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Socialising

Anyone who read my last post won’t be surprised to hear that I’ve been feeling lonely. I thought I was going to get a new job soon but their recruitment process is on hold and I feel really deflated. It’s not easy to find a job that suits my hours, skills, and being an aspie! Finally I thought I’d found one but, well, maybe it’ll come back to me in a month or two.

In the meantime I’ve been seeing a lot of friends. I don’t mean my friends, I just mean that whenever I go out there seem to be lots of pairs or threesomes of women talking and laughing together. I especially see a lot of ‘mum friends’. I don’t get to see my friends very often and I never had any close mum friends. It makes me sad. Sometimes I can see the babies and toddlers that are with the mum friends look bored and I wish the mums would talk more to them. Mostly I just wish I was better at making connections. Maybe then I’d be out on a weekday with a mum friend from my antenatal group, instead of always walking on my own.

It occurred to me today, as I was out on my own again, that it’s not surprising for someone with Asperger’s to feel lonely. We are a minority, and our lack of social prowess makes it hard for us to find and connect with each other. I know you’re all out there, and sometimes you like or comment on my posts and that’s nice.

I think I must try harder to make the best of things. I am still a very lucky person. I don’t live in a war zone. I don’t have Mast Cell Activation Syndrome. I’m not homeless. I do have people in my life who love me and who understand who I am. It is time to stop feeling like a child outside a sweetshop.

Who’s with me?

One of my overriding memories of school, is being surrounded by a kind of white noise. This is the noise of other people’s conversations. Difficult to distinguish or make sense of, it’s easier to tune it out. I thought I’d left this behind until…

Tumble Tots.

When my daughter was younger, a lot of the mums in the waiting room wouldn’t have conversations with each other. It was the norm to sit quietly, speaking only to your own toddler, waiting for the moment you all had to get up and go in to class. Now, my daughter is in a group for bigger kids, and the mums get to wait in the waiting room while the children jump, balance, spin, sing, dance, run, throw things, roly poly, swing, and perform triple pike turns or whatever.

So, every week, I am sitting on a plastic chair, uncomfortably close to other mothers for an hour and I am almost always the only one not talking. I take a kindle. I try to ignore the buzz. Occasionally I look around and feel sorry for myself, or wonder if I’m doing something wrong.

No. I am still not part of the buzz. But I can’t help it. To do things differently would be like trying to move a boulder with a feather.

If I can accept my limitations, and live happily that way, I can show my daughter a good example. I don’t want her to think she has to torture herself to fit in, so why should I put myself under that pressure?

At the last class, I wandered into the hallway to check on my daughter’s progress. It was really just to be somewhere a bit quieter. By chance, another mum came out and spoke to me really nicely. She asked how my daughter was getting on and I asked after hers. Our children have been in the same class for ages.

It felt good to have that small interaction. That is enough for me. Just enough to prove I am a worthy human being, with just a slightly different brain.

I can’t remember what made me think of it, but something reminded me yesterday of my university experience. Technically, I should say “experiences” because there were two; two universities and two very different experiences. My best analogy for that part of my life is that uni no.1 was like being in a chrysalis and uni no. 2 was the fun part where I got to be a sort of butterfly.

Of course, it wasn’t quite that simple.

My three years as an undergraduate had taught me that I needed to change. I couldn’t spend every day of my life hiding from the world. I felt the need to do something drastic, to force a change in me. So, I went abroad to teach for a few weeks. When I returned, I knew I could do better than I had as an undergraduate. Buoyed up, I went to uni no. 2.

I didn’t really have a strategy. I just knew I’d have to do some very uncomfortable things to make my life better. At uni no. 1 I’d avoided the communal kitchen. I ate cold food in my room most days. I bought any dairy goods I wanted fresh each day so that I wouldn’t bump into anybody by going to the fridge. I feared the kitchen because anyone could come in and then I’d have to try and talk to them, or, more likely, ignore them and wish the earth would swallow me whole. When I got to uni no. 2, with the advantage of a smaller shared flat, I decided I’d have to stake out the kitchen.

