The concept of friends is an intriguing one. I’ve always enjoyed the idea of having them, but when it comes to it, I really have no clue what to do with them. At the risk of offending varying people (some may even be reading this), it’s fair to say that apart from my wife (Bev), I don’t have a single close friend. I do have friends (maybe not after this article), but they are not spread throughout all facets of my life. Usually, they are confined to domains, such as those from varying university courses, from my old baseball team or people who I was friendly with at a particular workplace and so on.
Friendships that reside in varying corners of my life typically fade with intensity as time passes by. Some embers have been rekindled over the years via social media, but most remain a memory in a distinct moment in time. This may well be completely normal for the majority of people, but I really have no idea if that’s the case. Invariably, it’s difficult for me to even work out if a friendship is worth cultivating and nurturing from either of our perspectives, or whether it is better to allow it to wither naturally like grapes on a vine. Due to my inability to interpret what someone is feeling, I’m often left floundering when it comes to social conundrums such as these.
I’m reasonably convinced that most people on the autistic spectrum have grappled with such concepts at one time or another. After all, this is part of the diagnostic criteria in the DSM-5, section A3 stating, a child must have or for an adult must have shown as a child;
Deficits in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships, ranging, for example, from difficulties adjusting behavior to suit various social contexts; to difficulties in sharing imaginative play or in making friends; to absence of interest in peers.DSM-V (2013)
In reference to the above quote, all I can say is, guilty as charged your Honor. For me, deciphering all of the above presents as a grueling lifelong challenge. At school I regularly stood on the periphery of the playground watching kids who hadn’t met until 10 minutes previously, suddenly running around as if they’d known each other for ever. Often, left wondered if kids had a secret language allowing them to make friends effortlessly, a code I wasn’t privy too. This evoked the idea of being locked out of some secret club, stuck on the outside looking in, with my face pressed against the window. Sadly, making and maintaining friendships has become more and not less of an issue the older I get.
Currently, swathes of my time is spent with my wife when I’m not working, but outside of that I am generally on my own. On the whole, this predominantly works well, although, occasionally there is still a hankering for close friends. However, making them is incredibly hard work! Weighing up the pros and cons of acquiring and maintaining a friendship is not simplistic, as I find humans on the whole quite fatiguing. Whilst the majority of neurotypicals tend to be rejuvenated when around others, for me, even though I may enjoy these periods, it still contains a draining element on my mental energy. Thus, requiring significant down time shortly after any engagement.
Of course, to preserve any relationship there is the inevitable give and take, but this may not always be that easy. For example, I don’t particularly like people coming to the house, especially if it’s an impromptu visit. Going out somewhere is often a non-starter, as it usually means the venue will be awash with other people and mixing in groups is not exactly my favourite sport. Alas, options are fairly narrow. Plus, I don’t partake in chit chat and most of my special interests are not hugely appealing to others. To neurotypicals this attitude could appear selfish, but I don’t really see the point in investing time and effort in doing something I’m not keen on.
Sadly, when assessing this cost benefit equation, what I would have to give up isn’t generally worth the return. Hence, why I have to acknowledge that the chance of cultivating a close friend is highly unlikely, especially at 51. From a social perspective, even the mechanics of making connections is rather alien to me. On top of the autism I possess a trait called Alexithymia, which loosely translates as, no words for emotions. This instantly causes problems even when simply talking to someone for the first time, principally because, interpreting their feelings (positive or negative) towards me during a meeting is practically impossible.
As I’ve discussed in previous blogs, we access the same area of the brain to obtain an idea of what someone may be feeling as we do to recognise our own feelings. This is achieved by utilising our personal reactions and emotions as a template to make sense of others. However, if an individual cannot name or understand what they are feeling, it is virtually impossible to decode what somebody else is feeling. Furthermore, many of those with Alexithymia also have a poor ability when it comes to reading the facial expressions of the person they are conversing with, leading to a whole host of problems.
Even deciding if a person is suitable friends material, is exceptionally difficult. From a personal viewpoint, I usually cannot pick up on someone’s intent. Not just because of Alexithymia, but due to my sub optimal social skills. Historically, this has caused substantial problems, such as, not picking up on an individual who may be angry with me or certain narcissistic individuals who have used me for their own ends. Neurotypical tactics including passive aggressiveness or Machiavellianism simply pass me by, often leaving me vulnerable to exploitation.
Simply, knowing how much to say, when to speak, whether someone is bored or what to talk about quite literally amounts to a guessing game, rendering this activity exceptionally trying and tiring. Alexithymia plus a lack of understanding regarding social rules, in addition to possessing literally no emotional compass, often intuitive within neurotypicals equates to a social minefield. With all this mind, it’s not remotely surprising why many autistic folk like me retreat to solitude.
On occasion, long term friendships have been formed, generally, when all parties involved have a common interest. Thus creating an environment in which to cultivate social connections, using shared passions as the glue to hold things together. One such time was when I was involved with playing and coaching baseball. Interestingly, as much we spent a lot of hours playing the games, training and traveling to games, we didn’t spend too much time with each other outside of the season.
It wasn’t just me that kept life compartmentalised, many of the long time players did the same. Having known a lot of these guys for over a decade, I would suggest I was far from the only member of the club on the spectrum. We would go to the pub (like real athletes) after training sessions for the quiz on a Thursday and even play 5-a-side football in the winter to keep relatively fit, but rarely would any of us meet up at each others houses, especially if it was non-baseball related. Occasionally it would occur, but over approximately 12 years, it probably arose about 6 times and when we did meet, for me it often felt a bit odd.
Having said that, within the context of baseball we were a pretty close bunch, I frequently referred to them as my summer family. When we were together there were lots of in jokes, banter and re-telling of shared experiences, like you would expect from a group of brothers. The first time we made it to the National Finals, as the manager it was nerve wracking, but I was proud of this bunch of ‘idiots’, who improved from winning 4 games in as many seasons, to the national finals over a 10 year period. More than this, baseball and the people involved played a huge role in preserving my mental well-being.
Perhaps, as the diagnosing psychologist said to me, it’s about finding your tribe. Although, I think this can be more challenging for those of us who are autistic, particularly as we often possess a certain set of rules or parameters that must be adhered to for friendships to develop. With the fellas at the baseball, many of us I suspect had our own rules and boundaries within our greater friendship. Plus if the worse came to the worse, we could always fall back on our binding interest, that of discussing baseball.
For those who are struggling with friendships, searching for your tribe may be the way forward, although it may not be necessarily where you think it is. It also might have to be unearthed through trial and error, which is difficult when it’s tricky to put yourself out there. Since moving to the other side of the world over 10 years ago, I am still yet to find anything like my “summer family”, but at least I know it is possible, not just for me but for other autistic people.
As always, I hope someone somewhere gains something useful out of this blog, whether you are autistic or close to someone who is. If this helps to provide a little insight into potential issues based around friendships, for even one person, then my job here is done.