The Obvious Friend

Every once in a while, I realize how clueless I am when it comes to social situations.

I have been taking a communication class, and one of our readings was about relational messages. Basically relational messages are the clues people give that tell what type of relationship they are forming. It includes things like body language and showing interest. It was pretty eye opening for me because I am terrible at communicating like that. I am not very good at giving people clues about how I feel about them. That is one of the reasons why I write letters so often. I don’t understand how to let people know how I feel about them without explicitly stating or describing those feelings.

Up until I learned about this, I also did not know how to tell how people felt about me without them explicitly stating their feelings, which hardly anyone ever does. I realized that some people in my life have consistently shown me their willingness to be friends or their level of commitment through relational communication, but I completely missed the cues because I had no idea what they meant. Looking back at my interactions now, I can see quite obviously the clues I was given by certain friends. It seems almost ridiculous that I did not think certain people were my friends when they obviously showed me through their actions that they were indeed my friends.

No one ever taught me what to look for in a friendship though. No one ever explicitly told me cues people give when they want to be your friend. For most people, no one ever has to tell them, but as someone with autism, I was not able to learn this on my own. I needed someone to tell me that when someone talks to me consistently, that means they enjoy talking to me. I needed someone to tell me that when someone hugs me, that means they care. I needed someone to tell me that when someone listens to what I say, that means they value my opinion. I needed someone to tell me that when someone is excited to see or talk to me, that means they feel happy about our relationship. I know these may seem obvious, but to me they were a foreign language that I did not understand until I learned what they meant.

I can’t explain how much of a difference it makes to be able to notice signs of friendship. All of the years that I spent feeling lonely and isolated don’t seem so dark now that I can look back and see the many friends that were there. I wish I knew then how to tell that someone was trying to be my friend. It would have made me a much better friend in return. I would not have degraded myself for being unable to make friends. I would not have hated myself as much as I did.

It is still hard. I can see the actions of others that show friendship, but I am still working on learning how to show those actions myself. I am still working on learning how to show interest and how to communicate with body language. In the meantime though, I hope my friends understand how I feel about them. I hope they know that I care about them. I hope that my communication is enough to let them know I want to be their friend. And I hope one day I can learn to communicate how I feel about others in more ways than explicitly stating my feelings.

Autism Thoughts

Imagine not being able to talk to your friends when you wanted to or needed to.

Imagine not being able to recognize if someone is friendly or bored or rude or hostile.

Imagine not being able to cry out if you were hurt or ask for help when you needed it.

Imagine not being able to say anything, not because you had nothing to say, but because you physically could not move your lips.

Most of these things are fairly common feelings, but as someone with autism, these are daily realities. I’m sure that at some point, most people have felt like they couldn’t talk to their friends for whatever reason. I’m sure most people have probably droned on about a topic that others in the room find relatively boring. I’m sure most people have resisted asking for help because they don’t want to seem needy or they want to be independent. And I’m sure most people have been unable to find the words to express themselves in times of grief or intense emotion.

Some people say that everyone has autism to an extent. This statement is true in the sense that everyone has a little bit of experience with almost anything. For example, you may experience some pain or discomfort in your back from lifting a heavy box, but that discomfort is on a small scale compared to someone who fractured a vertebrae. I guess my point is that if you don’t have autism, you can understand to some degree what it feels like, but the extent of it is not something I can adequately explain to someone without autism.

How could I possibly explain the paralytic feeling that creates a wall between my need to communicate and my ability to do so? How could I help you understand the tangible density of thought that prevents the formation of vocal expression? How could I express the reality of emotions cascading through my body without physically reacting to them?

I don’t know if there is a good way to explain autism. I don’t know if I could paint a picture of it or draw a diagram or even make a video of how it feels. And my autism may or may not be the same as someone else’s autism. My experiences may or may not be applicable to how someone else feels in the exact same situation. I do know that when you look normal, everyone expects you to act normal- to act like they do. When you have depression or autism or dyslexia or some other unseeable condition, everyone questions when you cannot do what they feel you should be able to do.

I call this blog autism thoughts, not because all of my thoughts are autistic, but because autism is real. It’s not something that goes away because I have learned how to cope or blend in or appear to be “cured”. I talk about autism and depression and suicide and gender identity and anxiety because I need people to understand that it is real. I need someone to understand that it doesn’t just go away with positive thinking or effective therapy or religious convictions.