Staying in the kitchen that day was one of the most painful and difficult things I’ve ever had to do. I was there for most of the afternoon, and many hours in the evening, attempting to get to know my new flatmates. I was at civil war with my brain, wanting to leave, forcing myself to stay. If I had not stayed that first day, I would have lost my nerve. I would have made a bad first impression, and that would have made every other day so much harder. Sometimes you really do have to force a change.

Thanks to that risk I made friends that year, found love, and laid the foundations for a life that was so much better than I’d ever imagined possible. It did not make my life perfect, or easy, but it was the best thing I could have done for myself.

Since that time I’ve taken many social risks. I’ve done internet dating, ran a social media café (way too much socialising and stress!), been to house parties and work events, arranged dinner parties, attended job interviews, stayed with my husband’s uni friends and their children (millions of people in one house – aagh!), made all sorts of phone calls that I was scared about, attended and hosted playdates and children’s birthday parties (double aagh!)…

Have you ever needed to force a change? How did you get on?

I have recently acted as a sympathetic listener for a friend who has been stressed out by events in her family life. This is not a new activity for me. Over the last three decades or so I’ve often been the one that friends turned to for somebody to listen openly, and advise. My aim is always to find a solution, for any problem, and I don’t like it when friends make lots of excuses not to resolve their problems or attempt a solution.

And yet… And yet today I find myself the victim of my own stifling stress. I’m tired and grumpy and I want to stay in a dark room and just avoid the event that’s stressing me out. But I can’t.

What I want to do is stifle the stress but actually, the stress has been stifling me. It makes me inactive. I can’t focus on work. Household chores are too boring. I couldn’t possibly study today… all because I’m worried about going away for the weekend with my husband and child, to visit some of my husband’s friends. How dumb is that? I’m ready to throw in the towel over a weekend party.

And it is a party, with some lovely people, and I know my daughter and husband will have a great time…and yet.

I’ve been to these parties before and they always stress me out. I have to talk to lots of people that I only see once or twice a year. There will be lots of background noise and distractions because there will be so many children there. I will be worrying about my daughter’s ability to cope with how busy everything is. And I have to stay the night in someone else’s house. If my husband read this, he wouldn’t get it.

Parties are fun!

The kids will have a great time!

They’re being really kind hosting everybody!

As usual, I am the killjoy. Or rather, my Asperger’s is. Anyway, like the friend I mentioned earlier, I really just wanted to vent, so thanks for that!

On Saturday I shall be taking my own advice and going to the party. It’s a small price to pay for my family and my husband’s kind friends. Until then – I hope I can be a little less stressed, and a little less useless because of it.

Do you find stress stifling?

 

It was good to get some likes for my last post (Stress and change), even though nobody shared a stress-busting tip. Something I was very worried about was my toddler’s birthday party, which I knew she’d love but I was terrified.

I’m sure fellow Aspies will share my horror contemplating a room full of excited small children and adults – all relying on you to have a great time. That is why I thought it would be nice to share my party tactics!

1. Delegate the most frightening task(s)

For me, this was always going to be ‘managing’ the children. I struggle to understand what they say. I don’t know how I should interact with them – especially when their parents are watching. What do they do? What should they be doing? Are they allowed peanut butter? Why are they shouting and jumping? How can they be corralled and directed to play the party games?

Find a friend or relative with more confidence than you and delegate! I’m lucky enough to be on good terms with a school teacher and I put her in charge of party games and general child management.

But perhaps you’re more frightened of all the adults coming to your child’s party? That leads me to tactic 2!

2. Allow yourself a glass of wine or beer during the party

Do not get drunk. Do not get to the stage where you can no longer cut the cake or follow the noisy buzz of conversations. Just one glass, to take the edge off.

