Autistic people see the world very differently. Thankfully, this is a banal platitude that, though it needs fleshing out, doesn’t bear inane repeating anymore. So why are people still assuming that autistic people want the same things as normal people? I think that this is the biggest fallacy in understanding people like me who are on the spectrum. But my issue is a very specific one.
Here’s an example that I will riff on in this post to make my point: in almost every single book about autism that I’ve found, the theme of loneliness is discussed and the tone in these sections, when written by researchers with their pretentions to objectivity, is usually one of hopelessness on our part; that we have no chance of understanding other human beings. Granted, isolation, at least as ‘normals’ understand it, is a huge part of the autistic experience; it’s been a part of mine for as long as I can remember. In fact, the word autism is derived from the Greek word autos, which means self. Add the “ism” and it’s essentially “selfism.” I just wish people would realize that this kind of isolation is not a huge issue to me.
You know why? Because I have a highly active and entertaining mind and the presence of people can be distracting when I want to channel my mind to do cool shit (and that’s most of the time). I can entertain myself for hours with the autistic brain with which I’ve been blessed. I can get lost in my own thoughts very easily. I may be alone but I rarely feel lonely.
To get all semantic about it, being alone is a physical state where it is physically just you in a given space while loneliness is more of a psychological state where you feel a longing to connect with someone. The two concepts are, in my view, fundamentally different. Being alone does not imply a feeling of loneliness any more than a feeling of loneliness implies being alone. To strip that last sentence down to its bare form, a physical state does not imply a psychological state any more than a psychological one implies a physical one. To get all Buddhist about it, it comes down to how one interprets the situation of their mental life and their physical life in tandem and this interpretation is usually done through a socialized lens; the lens that tells you to have friends, find a spouse, have kids, and all that bullshit that other people want from you. Get it? It is possible to be alone a lot and not feel lonely. The problem arises when you start to feel lonely.
But I have felt lonely. I’ve been conditioned to feel lonely for having few/no friends and this conditioning has proven to be very difficult to undo. I’ve had people shape my isolation like it’s an issue or a disadvantage, particularly my father (but he’s always been Mr. Popular so he’s hopelessly inept at imagining a life with as few friends as I have anyway). It gets to me because this is such an entrenched thing in my mind. The mantra of the hive mind when I was in high school was to have as many friends as possible, which echoed the cries of “Why don’t you have more friends?” and “Don’t you feel lonely?” from days past. Furthermore, because I wasn’t interested in following the path to popularity in high school (mostly because I didn’t like most of the people), my cognitive dissonance had worsened because that was what was expected of me from everybody. It was an epic battle between what I wanted and what everybody wanted of me. As a result, my mind imploded and I became ‘that kid.’
Let me be clear: I am not a misanthrope who has no desire to have friends or to connect with people in general, despite the moot idea that autistic people have trouble connecting with others. I’ve always had very few friends but I’m very close with them and I love them very dearly (I’m awfully picky about my friends). I understand the immense intrinsic value of a close friendship and a romance. I don’t mind meeting new people or dating and I even find those things enjoyable in the right frame of mind but I’m not as driven as most are to meet new people or to date.
Of course, a low number of friends means that I’d exhaust my pool of things-to-do-with-people quickly when my parents kick me out for the evening so that they could have a raunchy, good time without me mucking up the air with my autism or whatever. What do I do when that happens? It’s simple. I go to a movie by myself, I go to a restaurant by myself, I take an extra-long stroll in the park, I…ride a…TRAIN, I do one of a million things that one could do by oneself.
“But wait!” you might interject, “those are things you do with other people! Wouldn’t it be more fun if there were somebody to do those things with?” Well, let me put it this way: no. Sometimes, yes but mostly, no. I like having intensely personal experiences and sometimes I’m interested in sharing them with other people but sometimes I’m not. That’s it. It doesn’t run deeper than that.
“What about a girlfriend? You must want a girlfriend! After all, the Beatles have said ‘All you need is love.’ Are you saying that the Beatles were WRONG?” Well, it’s complicated but essentially yes, The Beatles were wrong but that’s because the Beatles are a bunch of romantic nitwits. This is the subject of another post and I’ll write it when I have the words.
“What if you want to throw a party? It’s not a party if there’s only, like, five people!” Five people could make a charming dinner party. Know your types of parties, stupid.
“What if you want to go to a bar? You’ll look like a real sad sack if you’re drinking alone.” If going to a bar alone to have a drink somehow makes me a sad sack, then a sad sack I am.
Wait. Why am I defending my preferences? This is stupid. Stop asking these questions, stupid hypothetical questioner! “Alright, fine. Your answers are weird anyway, man.” Well, you asking me weird questions so expect weird answers. Besides, would you interrogate your bros with questions like this? “…no.” So then why are you asking me these questions? “I DON’T KNOW LEAVE ME ALONE, MAN. I’M OUTTA HERE.”
What a stupid idiot… Anyway, all of this may read like I’m introverted and it should. I’m one of the introverted autistic people. Auties could be extraverted as well; I hear stories of autistic children striking up conversations with complete strangers on the street. Extraversion is considered to be one of the Big Five personality traits (alongside Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism) and I believe that this extraversion spectrum exists among us as well. I just happen to be quite low on that spectrum.
So stop insisting that I need more friends; I’m a better judge of my own needs and desires than you’ll ever be. People have erroneously diagnosed my needs with blind yet towering confidence; I’ve suffered from depression and serious cognitive dissonance as a result and it was years before I realized that they were absolutely wrong in their methods and intentions. I listened to their idiocy, mostly because I’d mistaken their idiocy for wisdom, mostly because I was told it was wisdom. Those people have been an enormous distraction in my figuring out what it is that I really want simply because they want to ‘cure’ my autism by trying to bring out a personality that was never there. I have few friends not because I’m autistic and have trouble connecting with people (when, in fact, that’s not the case) but mostly because I’m introverted and prefer having few close friends.
I do, however, have trouble connecting with ‘in-group’ people but for two reasons: a) my experience rarely overlaps with theirs and b) given my experiences, I’ve developed a suspicion of those people. I’ll write about that soon; I have a lot that I want to say on that topic and I see it becoming a recurring theme on Angry Autie.
A WORD FROM MY SPONSOR: Sometimes making sense of the world around you is not easy when you are autistic. Perhaps therapy may be the way to go for you. BetterHelp is a good resource for getting started. If you try this and the therapy is too triggering for you, send the therapist my way and I’ll straighten them out…