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Socialising

Although I normally consider myself to be level-headed and even-tempered, I am also very quick to panic about certain things. For example, now that I’m heavily pregnant, a simple bout of indigestion has me worrying about premature labour. If my daughter has a problem with one of her school friends, I immediately conclude that she’ll be doomed to a lonely, sad, childhood, and that it will be all my fault because I couldn’t model proper social interactions for her.

These reactions are extreme. They are also quite unhelpful, but although I can rein them in a bit, I cannot stop them from coming.

A few days ago, my daughter told me her best friend had said she didn’t want to be her best friend anymore. The sad look on her face convinced me immediately that this was a real crisis and I, as her mother, must be able to provide a solution. But what could I say? Maybe your friend was grumpy or tired today? Why not play with someone else (as if it’s exactly that easy)? Talk to a teacher!?

I was out of my depth, and it was a shock because it happened so suddenly.

With her next breath, my daughter told me that her friend had then changed her mind and said “OK, I’ll be your best friend forever”. Phew! I have no idea what caused this hiatus. I have no idea how long the separation lasted, or if my daughter had time to cry over it at school. She didn’t offer any more details, and I was so relieved I didn’t like to press for more information.

And when I look back, I remember all the reassuring details that hadn’t occurred to me at the moment of her announcement. The fact that she came out of school that day happy, just like every other day. The fact that she had waited two hours before even mentioning it, during which time she’d done the same things she does every other day after school. My daughter was already back on an even keel before she saw me in the playground. The sadness she’d felt was not a big deal to her anymore.

But that moment of panic, for me… I never want to feel like that again. It’s ridiculous how fast our minds can spiral through fear, and a strong imagination suddenly doesn’t feel like much of a blessing. And now that I know just how tenuous a friendship is for 4- and 5-year olds, I have the worry of it recurring.

The day after she made this announcement, I was still thinking about it. ‘Is she definitely OK?’, ‘Will her best friend play with her today?’, ‘Should I mention it to their teacher, just so I know she’ll keep an eye on them?’, ‘Is it my fault if the friendship fails and my daughter finds she can’t move on?’, ‘What will happen if she loses her friend?’, ‘What can I say to make things better if the next break is more permanent?’

I think Aspie brains are pretty good at overthinking things and worrying too much. But this blog is meant to be a positive look at Asperger’s – so where’s the happy take-away?

Well, I suppose it’s a good thing that I recognised my feelings and thoughts for the complete overreaction that they are. I am trying to extricate them from my life and not let them change my behaviour. And I am taking positive steps to support their friendship by arranging another playdate.

When your fear is spiralling out of control, you must cling to reality.

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Last night I had some good news at my first ever parents’ evening. I heard that, since starting school a few months ago, my daughter’s social skills and confidence have really picked up and accelerated. Her teacher explained that she’d been able to help Eve by showing her how to approach children and interact with them to initiate playing and build friendship.

For anyone on the autism spectrum with children, I’m sure you can imagine my pride and elation! Given the right encouragement and support, my daughter is now learning to socialise with competence. Something I’m still working on! And if my daughter can do it, that’s enough to make me happy. I don’t care if I never really get the hang of it myself. If she’s OK, I’m OK.

But I’m not giving up, either. This week I’ve had a few social challenges, and I have another big one coming up this afternoon. On Tuesday I met up with some mums from my antenatal group. A few years ago this type of meeting would have had me running for the toilet and cancelling. Now, I still felt nervous, and I still struggled when the group exceeded 4 adults, but I got through it and they’re all still talking to me on WhatsApp. More meetings have been planned!

This afternoon, we have a playdate. My daughter’s first ever best friend is coming over with her mum (who I don’t really know), and possibly her baby sister. The mum seems nice, and I’m beyond thrilled that my little one has a best friend, but it’s still a scary prospect. This woman has seen me in the playground – that place where I feel like a rabbit in the headlights twice every week day. Now I must convince her that I’m a nice, friendly person who would be good to spend time with.

I’m fully expecting to get hot and sweaty despite the cold weather. My mouth will probably go dry and I’ll be sipping water a lot just to give myself extra thinking time or to fill pauses in the conversation. Maybe I should make a list of topics like I used to before I called friends?

My antenatal group experience is telling me to be confident. History is telling me I should be feeling sick in a few hours.

Can practice really make perfect, even for people like me?

They say pride comes before a fall and this week I am feeling the truth of it. Last week I was practically exploding with pride because I’d talked to a few new people when doing the school drop off. This week, I am feeling lonely again and pretty low.