3. Be prepared

Apart from the party actually happening, I was very worried before the party that we might run out of games / prizes / snacks / beverages. Nobody likes a bored or hungry toddler. And nobody needs a living room full of bored and / or hungry children!

We started planning a few weeks in advance and there was a lot of shopping and baking to do. If you have a friend or relative coming who offers to bring food or help with a prize or game, they are now your BEST friend or FAVOURITE relative.

In the end, we had about 50% too many sandwiches and slightly more leftover cakes. We also had some leftover chocolates and boxes of raisins that weren’t needed for prizes or party bags. We had a couple of extra games and activities planned that we didn’t need to use.

I think it’s much better to have done too much, than have to think on your feet or run out to the shop again mid-party, just as you’d started to enjoy your wine.

Anyway, I think that’s all there is to it. The rest is endurance!

 

Did play dates exist when I was a child in the 80s? If so, my mum was blissfully unaware of them. I however, filled with awareness of my condition and keen to instil good social skills in my own offspring, have arranged a play date.

The worst thing about it is that if it goes well, I will have to arrange more to help my daughter maintain the friendship. At least until she’s old enough to go to school and make friends there. Then I’ll probably end up inviting them to my house as well.

What could go wrong? It’s just an hour or two of watching two children play while making awkward conversation with the other child’s mother. I have a plan for what to do if the weather is good or bad. Hopefully the children won’t hate each other. That would be weird. And improbable since they’re only 2 and 3.

So for about two hours I just have to try and look relaxed, as if I’m enjoying myself, and try not to say anything that makes me sound like an idiot. Then, when it’s all over and they’re getting back in the car, we can just arrange to do it all over again.

If it works, at least I can say I’ve achieved something good for my daughter. If it doesn’t, I guess I’ll try another mother and toddler. If I didn’t try at all, I’d feel so bad when there are no friends to invite to her third birthday party.

I wonder if she would care if there were no children at her birthday party?

Over a month since my last blog post here and when I saw the title I thought, ‘O yeah – still waiting for that!‘.

Today I am using a sunlight lamp to perk me up, as well as the usual ridiculous quantity of coffee. I am in the uneasy position of having (or at least feeling like I have) a million tiny things to keep in my mind. Lots of little jobs, and little ideas that I have to keep and dispense at just the right time. I rather envy my toddler now. She is living in the moment, every second of the day. I am in some kind of stasis, always doing much less than I’m thinking about.

Last night I saw some kids playing football in the street and I had a sudden longing for being on holiday, and drinking white wine. Perhaps this is nothing to do with my life and everything to do with the fact that January is a notoriously depressing month. Christmas is dead. Work is back on at full tilt. The weather mostly sucks. My studies have resumed and they are still difficult.

On the plus side, it is nearly my toddler’s 2nd birthday, so I get to make a cake and have a party and watch her happy little face enjoy all the details that I had to plan.

I think we are all still waiting for that ‘wave’. At least we are not alone.

PS. I realised after writing the sentence above, that actually many Aspies do feel alone and isolated, even if they know that in a logical way they aren’t. If you are feeling alone, please reach out, even if it’s only via Facebook to a friend or acquaintance who can sympathise with whatever you’re feeling. That’s just what I did when I had a bad evening recently and a few words of reply made a huge difference.

Today my city of birth was deduced from a phrase; not my accent, but a specific set of words that I used, without even thinking about it.

As a person with limited skill at making small talk and generally getting to know people, it’s probably inevitable that when I do make conversation, I rely on clichés and patterns. These stock phrases and safe topics are not designed to reveal much about me, only to facilitate a relationship or interaction; only to achieve an aim, which is frequently to make people think I’m not odd or unfriendly. So…

What do British people talk about?

The weather

Most famously – weather is always a safe topic for any conversation. It is limited, true, but it can suffice to show that you are friendly and not too weird.

Work

When you’re with colleagues, naturally. Or when you’re in a coffee shop or taxi, for example. It is common to ask taxi drivers about their shift, or sympathise with your barrista about the lunchtime rush.

