This post is part of Project: Inception, written ~8 years ago. It has been untouched from its original, pseudonymous, form. It is also part of the larger “farewell” tour and countdown as I turn-off this blog and head to the
metaverse where I will live out the rest of my wonderful days. I hope to see you there!
One of the biggest concerns for many autistics and aspies is on the matter of friendship and acquiring (and keeping) friends. Since one of the most common and obvious signals for an autism diagnosis is being relationally-challenged it didn’t take a rocket scientist to see that I was autistic.
My story of friendship and friends is quite storied though providing much entertainment over a good cup of coffee or beer – my parents did everything they could to provide my brother and I plenty of opportunities to interface with others and since we were twins it appeared to me that they were worried that we wouldn’t be able to relate to anyone beyond ourselves. I was perfectly happy with that being the case as I always had a play date or biological friend who couldn’t really “unfriend” me even if he wanted to.
But it became very apparent that he and I began to make friends very differently. Actually, it was more like this: Peter had a ton of acquaintances and a growing circle of friends that invited him to events, birthday parties, and such while I did not. And this was the most incredible part of all – he wanted to go have these play dates and requested them of my parents. I, on the other hand, apparently “made” friends because my parents setup play dates for me based on some loosely collected points of similarity between myself and other kids like me (age, gender, cultural background, interests).
What happened is that my friend cycled every year, in and out, as I graduated to the next school grade level. In Kindergarten and first grade my most important friend was still my brother. Second grade my parents decided that I needed to get my friendship sea legs toughened up and they assigned me Eugene who, unbeknownst to them, introduced me to an amazing world of colorful language.
Eugene lived in a very large house that was spotlessly clean per his Taiwanese parents. I did not necessarily enjoy his company because he made me do things that I felt were wrong but that I was unable to grasp the reasons why, such as creeping into the kitchen, opening the pantry, and extracting the blue and black bag of oreos. Of course, there’s no way to transport these back without leaving an obvious trail and on the pristine white carpet we always got caught. Or rather, I got caught. There was a lot of shouting and yelling and his parents would instantly start vacuuming the moment they found out and Eugene would howl with laughter as we ran upstairs to play his other console gaming system. I did enjoy the cookies.
But the following year Eugene disappeared as he and I did not have the same class. In 3rd grade I was assigned a replacement. Arnold Park was it. He was a prodigy piano player who had already played at Carnegie Hall apparently and could play Beethoven’s Für Elise with his eyes closed before most of us could do more than 3 digit division tables. He was a quiet person, like myself, but was well liked because of his obvious talent. My mother set me up immediately and bargained Saturday’s with the Park family so I could spend time with Arnold. I remember nothing more than just sitting on a beanbag upstairs in another very large and pristine house watching him practice. For hours this would go on until my parents would arrive at the door via a beautiful melodic door bell tone and I would shuffle downstairs, nodding when asked if I had a good time and jumping into the car without waving goodbye. I’m glad I provided Arnold with a live audience once a week.
I was bored so I once walked casually to his room where he had a phone and dialed 911; confusion and chaos quickly ensued and my parents were called immediately. I didn’t see Arnold much after that.
In 4th grade I was introduced to Joe who also happened to play on my soccer team that year. Arnold and Eugene were gone, to other classes, and there weren’t any obvious “fits” for me that year. By this time my brother had amassed a serious circle of friends and was being invited nearly every week to another birthday party. I wasn’t jealous nor did I really care – the one time I did care was when he was invited to a Ghostbuster’s themed party where they made life-sized Proton Packs which were the weapons of choice by the team. These particle blasters and accelerators would help weaken the ghosts so that they could be trapped in a containment unit that kept them enclosed long enough to get back to their “Protection Grid” back at headquarters. My brother came back fully armed, with slime and all, and I was heartbroken. Joe was Chinese – I’m not sure from where specifically but he had a good foot on him for our soccer matches and like to flip with the ball, which he taught me after many concussive attempts. He would laugh and laugh as I banged my head on the ground and then give me these dried mango fruit candies as a consolation prize for my bruising. Half-way through 4th grade it was apparent that he no longer liked me and my mother stopped inviting Joe over.
