Playing By the Rules

Remember playing tag?  Trying to avoid the person who was “it” as they chased you around?  Laughing and playing as kids dodged around running as fast as they could to not get tagged?  There was always the time when running just a bit ahead of the tagger, who was gaining on you, that home base came into view.  Heading towards home base and getting there first without being tagged… and you’re safe!!  That wonderful feeling of being safe and catching your breath until you feel it’s okay to venture out again is priceless.  Those are happy memories of family get togethers, when it’s planned for people to come to your house on a certain day, during a certain time, to have fun and then head home with a feeling of connection and belonging.

In reality, home is a safe place – home base.  Analogous to playing tag, life can feel like you’re being chased, running from harsh realities, and home is where it is safe to catch your breath until it feels okay to venture outside again.  Also, like tag, when someone comes onto home base to “tag” you, it’s against the rules and doesn’t count.   One person not following the rules can cause high anxiety, feeling dysregulated, and misunderstood.  Home base is supposed to be safe, period.

Venturing outside requires energy.  It has its preparations.  Many autistic adults go over and over in their thoughts where they are going, who they are going to see, how they are getting there, and what they will be doing.  Also, in those thoughts are the social interactions that will happen, how they will handle them, what might go wrong, things that may have happened in the past when interacting with those same people, and preparing for topics of conversation.  There other issues to think about as well, such as – Will the meeting place be loud? What will the smells be like?  Will it be too hot? Will the lighting be too harsh? – all must be taken into account to prepare for success in a social interaction.

Such is the life of an autistic adult who struggles with social interactions to a point where preparation is necessary.  Still, wanting to connect with other people and form friendships is desired more than the effort and energy it takes to prepare.  It’s doable when getting ready to venture outside is done in the safety of home.  Home is where the outside world can’t reach you.  Home is where the colors, lighting, sound, smells, and familiarity are all just the way it’s supposed to be for the people living there.  It’s where thoughts can be about comforting things such as special interests. It’s where social masks can be taken off and people can just be themselves.  People can wear what’s comfortable, eat foods they like, put the temperature at the best setting, have soft lights, and manage smells to be soothing.

When someone, whether you know them well or not, comes into your home base unexpectedly – everything is shattered.  It feels like an invasion.  It is an invasion.  No longer does it feel safe.  Anxiety is the first to rear its ugliness.  Masks have to be hastily put back on without preparation.  Small talk begins taking energy that has been used up by the surprise, anxiety, and the sudden shove off of what had just been moments before – the safety of home.  It feels like being a fish out of water, silently gasping for breath while feeling way out of your comfort zone.  It’s wishing someone could sense your distress and excuse themselves to come back at another time, but the ability to mask is so well played out no one notices how you feel.  Time comes to a slow, excruciating crawl.  Will the visit ever end?

More importantly, will it ever feel safe at home again?  Will every car that drives by the house invoke anxiety?   Will every person who walks by the front windows compel a person to hide and pretend they aren’t home?

It must feel safe again.  It doesn’t have to be presented as a failure on anyone’s part.  It’s simply a rule that was broken, most likely because the person who came unannounced didn’t know it was a rule for some reason.  Honesty is always the best policy.  Explaining to the surprise visitor that a plan for them to come over is the best way to have a wonderful visit, and is a great way to start working towards a solution for everyone involved.

Tag is a great game to play, but only really works when home base is securely safe.  Life is not a game, and so it’s imperative for home to be a securely safe place.  Playing tag or living life – by the rules – is best for everyone.

Thinking the Autism Way

Friendships are one of the best things in life, as well as, one of the hardest of all things to understand.  I want friendships, but they are a mystery to me.  Friendships are complicated, simple, painful, loving, scary, safe, and I could go on with my diametrically opposed words but I think I’ve made my point.

So, when I have a friendship, I try to safeguard it from any possible mix-ups that can happen.  I know what these are because they’ve all happened before at some time in a previous friendship.  I safeguard it by explaining about autism and what could happen along the way in life.

I tell my friends (all five) that I’m on the spectrum and there’s a distinct possibility I will make social mistakes, but please tell me so I can fix them.  I remind them that I’m on the spectrum when I’m shook up and can’t find my words.  I show them I’m on the spectrum when I can’t stand a certain sound, smell, or taste.

I explain to my friends that I feel disconnected when I haven’t been with them for a while.  They don’t understand, so I explain it again… and again.

I try to convince my friends (all four, I lost one somehow) that when they say, “I’ll text ya later!” that to me it actually means they will text me later and when they don’t I feel forgotten and that they lied to me.  It’s not a good way to say good bye.  “Good bye!” is a great way to say good bye.

And again, I repeat to my friends (yep, all three) that I’m autistic and I will make social mistakes, but could they please tell me so I can explain what I meant and/or fix them?

And because, most of the time communication is the difficulty, I might send them flower pictures or funny quotes in the middle of a regular day to let them know I’m thinking about them.  I listen to my friends when they need someone to hear them.  I’m there if they are sick or if their hearts are hurting.  I do whatever I can think of to show them I’m invested in the friendship.  I do that just in case THE SOCIAL MISTAKE happens.  The one I’ve told them about already.  The one I’ve tried to prepare them for.  I have no idea when it’s going to come either.  I just know in most of my friendships it has reared its ugliness.

All of a sudden, without warning, a friend is very angry with me (down to two).  They say things like, “How could you?” or “I thought you cared about me,” and “Why did you do that again?”  And, I’m socially lost. I start getting very anxious.  I don’t understand what’s happened yet.  I’ve done something.  I don’t know what it is, and most of the time when I find out what it is, I don’t understand why it was so wrong in the first place.  Hopelessness sets in and makes itself at home in my heart.

I try to fix it.  I try to explain why I did what I did.  I try to help them understand I didn’t do it on purpose because I would never want to hurt anyone else (I know full well what it feels like) and I didn’t know what I did would hurt them.

So, now my friend (yes, sadly… one) is hurt and angry.  They are pretty much done with all the “stuff” that goes into being friends with me.  (There are always two sides to being done with all the “stuff” that goes into being friends with anyone, but that’s a story for another day.)

Here’s the thing.  I’ve warned them THE SOCIAL MISTAKE might happen.  I’ve made suggestions about my friends telling me right away, letting me explain why I did what I did, and reminding them that even before it happened, I had told them I didn’t mean to do it, I just knew I probably would.  I have a blind spot when it comes to social communication, especially as friendships deepen and become more intimate and confusing.

Here’s the solution.  Listen to me when I explain what my autism means in a friendship.  Don’t take what I say with a grain of salt (really—just one?).  Honestly listen to me when I open myself up and am vulnerable to explain about autism all in the sake of friendship.  Friendships are worth it, there’s always hope that when you are sadly down to one, there are many more people out in the world to meet and find out who they are, and explore more possible friendships.

And, then when (if) something does happen, remember what I suggested.  It’s pure and simple.  And it’s messy and complicated.  It’s friendship.