Yes, it gets better. You learn and you grow and you cope and you live, but it doesn’t go away. I still have and will always have autism thoughts and suicide thoughts and depression thoughts and gender identity thoughts. That doesn’t mean it is hopeless or I shouldn’t keep trying to live better with these thoughts. It just means that it is okay to not be okay sometimes. It is okay to struggle. It’s okay to be autistic and depressed and anything else. And most of all, it’s okay to be me.

SensoryBlogHopNew

Welcome to the Sensory Blog Hop — a monthly gathering of posts from sensory bloggers hosted by The Sensory Spectrum and The Jenny Evolution. Click on the links below to read stories from other bloggers about what it’s like to have Sensory Processing Disorder and to raise a sensory kiddo!

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Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

I plan to take a break from this blog for a while. I have posted quite a lot in the last few months and although it has helped me figure out some things and focus on positive things, it has also been exhausting. I am extraordinarily honest online and excruciatingly vulnerable. This is good for helping people understand and connect, but it also wears on me emotionally and mentally, which in turn affects me physically.

So I have decided to take about a month off from this blog. I plan on posting about Christ and Christmas on my other blog, servicemission.wordpress.com. So feel free to follow me on there if you’re interested.

Anyway, I wish you all a merry Christmas and happy new year. Remember to not just give presents, but give your presence. Christmas is not about the stuff, it is about the people. Don’t forget that!

Disconnect

My mind goes a lot faster than the rest of me. It takes me a long time to translate what my mind is thinking into words. I know what I want to say, I just don’t know how to say it. I first have to focus enough on forming the words in my head, then on keeping the words while I focus on finding the opportunity to say them.

When I am sitting in class, I often have many thoughts that come to me. Sometimes I can form those thoughts into words before the teacher moves on, and I have the opportunity to contribute. Usually though, the teacher moves on before I can form my thought and I have to wait for another opportunity where my thought might fit. Or I move on from that thought and start over again.

It can be frustrating sometimes- this disconnect between my thoughts and my ability to communicate or act on those thoughts. I sometimes wish it was easier. It would be less embarrassing. I would be able to contribute more often. I wouldn’t have to work so hard to pay attention and still focus on my thoughts.

But on the other hand, if it wasn’t so hard, I might say things before they should be said. I might offend more people. I might not give meaningful input because I would be more focused on the output. It’s hard to think so much and try so hard when it seems that other people put no work into their thoughts and fill the time with little long-term value.

But I am grateful that it’s so hard because it means that everything I say has been carefully contemplated. Everything I do has a specific purpose and meaning. It gets me in trouble sometimes and can make me look incapable or unintelligent, but I would rather look incompetent than say something that could hurt someone else. In the end, it is worth being slower because it gives my insights that much more thought and meaning.

Grateful for the Like Button

Sometimes I really don’t know how to respond to people. I can’t think of an appropriate response or something that would adequately express how I really feel. This is why I’m so grateful for the Like button.

I wish there was a like button for real life. Usually when I don’t know what to say, I just smile and nod and find an opportunity to walk away quickly. It’s not that I’m not grateful or that I disagree or that I don’t want to say something back, I just can’t put it in words. Sometimes all you can express is acknowledgement. Sometimes I just let people know I heard. It might come across as rude or unresponsive, but I just don’t know how to respond.

I am grateful that I don’t always have to respond. I am grateful that sometimes I can just acknowledge, and that is enough.

Selective Mutism

There were years of school where I went through selective mutism. The teachers would call role and I just couldn’t answer.

I didn’t understand it. It felt like I was afraid of my voice. But I could talk at other times. I could speak to one person, but just not to many. People would look at me and wonder why I didn’t speak when they had heard me speak before. But I was very fortunate to have people who spoke for me, who defended me from substitutes who didn’t understand or were rude to me.

Teachers didn’t understand. They made it seem so easy. “Just tell me what you need,” they said. I wished it was that easy and I chastised myself that it wasn’t. I hated myself for not being able to speak. And I desperately wanted friends, but could see no way to get them. I tried to become invisible instead, which also didn’t work. In a world where everyone demands that you speak up, look them in the eye, conform to their standards, it’s hard when you can’t. And you get in trouble a lot.

If there’s any advice I could give to teachers, it would be to not demand conformity or at least not enforce it with punishment. Some of us are doing our best. We’re not trouble makers. We just don’t know how else to do things.

Machine Code

I started taking some programming classes, and one of the things I learned is that all computers only understand one language- machine code. Most programmers do not use or know machine code because the programming languages have been adapted to make it faster and easier to communicate with the computer.

