“People who habitually withdraw when someone else expresses an emotion that frightens them will develop limited, unsatisfying relationships that pose no threat.”
Joseph Burgo, “Why Do I Do That?”
Recently, a young autistic man wrote a post on a local Facebook page, asking if anyone was interested in forming a group for RPG/board games. He wrote in a very self aware way, describing how difficult it was to form friendships, and how painful it is for him to see other people successfully run similar groups, but have to watch his own public posts on community pages go unanswered.
A few of us chatted with him, and he had such a sense of who he is, it both tore at my heart and filled me with admiration. Something he said really stayed with me: that self advocates will often insist that autistic people should not have to change themselves to fit into neurotypical world, but that this idea has created a disconnect in himself, causing him to resent himself and others.
I mean, he is questioning whether unapologetically owning his autism is causing his isolation. It reads as a sob of self doubt to me. It throws people like him and my kids on the continued mercies of a general population that, on the whole, would rather carry on being unaware. It’s okay for people on the spectrum to be friendless, isn’t it? As long as the rest of us get our social and other needs met.
It isn’t specifically WHAT he said, though that was incredibly profound in and of itself, but his willingness to self critique that struck me. I feel a surge of anger as I recall all the ways in which my own children have been exploited and shamed for being who they are. How we (collectively) have to keep working to shape them into people whom the world can fathom and tolerate and employ and absorb. And it is SUCH BULLSHYTE.
What this young man wrote is the ultimate indictment of everyone else’s indifference to doing internal work. It is one thing if you have never crossed paths with disability (which I highly doubt). But when it comes into your peripheral vision, or when it knocks on the door of your awareness, it is time to wonder what is stopping you from taking meaningful action. Why do you not wish to be changed by this moment? Why do you see it as a burden to be dreaded rather than an opportunity? Why must it benefit you before you would agree to engage? Why are you afraid of, or annoyed by, autism behaviors? Why do you deserve friendship but autistic people do not? If you belong to any community Facebook pages, why do you throw yourself into a debate about porch pirates, but avoid talking to someone like this young man who is making himself vulnerable?
If your answer is something along the lines of “I have my own concerns,” “I am not required to engage,” “Friendships happen spontaneously, not through guilt and coercion,” “As a woman, I am afraid of loner guys,” etc etc, then believe me, I have heard them already. Let me tackle two of them.
1. While I am not asking women to put their safety on the line, I would ask everyone to pause and consider how a) it is so often women who feel called on to be nice; where are the guys who might be able to absorb an autistic man into a gaming group? And b) in abstract discourse, we often reveal our fears—too much is being asked of me, so let me throw up a wall you cannot knock down without being a jerk. We all do it so that people won’t call us out. The guy version might go something like “I just want to knock back a few beers without someone getting weird.”
2. Friendships do indeed happen spontaneously. But have you considered how many activities do not require blood brotherhood to flourish? Many guys play basketball together all the time, for example, while not knowing much about their fellow players, or loathing one another’s politics, or talking only about narrow interests. Yet the weekly game fills some need to connect, does it not? Autistic people have the same need.
One huge point I want to make is that self disclosure is never a requirement, but I respect the young man so much for laying out the issue. Perhaps in his experience, his behaviors render his diagnosis self evident anyway, and people run away from him. So he might as well own it, while also agonizing over how it affects his prospects.
And finally, I wish to reiterate that autistic people are out there working on themselves and changing who they are so that they won’t have to be alone or taunted or shamed or fired. What are you doing in turn so that you aren’t being a smug neurotypical who makes their lives worse? Or do you expect them to keep performing such extreme labor while you do none?
Do you see no path other than charity that leads to calling an autistic person your friend?