All the Lonely People: Neurodiversity and Friendship
One of the things you learn about being autistic is how socially isolating it can be.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always felt like I was treated differently. People never seem to get close to me. People were friendly, but I was always kept at an arm’s length. No one is truly vulnerable around me. I see it in my work life, especially in my role as a pastor. Other pastors seem to be able to meet with others with ease. It’s left me wondering at times what is wrong with me? Being African American, I have wondered if it had to do anything with race. I used to wonder what was going on with me. But I wonder if this social isolation is because of another aspect about me: my being on the autistic spectrum. More specifically, I have Aspergers Syndrome.
I can’t speak for other people on the spectrum, but at least for me autism has felt socially isolating. You don’t feel close to anyone and people don’t always go out of your way to get to know you. It’s already a task to get to know others even though that is what you want. There’s this fear of talking to others because you worry about saying something wrong. When you are in a conversation with someone, you have to think ahead about what to say next, since small talk doesn’t come easy for you. The long and the short of it is you long to know others, but it’s difficult and on top of all this, it feels like people don’t want to be around you.
Turns out that none of this is unusual. I’ve learned that the issue is that people tend to be uncomfortable around autistic people- which makes social isolation even worse:
Autistics make other people uncomfortable, and we do this almost instantly upon meeting. In my communications classes, I teach about the 50 to 500 milliseconds during which most people develop first impressions. These impressions are difficult, nearly impossible, to counteract with evidence and familiarity.
Knowing us doesn’t undo the initial discomfort of meeting us. That is the cost of autism.
This paragraph from a person on Reddit puts the issue in stark relief:
I am socialised to show “support” for autistic people or I’ll face backlash. So here is me, and my true off my chest. You cannot force social change or change me by down voting me here.
I do not want to be friends with them. I do not want to date them. I don’t want to sit next to them on the bus or metro. I don’t want them as my colleague. I don’t want them as my neighbors.
Their actions can get disturbing and scary. From pushing people on the metro (yes I recognised the autistic children because of their school uniform), grabbing my hair (I happen to pass by a stop near a school for autistic children, it was really out of the blue) and making weird noise and hand gestures.
I also dated one once (didnt know he was autistic, we met online) and his lack of facial expressions is scary. Never mind dating etiquette, dating should be fun and all I felt was I am holding on to a robot with emotions and feelings….But the face is neutral and fixed.
I am sorry. You can hate me but you cannot change me. I’ll continue being a “bad human being” until I feel safe around autistic people.
I wonder if this person realizes how this makes someone with autism/Aspergers feel. I can say it feels like a punch to the gut to hear that someone doesn’t feel safe around you.
Having autism means that making friendships, having connections with people is always a fraught exercise, and that has repercussions in life. For example, some statistics say that only about 14 percent of individuals on the spectrum have jobs. One of the reasons that number might be so low is because of the difficulty of “connecting” with people. Interviews are as much about what kind of chemistry you have with the interviewer as it is about skills. When you are on the job, having a relationship with your supervisors and workmates can make the difference between getting a promotion or getting fired.
It shows itself in other ways. I’ve engaged people in fundraising over the years for churches and other groups I’m a part of. No matter how persuasive my writing is, the end result is always few if any donations. It’s not that people don’t like me, but asking for people to part with their money means you have to be able to make a connection with them and I don’t really have that connection. I know all the technical skills of writing a persuasive letter, and how to present the request visually, but if I don’t have the “people skills” needed to make it happen then paraphrasing a passage from the Bible, I’m a clanging gong or loud cymbal.”
Can any of this change? Can I become learn now behavior that can make me more social and someone that doesn’t make people uncomfortable? The study which started this off would say that people need to be more accepting of the other ways people present themselves socially. Is that going to happen? I’m not certain, but I’m also not hopeful. What I do know is that the study seems to say that even before I go into that interview, or meet that new friend, people have already scanned me and made a decision. It means that no matter how hard I try to improve my skills, there will always be someone who will be creeped out by my presence.
I think at the end of the day, all I can do is try. That’s frustrating and it will not improve my situation. I guess you have to learn how to deal with rejection and learn how to move on.