What I remembered this week is that, being surrounded by so many people in the playground makes me scared to make eye contact. When I arrive in the morning or afternoon now, it’s so busy, and even if I see one of the mothers I spoke to last week, they’re invariably in conversation with someone else. So, I’ve been feeling sorry for myself and a bit like a failure again.

Before my daughter started at school, I would at least be able to talk to relatives when they came to collect her for babysitting, and the people at nursery who took care of her. Now, I speak to no-one, almost every day. Last night, to complete the loneliness, my husband went out for the evening and didn’t even send me a text message to say when he was coming home.

OK, I know that he knew I’d be in bed when he came back and he doesn’t like to wake me. Even so, I felt awful. Today, rather than moping again, I am trying to pick myself back up.

I’ve arranged a play date. I’ve arranged to start volunteering again at a local school. I’ve got relatives coming over tomorrow, and I’ve invited my sister and nephew to come on Friday. I’ve also left a message with a friend about meeting for coffee.

Each of these steps was difficult to take. I’m in the middle of a self-pity pit right now, and that makes it harder to climb out. Part of me feels like the loneliness can’t be fixed, because I know the Asperger’s can’t be fixed. In fact, I know from past experience that if I make an effort, things can improve.

I am trying to focus on what I do have, not what I don’t. How are you feeling this week?

Following my recent smugness, today I am celebrating a new achievement. Or rather, a series of small achievements.

I wonder if any of my fellow Aspies have been watching the new detective drama, Strike? I’ve really enjoyed it, but in the last episode, Strike and Robin went to a very formal party, and Strike used two words that send fear into the heart of anyone like me, “Let’s mingle”.

If someone took me to a party and said that, I’d head straight for the bar or the toilet to hide. Because Robin is nothing like me (glamorous, confidant, socially secure), she was fine. She subtly managed to attract the one man in the room they most wanted to talk to, and easily, casually, led him back to Strike.

I know this will never be me, but there are thousands like me and probably not so many as self-assured as Robin. So no, I haven’t been going down a storm at any parties, but I have been making small talk and getting to know new people.

At yoga class, I have for the last few weeks been gradually talking more and more to the woman next to me. And today, I spoke to a woman I’d never met while dropping my daughter off at school. Perhaps the baby bump makes me appear more accessible? It certainly provides an obvious topic of conversation.

It’s a strange feeling to leave the house for something almost every day of the week, and know that there will be an expectation for you to talk to someone, even if it’s only for five minutes while collecting my daughter. I feel more competent, and more like a ‘real mum’, whatever that means.

Even writing this down feels weird. I suppose most people do expect to have conversations with other adults every day. Acquaintances, colleagues, friends, etc. But I’m an Aspie and I work from home. I don’t even need to use the phone for my job, normally. I communicate with most people online, and nowhere else.

So you see, these fragments of humanity are a big deal.

Following on from my last post’s sluggish determination, I write to you now from the other side. My energy levels are better. I can eat normal food again. My mood is better. But when I look back I can see how annoyed I was with my body – I felt it had let me down.

At yoga, we have been focusing on “ahimsa” these last few weeks. The principle of doing no harm – not only to others, but also to ourselves. It got me thinking about a trait which I believe is common to those with Asperger’s, and many others as well. We get cross with our limitations. We are saddened by our own selves. If we’re not careful, we can learn to hate ourselves.

I went to a wedding last weekend, and met lots of people I knew as well as a few new faces. For an Aspie, this is hard work. For a pregnant Aspie who has to stay sober, it proved to be rather painful. For about 12 hours I was trying to enjoy myself, make small talk, follow conversations, dance, and generally look like someone who fitted in at the party. All the while, a little nagging voice was making me doubt my every move and word. I wasn’t happy with my hair, my dress, or my shoes. I felt dowdy and frumpy with my bump and low heels, next to countless glamorous and willowy, confident women. I got stuck when I tried to talk to people. I had to take a few breaks, where I sat alone in the bar hoping no one would notice me and think “what’s that weirdo doing?”.

What an utter waste of a party.

My other half had good fun but I think he was a bit worried about me too.

So, I have not been very kind to myself these last few weeks. I have been sad because of my changing shape, and yes, I know carrying a baby is a wondrous and miraculous thing but I really do miss my waist.

Even so, I don’t want to turn into the person I used to be. The one who was too scared to talk to anyone. The one who cried herself to sleep most nights wondering why she was such a failure as a human being.

I must refocus on ahimsa. Happiness does not exclusively come from being a size 8 party animal, despite what popular culture tells us.

Do you fall into the negativity trap?

