out to nightclubs. I loved dancing; the movement appealed to me, became an important release for me. Swirling, gliding, lost in the melody – it was heavenly. It was an extension of my stimming. Lost in music. Of course, I didn’t know I was autistic back then. Neither did my friends.
Thinking back (and I remember everything vividly), I must have been frustrating to be around. I supposed they meant well but – not knowing my disorder – their comments, questions and advice sometimes hurt:
“Why don’t you have a girlfriend?”
“Why don’t you go talk to her?”
“Why aren’t you working the room?”
“Come on Cameron – can’t you tell she was interested in you?”
“Why are you so quiet?”
“What are you thinking?”
“Where are you?”
“Why don’t you …” and
“If I were you I’d be ….”.
It made me feel guilty, like I was intentionally making things difficult for myself (and those around me), wasting my life away, deliberately choosing to be the rebel – the outsider. In retrospect, it was the autism talking. I had no choice but to listen. It’s in every cell of my body, except red blood cells that don’t have a nucleus and therefore cannot contain DNA – but that’s another story.
On the other had, on the rare occasion that I started a conversation (even on Facebook, I am reluctant to do it), it was limited to those thing I was an “expert” on: music, movies, biology, writing. I was very caught up in my own interests, because it was all I had. I must have seemed very self-centered to some. I remember one friend kept saying “ego” to me, when I blurted something a bit brash; that always made me feel horrible. Was I egotistical? I don’t think you can be autistic and be egotistical! I’m a huge fan of Freud’s “Pursuit of Happiness” and, if anything, my super ego is too evolved; it bullies every thought I have. Come to think of it, there has always been a vast gulf between perceptions of me on the outside and how I felt on the inside.
Many have commented that they thought I was “arrogant” or a “Casanova” – or gay. I was always very puzzled by this; nothing could be further from the truth. I knew that there was something inside me that made me different and I often felt I had to put on a mask, and act a certain way, in certain situations. I felt like I was pretending, trying not to draw attention to myself, and I feared being discovered; but I had no idea I was autistic. I did not know what autism was – never heard of it. “Rain Man” moved me while I watched it, but the term “autism” was not in the script. I didn’t become fully aware of autism until 2010, when one of my students, whose mother wrote me a lovely note congratulating me for getting through to her son, had a diagnosis of Asperger syndrome.
Upon reflection, this could be THE major misconception the general public has about my autism: what you see, and think, when you meet me matches what’s going on inside me. Autism is an invisible disability. That’s why people struggle to understand it. It’s difficult for them to place in a clear, labelled box. Unlike some autistic people, I have no qualms calling it a “disability”; I don’t sugar coat my autism. I can think of few things worse than the sense of complete detachment I have felt all of my life. It is impossible for me to get over this feeling; I will always be the outsider – “the man who fell to Earth”. Yet, like many autistic people, I have been able to manage my autism, and have a career, while being more productive than the average person. As I have said before, being autistic is a second job. I work 50-60 hours a week as a teacher, but I have to work 24/7 as an autistic person.
As a result of a culmination of experiences (mainly bad), I spent all of my youth being very quiet, solemn. I waited until something came along that I felt I could contribute to in a meaningful way. Sometimes, it was a long wait. Often, in meetings, I raise my hand to speak and wait patiently, while others just shout out freely. This reluctance of mine to socialize was often misinterpreted as arrogance (there’s that word again!). It really hurt me when people called me arrogant. At first, I believed them. I felt I was doing something wrong; I was the one who needed to change. But after reflection, I concluded that I could not be arrogant; I just did not feel arrogant. I got no pleasure from trying to diminish others or be better than anyone else. If I had known I was autistic then, it would have prevented sleepless nights, confused and worrying about the sort of person I was in the eyes of others. The WORST thing I have been called is “naive”. NEVER call an autistic person naive! Again, what is going on in our minds sometimes does not match our words; words are too limited to capture our rapid fire, complex thoughts.
Needless to say, I do not make friends easily – in case you haven’t noticed! I am very slow and careful about making friends. Within the last year, I haven’t made any new friends – just acquaintances. At one point, I was concerned that I was becoming increasingly hermetic; now I’m beginning to wonder if, in fact, I am better off spending time alone (I believe I am). Generally, I don’t keep in touch with friends I have had for decades. I have to really push myself to go out socially, as if it is a chore I’d rather not do. I often feel that people do not want to socialize with me, or have given up on me, because I am “different”. I guess it takes effort to get to know me, and I figure many people are not willing to put up with me. I have come to accept this.
Perhaps part of the problem is I tend to have interests that others do not share (e.g. music, cloths, collectibles, films) – especially in the small, conservative town I grew up in. I seem to be able to keep myself – and my mind – occupied, but often wish I could socialize more and be with like-minded people. That said, once friendships are established, I am a loyal, honest friend who does not like to let anyone down, or feel that I am burdening anyone.
In conclusion, writing this blog has released a lot. It has brought back some vivid memories. I have exceptional long term memory. Memories of being a two year old are every bit as vivid as the memory of brushing my teeth three hours ago. But not all the memories have been good, and they are not all benign; they still hold power over me. Like an exorcism, it helps to release some things, but it takes its toll on the body. Unfortunately, writing this brought back unwanted memories that caused a meltdown. I had to stop typing and race out of the room. I guess this gives you some idea how susceptible we can be to triggers. It’s horrible. I don’t think most people understand why seemingly minor events cause us to meltdown. The cause (and importance) of meltdowns requires detailed discussion, so let’s save that for another day. Until then, thanks for reading.