An argument for loneliness and isolation. That is what I feel like I’m presenting when I talk about it. Of course, no one wants to be lonely or isolated, but when you have Autism that’s not a matter you have any say on. When I talk about Autism as it relates to friends and relationships (or rather the lack thereof) most people tell me to just get out there and meet people like it’s as simple as turning on a light switch. Most people don’t understand that simply meandering into social situations isn’t something someone with Autism should do. One can’t explain this with any degree of accuracy to someone outside the community.
The subject of socializing when you have Autism is often met with such bad advice that most of it doesn’t bear repeating. An argument that gets hurled at me now and again by people who, simply don’t know any better is that I’m using my Autism as an excuse not to do the hard things in life. Such an argument is always met, at least on my part, with a mixture of anger and despair. There’s the anger that comes from the ignorant hurling accusations of cowardice at my feet. Then there’s the sadness that comes with the recognition that this person is saying what everyone else is thinking.
Socialization and Autism are a combination of topics that I often try to avoid. Yet, the most damaging part of being Autistic is being alone and isolated. There’s a wonderful piece on how this element of Autism is similar to what being “in the closet” is like for LGBT people. There’s an enormous amount of truth there. I can count on one hand the number of people in my life who know I’m Autistic. Most people don’t understand what it means to live with Autism or they identify it as some stigmatized matter of shame. I’m not ashamed of being Autistic. It’s a part of who I am. I can no more divorce it from my identity that I can any other part of my personality. My Autism is a part of me, but my Autism does not define me.
I first realized I had Autism when I was in my mid-twenties. The self-discovery came for me after reading the wonderful book Look me in the eye by Jon Elder Robinson. The similarities became impossible to ignore. There were times where it felt like I was reading my own autobiography. I’ve never been formally diagnosed. That part is important to some people for reasons that have never been clear to me. There isn’t a person who knows me who would deny that I have always been “special.” I’ve always struggled socially. When I was in high school there were entire groups of people who openly joked about how I was “anti-social” or worse there were the upperclassmen who openly bullied me. They made fun of my mannerisms and my inability to fit in with others. My social awkwardness always won me enemies in study hall.
My dad always told me to stand up to bullies, but it was never one, three, or even five people. When I was in sixth grade most of the kids in my class picked on me. It got to a point where at the end of recess one day I sat down on a bench and broke down. I tried to hide my tears. I didn’t want to make it worse, but it got to the point where my homeroom teacher sat down next to me and said: “I think this bothers you more than you realize.” I remember thinking: “no kidding?” Maybe there’s something you should do about that. Of course no one did do anything about it. They didn’t have the slightest idea what to do about it. They couldn’t stop an entire class of twenty kids from bullying me.
Growing up, I was told that bullying was something I just had to put up with. That wasn’t true, of course, but adults seemed to believe that the less they did about things the better off I’d be. I remember having to through peer mediation – a special process where your classmates got to judge you following an altercation – as if putting children in charge of things was a good idea. They had never read Lord of the Flies like we did apparently. The recommendation by my “peers,” who of course also happened to be involved in the bullying was that I avoid people and situations that caused me trouble. What a novel idea. You mean I shouldn’t go out in search of someone to make fun of me? If only that revelation had been delivered to me sooner…
My point isn’t to drag you through the calamities of my childhood nor is it to point out what an enormous problem bulling is for Autistic kids. My point is that I’ve been Autistic my whole life I just didn’t know it until my mid-twenties. Also, I don’t think one should have to qualify themselves to others. I haven’t talked to my doctor about Autism because I wasn’t instructed by an ad on television to do so. I was told that Cialis was a much more important topic for discussion. And that’s where the problem is. There is no “pill” that pharmaceutical companies can use to exploit Autistic kids with. There is no “free market solution” to the disconnect between the Autism community and those who tell us to just go out more. Want more friends? Just go and hang out with other people. Why are we making this so hard for ourselves? The simple answer is that most people with Autism have been made fun of their entire lives for something that they have no control over. What’s more is that social situations are where we struggle the most.
All the more reason to get out there I can hear the person saying who insists I’m using my Autism to shield myself from the grim realities of life. This argument that I’m hiding from my problems does not help me overcome the challenges in my life.