When you have Asperger’s, one of the biggest challenges you face is creating, and maintaining, close relationships. Sometimes, even ‘neuro-typicals’ struggle with this, so it’s no surprise that socially impaired Aspies feel like they’re scaling a sheer cliff-face making friends!

Even now, well into my 30s, I find so many of my interactions are marred by uncertainty and constant questioning. My brain isn’t sure if it’s doing the right thing. My brain doesn’t know if it read the situation right. My brain doesn’t know if this person actually likes me or if they’re just being polite. My brain doesn’t know what’s normal. My brain doesn’t know if I’m saying too much, or too little.

This chasm of understanding has always been there. But it’s only as I matured that I have come to realise it’s there. Before I knew about this chasm, I was just making errors and not knowing why. I was responding to people who I didn’t understand in a way that I didn’t understand. So we had two unknown variables. What are they thinking and what am I thinking?

Now that I know more about myself, I have this awareness of the chasm. The constant understanding that I may be reading a situation wrongly and I may be responding in a way that people don’t get. I prefer this ‘knowing about not knowing’ to what I had before. That was just overwhelmingly confusing and upsetting. I feel sorry for any child struggling in the playground now. And I feel sorry for myself when I see young girls or women who look like they’re enjoying close friendships and making it look easy.

Now I am older I have some close friends and I have managed to sustain these relationships for over a decade. This is undoubtedly my personal best and will likely never be beaten. I still struggle with ‘new’ people and I am very aware of how much I suck at showing my daughter how to make friends.

Does it ever become easy for someone like me?

The friends I have now are people I met at work a long time ago. It was hard work getting to know them and trust them. And I think there was a lot of luck involved too! How often does someone with Asperger’s find someone they have a lot in common with? I think it’s even more rare for someone with Asperger’s to find people who are comfortable with their level of social skills and not put off by the awkwardness, or shyness, or just plain weirdness.

I was also very lucky when I met my husband through an internet dating site. He says I’ve put up with a lot to be with him, but he has put up with a lot to be with me, too!

So, I had to be lucky as well as working hard.

I’ve always worked hard to make friends but it hasn’t always paid off. I can remember as far back as infant school, when I was about 4 or 5, working my butt off trying to please people and keep my friendships going. What actually happened was a series of minor successes quickly superseded by bigger failures which spanned the next 20 years. And with the failures came loneliness, self-doubt, anxiety, and self-loathing, adversely affecting my mental health for those two decades.

So, when I say that close relationships are a big deal, that’s no hyperbole.

Now that I am in a position of relative strength, I see it as my duty to pass on encouragement and advice to anyone out there who is struggling the way I did. I am also watching my daughter’s progress, looking for ways to help her navigate her own social life.

When I remember my optimistic bloom from last week, I am confident. When I remember how large my own chasm of understanding seemed to be, I am full of fear.

Have you struggled to develop or maintain close relationships? I’d love to hear your stories or top tips!

Hello. Since my last post (which made me feel very brave and modern) I’ve gone through a few changes.

  • I’ve bought some new clothes in an attempt to look less like I’m always wearing my ‘mum uniform’.
  • I’ve taken on a new freelance editing job.
  • I’ve been practicing using my social skills.

This last point is probably the most significant change for me. Today I went to the hairdresser. I would normally take a book or a newspaper and I was running around trying to decide what to bring when I suddenly thought, ‘why not treat this as a chance to practice making small talk?’

I’d already had a good conversation with my masseuse when I went for my sports massage this morning. It’s surprisingly easy to make small talk when your spine is being cracked and you’re trying not to swear. When I got to the hairdressers, in the back of my mind was the memory of my last job interview and the feedback I’d got about not speaking enough. Yes, talking to strangers and people I don’t know well is tough, but I can do it. I proved this again a few weeks ago on a training course.

Sitting in a room full of parents, next to my husband, ready to learn all about first aid for babies and toddlers, and the first activity is:

Introduce yourself to someone you’ve never met and talk to them about why you’re here.

My palms instantly got a lot sweatier. My mouth felt dry. My heart was booming. I turned to my right and said “Hi, my name’s…” It wasn’t the best conversation I’ve ever had, but it certainly wasn’t the worst either. If only I could do that in yoga class! Ah well, baby steps right?

So, is it the sunshine and blooming flowers that give me this extra boost? I definitely feel that spring is in the air and that always makes me feel a little better about life. I have been imagining all sorts of new beginnings, and I feel optimistic.

Is everyone else enjoying the spring bloom? I hope so.

What’s changing for you?