With your own colleagues you have a safe haven as long as you have a vague idea of what they do. At the very least, your generic conversation should comfortably last a few minutes.

How do we talk?

That’s the other important thing to remember. Generic conversation with strangers or people you don’t know well can benefit immensely from being peppered with humour. A touch of irony, or even sarcasm, can go a long way. Most of my conversations hinge on humour – mine, and that of the person I’m speaking to. If I can’t make a joke or say something witty, I feel I ought to be apologising for being so dull.

I probably even have stock jokes that I adapt and use time and again without even realising.

What I do know, from over-analysing a lot of my conversations, is that I follow the same patterns and repeat the same clichés over and over. They are my road map for most of my social journeys.

When I was at school, a mere 14-28 years ago (I feel so old now) words like autism and Asperger’s weren’t part of my vocabulary. As far as I know, nobody else at school was thinking about these things either, including the teachers. Today it seems to be common knowledge, although I hear a lot more about autism then Asperger’s when I hear school teachers talking about their classes.

Maybe that’s because children diagnosed with an ASD need more support with their learning than plain old Aspies? Maybe children with Asperger’s are still slipping through the net for this very reason? Maybe Aspies are simply less prolific?

What bothers me (and has been bothering me for about 18 years now) is the worry that most educational institutions will fail to meet the needs of children with Asperger’s.

My overriding memory of school days is the feeling of being invisible, like I wasn’t worth noticing. I found it hard to talk to my peers and my teachers. I didn’t know why I didn’t fit in. I started to believe I was worthless. I thought there was no real future for me. I became numb, and that meant I didn’t make the most of what opportunities I had. Every day was simply an endurance test. How much can I put with? How much can I take before I crack?

Not once did I feel like anyone understood me, or even attempted to see beyond my quiet facade. I was just the quiet kid who followed orders.

Now we have teachers who are more aware – but with so much on their plate, would they notice another child who was struggling but not diagnosed?

I hate the thought of a child feeling so isolated, when they should be surrounded by friends and possibilities.

But what does a child with Asperger’s need to flourish at school?

  • Sympathetic teachers, definitely!
  • A bolt hole – why not let us hide in the library or a reading room instead of hiding in toilet cubicles?
  • Social coaching – this would be a big ask! Maybe an after-school or lunchtime class with a small group, or one-on-one, to give us some clues and encouragement.

Can you think of anything else that would help?

 

If you follow the blog, you’ll know I’m in the process of retraining. My day job is still about finding the right words for my clients, but I’m studying to work with numbers.

Having Asperger’s means that whatever job I do, I still have to think about finding the right words. Today I saw a message in a Facebook group for people with AS. A man who is in the UK to study at University, with a recent diagnosis, and no idea of how to cope. What do I say?

I don’t know what help is available. I don’t know what he should do. To be honest, his message didn’t make it clear what he wanted to do, or what he was actually struggling with. What do you say?

I’d like to say, “don’t be a moron, if you’re diagnosed with AS and you know nothing about it, then read a book! You’re a student for heaven’s sake – you should know about basic research methods!”

This doesn’t seem helpful, so I decided to take my time and find better words. It feels wrong to let him go unanswered. What if nobody in the group can think of what to say to him?

I don’t want a long drawn-out conversation where I ask lots of specific questions so I can tailor my response. So what can I say?

I suppose I could recommend a book. I could even do an internet search for support groups near his University. But why can’t he do that? Is he looking for something more? Is there some golden insight that an ‘old-timer’ like me (someone who’s known about their AS for more than six months) should be able to pass on?

Maybe he’s just lazy. I have no idea. But I still hate the thought that he might not get a reply. He might be completely overwhelmed and desperate just to make contact with another Aspie to put a cap on the loneliness.

Sometimes when I used to try and talk, my voice wouldn’t come out, or it would come out too quiet to hear. How sad would it be to actually get your words out and still not be answered.