I have been thinking about this in the way I communicate. I tend to give facts and say things without much emotion. Like machine code, it’s probably pretty frustrating and uninteresting to communicate at this level. So I have to find some way to adapt that for easier, better communication.

I do switch over at some point in the conversation, but maybe that’s why I don’t make friends very easily. Most people don’t stick around long enough for that switch.

So I’m going to attempt to be more interactive and easier to understand in my communication. It will probably make interaction more exhausting, but if it means more connection with others, it will be worth it.

Therapy

Now that depression isn’t a debilitating part of my life for the moment, I have been able to focus on social skills in therapy instead.

It’s really hard to have client-driven therapy when you’re focusing on social skills. It’s like going to a talent show and being told there’s too many singers so you have to dance instead. Even though you explain that you don’t know how to dance, they just say to try your best and hope it’s what the audience wants. I feel like that’s what I’m doing most of the time in therapy. I have no idea how to communicate, but I’m trying to figure out how to dance and what the audience wants.

It’s sort of exhausting, but good at the same time. I don’t know what I’m doing and I’m drowning half the time, but I’m learning how to swim in the process. I feel like I have been treading water in the social realm for so long that learning to swim is crazy hard. But… At least I have someone who is willing to teach me and maybe eventually I can survive in the deep end.

(Sorry for all the analogies. It’s the only way I know to express how this stuff feels. Hopefully they all make sense!)

Breaking Apart Wedges

Today at church we talked about pride. At one point in the lesson I felt the need to comment with my struggles to enjoy church. Earlier in the lesson, we had talked about how pride is enmity between us and God or us and other people.

I shared that when I first started attending my current congregation, I felt enmity towards them. It wasn’t that they were bad people or that they weren’t Christ-like. In fact, the reason I kept going back was because of the Christ-like atmosphere and the things I was learning about Him. I just have a harder time making friends because of autism and anxiety, etc.

The thing is that instead of being humble about my struggles, I blamed it on the people at church and people in Utah in general. I blamed it on their lack of knowledge of people outside themselves. I blamed it on their small town, country nature that couldn’t connect with a city girl from California. After all, I’m the one with autism. Shouldn’t people almost be required to talk to me first? Isn’t that what Christians are supposed to do- reach out to the weak and weary and all that?

It made sense to me. How could people possibly expect an autistic girl in a new place to make friends herself? Eventually though I realized that the problem really was me. I wanted friends, but my behavior was inconsistent with that desire. I mean, why would anyone want to be friends with someone that hates them? Not that I made it obvious that I felt that way. I was just very unhappy and didn’t see it getting any better.

I don’t know exactly when it changed. I don’t know when I decided that the people at church were a lot nicer than I gave them credit for and that I was really the one at fault. It may have been a story about how  a wedge left in a tree had eventually caused it to split in half. I knew I had put a wedge between me and the people at church, and I didn’t want that wedge to eventually break me apart.

So I decided to change. I decided to try to see the good in people and let go of all the negative feelings I had about not being able to fit in and find my place. I decided that if I wanted a place in church I couldn’t wait around complaining. I had to make that place for myself.

I can’t say that I have done this perfectly or that I never feel indignant when I can’t seem to find someone to talk to, but I can say that it has gotten better. I have gotten better. I still feel lonely at times and lost and alone. But I know that it’s me. It’s me that needs to change and break apart the wedges I have because no one else can do it for me.

How I Communicate

I write a lot of letters. Nowadays, I try to write at least one letter per week. I used to feel foolish for my letter writing, and so there are many letters that I never gave to the person I wrote them for. Now, I feel foolish for never giving those letters.

I can’t express to someone how I appreciate them through speaking. I’ve tried it before and it was okay, but it just couldn’t convey the same meaning. Writing letters is my way of saying I love you. Writing letters is my way of saying thank you. It’s how I can explain myself and how I communicate best.

I can’t believe I ever thought that was wrong. I can’t believe I degraded myself for how I communicated and expressed myself. I can’t believe I forced myself into silence because I was afraid of being different.

I wish I could go back and hug my former self and tell me that it’s okay to write letters. I wish I could put my arm around the shoulder of that quiet girl who was so afraid of being hurt and tell her that letters make a difference. I wish I could let her know that letters would be one of the few ways she could make and keep friends.

I don’t know how you communicate or what works for you, but whatever it is, don’t stop. Don’t stay quiet because of fear. Don’t force yourself to not do something that’s natural because you’re afraid of being different. It might just make you a lot lonelier for a lot longer than you need to be.