5th grade came and went with Pat, a tall lanky-legged fellow who was half-asian and half-hispanic. He was talented but had what my mom called an “attitude.” To me he was cool because he gelled his hair back each morning and it was apparent that he cared about his presentation. In fact, I didn’t realize that I should care about my clothes or “style” until I met Pat. I asked him one day what he did with his hair and he told me without missing a beat: Mousse bro, mousse. All the fresh kids do it. I wasn’t sure what “fresh” was but I knew that I wanted to be fresh. I asked my mother for mousse and she purchased a white foamy substance called Vidal Sassoon which I applied liberally every morning because Pat told me the first time I showed up with some that I didn’t have enough. Pat was a good friend as far as I could tell, at least in the beginning and he helped me become increasingly aware of the things I was doing wrong, especially when it came to my appearance (which I could do) and girls (which I had no clue about nor interest).
It was at this time I experienced my first true hardcore bullying because it became apparent that I was becoming a “little Pat” – I was copying all that he was doing even down to the customized shoelaces in his Adidas Samba Classics. The older kids during lunch would come up to me and call me names and stand behind me while I ate my lunch alone and undue all the hard work that I had spent that morning preening my hair in just the right Pat-like fashion. I had put so much mousse in my hair that when they tossed my hair it would begin to flake and if they did it enough it would “snow” – thus, I received my first nickname, “Snow Hair.” I was ashamed but unsure of what to do and I wondered why Pat wouldn’t help or at least say something. My parents, unaware, kept inviting Pat over or asking if Pat wanted to play but it appeared that he no longer cared.
This cycle continued throughout my life and is still very apparent that I do not have any friends outside of the people that I regularly spend time with. I’ve had “tons” of friends, I suppose, over the years but they would always change when I physically changed environment. It didn’t help that I left the comfort of New Jersey for Japan for my Middle School years and then moved back to Jacksonville, Florida for my HS ones. It seemed that I couldn’t “stick” around enough to keep them anyways so I suppose my parents just assumed that’s “how I was.” I had no interest, generally speaking, in making friends but I had learned that there are certain undeniable benefits of having a few friends when it came to being accepted and not bullied or taken advantage of. So, I attempted to continue the pattern each year that my parents had set before me – identify and acquire one friend each year. Rotate and cycle to another one as things change.
Even the “best” friends that I’ve had could never really understand my disinterest in shared activities. Nor could they understand why I was so poor at communicating with them without me being physically present before them. “Out of sight out of mind” wasn’t just a good saying, it was literally what happened. If you weren’t physically in front of me I had very little thought of the person. I had eventually created complex notification systems to help remember that I should follow-up with said individual so as to not cause too much concern and to maintain some level of civility. You would think that the men in my wedding party would be some of the strongest relationships that I had and would stay the course through moves and such. Not the case. I haven’t seen most of them after the wedding and before the honeymoon. When I returned I didn’t see them again. There wasn’t a need to see them.
And overtime I became somewhat satisfied with my lot and position in life. I didn’t need a circle of relationships that were constantly in my life to be happy. Even my own twin realized that over time I didn’t really keep up my side of the relationship “agreement” and distance was naturally created with different universities, graduate work, and of course, employment.
As a result, defining friendship is both difficult for me and yet at the same time very acutely simple and my working definition is as follows: Friendship is the relationship that exists between myself and others based in a certain context within a historical time period and framework. If we participate in “friend-like” things then that is a nice addition. Otherwise, let’s meet to do collaborative work and get it done.
This isn’t to say that I do not want to connect with other people – I desperately want to connect with others, to be understood, and to experience empathy and shared experiences as I find that fascinating and fun, but friendship as defined by neurotypicals is not one that suits me very well. It has caused great angst and anxiety within myself and within others but I now have found a good peace about it – and those closest to me know that our so-called friendship is one of context and proximity and most-likely utility of some nature – and they are fine with that. I suppose that’s friendship in the purest of forms, acceptance of each other’s significant differences and yet still wanting to hang out and grab a cold one.
My final definition of friendship is still pending – I’m just gathering more empirical data.