One of my key difficulties, which I recognised in myself, when I started reading about adult autism was the friendships and relationship information.
This is another area I can say, ooooh yes, I truly have struggled with this all of my life!
From knowing myself and everything I’ve read, I agree that the way I view friendships and relationships must be very different to most (lets say neurotypical) other people.
All around me – socially or at work – everyone seems to have multiple subtle connections with friends and acquaintances and I have no idea how they successfully ‘engage’ in all these.
Some of the ‘stars’ of the constellation described as autistic behaviours are:
- Black and white thinking – linked to logical outcomes, avoiding ‘grey’ areas, tending to look for a ‘purpose’
- Cognitive thinking styles – visual thinkers; verbal specialists and pattern thinkers. My thinking seems to be heavily visually based, relying on the inner eye for pictures, snapshots, even flow charts that instantly capture the object or essence of a ‘thing’
- Strong focus on details – aiming for thoroughness and accuracy
- Associative thinking – linking one thought or idea to another
- Communication – difficulty reading or picking up on voice tone, body language, tendency to express thoughts and emotions differently
I’ve found it really helpful to identify these in myself and observe how they work. They can be both positive or negative depending on the application.
I didn’t know I was different…
Believe it or not, until I started reading about adult autism, I didn’t realise why relationships have been different for me – I didn’t know I was looking for ‘one special friend’, I didn’t understand that’s what I wanted. Yup, totally blind to that!
All my life I’ve been very strongly influenced by these ‘stars’ listed above, whilst trying unsuccessfully, to manage layers of friendships by trying to copy other people.
What I’ve identified in my thoughts and in some seriously black and white thinking of relationships is; either you’re a friend or you’re not a friend.
To my way of thinking, if you are a friend, I want to blindly trust you with my thoughts and really don’t want to engage a time delay and process or filter everything before letting my thought out of my mouth. Life experience has taught me I have to try and hold back if, for example, I’m in a ‘what just happened?’ moment, because I can talk on and on trying to work things out… awkward and very boring. Plus it can be a stream of tedious and possibly negative details as I pick my way through things. And that can be a real downer for anyone to have to experience.
If you’re not a friend, then you’re maybe an acquaintance, in which case you’ll only expect small talk from me or you’ll be someone I’d like to avoid (uh oh, too awkward).
I have been slightly blind to the difference that someone being ‘friendly’ is not the same as someone ‘being a friend’. This was much worse for me when I was very young. Generally, I find it difficult to make and keep friends.
In my lifelong struggles before identifying with autism, I thought I constantly failed at making and keeping friends because I am; uninteresting, worthless, don’t do enough for my ‘friends’, need to apologise more for my mistakes, say the wrong things, wear the wrong things, live or work in the wrong place, don’t have enough money.
With people I thought were my closest friends or may have even shared a sexual relationship with, when things got tough I’ve thought I’ve misinterpreted or misunderstood the relationship. It usually appears to me that they have a closer friendship with someone else, that they do not feel the same way and are not my ‘special’ friend, at which point I can easily reconnect to the previous list to identify reasons for failure.
“Blindness” seems to be an ongoing theme in my experience of adult autism…
…and that’s potentially quite dangerous. Especially if it means I’m too trusting and blind to the possibility of being used by selfish or even nefarious characters. Although I think this is always a risk, it has been particularly dangerous for me when I was much younger. Nowadays, my more experienced, detailed thinking means I feel I can quickly recognise a behaviour pattern and choose my responsiveness to any engagement. Whereas when I was much younger, I had to learn that and often through difficult situations.
Sometimes I wonder how I’ve managed to survive!
At other times, when my thinking has led me to believe I’ve misunderstood a friendship because of something that has been said or done, I’ll often want to leave the relationship as I feel exposed and foolish.
With my focused ears, I listen to words being spoken very carefully. When something’s actually said, I generally take it at face value. My black and white thinking usually leads me to believe that the words a person is speaking is ‘hard truth’ and rather than looking for any hidden meaning, will just accept their words. Having that kind of thinking means not understanding a bigger picture or motive behind what the person might be trying to communicate. I don’t know how this works in others, but it feels to me like I rely too heavily on one of my five senses at a time.
The problem with subtle communication is that most of the time I don’t “hear” the nuances of the speech – just the words.
Additionally, with reliance on visual thinking, I feel an urge to try to match my visual thoughts with the other person, to understand and agree we’re thinking or seeing things the same way. In relationships, I have a tendency not to argue and I can become overly passive – if I have accepted words at face value.
A victim is a person who has come to feel helpless and passive in the face of misfortune or ill-treatment. My lack of balanced awareness, lack of self image and lack of social communication feeds into my own victimhood.
Another autistic experience is synaesthesia, which is when sound (for example) produces tactile sensations without the individual being physically touched. Or a tactile experience when somebody looks (or stares) at you directly, you then feel it on the skin. Some autistic individuals experience ‘being touched’ by sounds, often the skin sensation comes from sounds other people cannot hear. Some individuals can be even hit by sounds. I’ve put a link here for more information, personally, I find this so interesting.
Obviously, most people would prefer my wider communication skills to be stronger, however the amount of cognitive thinking it would take me would be overwhelming, given the individual nature of each person I’d be connecting to. For me, one to one communication works best.
In the Outer World, I’m easily bewildered by others’ behaviour, causing me to question, ‘Why did they say that?’ I think very deeply about people and situations. When I’m immersed in my Inner World I can experience a feeling of life to life (spiritual) connection. I admire so many things in people and want to get to know them. Maybe because of my lack of spontaneous verbal ability; detailed thinking or anxiety, I appear too aloof or as if I’m performing a role.
How do others view me?
In recent conversations during counselling, we discussed some personal experiences as I’ve attempted to see how others may view me. In the past in work and social situations where I’ve been involved (for example) in written communications and then met in person, I’ve had feedback from people that in writing, I come across as an intelligent, insightful and mature woman. Then when we meet in person am told I’m like a girl. I’m often told I look – and I assume act – much younger than my peers. I often receive a very suspicious reaction if my age is revealed.
One time I went for a job interview, the role was to take on the customer retention and development strategy for a spin-off subsidiary insurance company. I discussed the database with the Marketing Director who was the only person interviewing me at stage one.
The plan was for a new spin off company to inherit an existing customer database from its parent company. I was interested in issues relating to data storage, sharing and ownership. The originating customer relationship was with the parent company so storage, use and ownership of that data – the existing and new relationship with customers – would be fundamental to any communication and retention strategy.
The MD didn’t seem to know anything about the data and I made suggestions on some planning that would need to be considered, should I be offered the job. I really relished the idea of getting stuck into that role and knew what the job entailed.
Within 15 minutes after the interview, I got a call from the recruitment consultant (who I never met in person) saying the interview feedback was that I didn’t ‘add up’. Apparently there was some kind of disparity between how I presented myself and what he was expecting from my Curriculum Vitae (CV or Resume).
My two-page CV shows my chronological work history, is results and evidence orientated, describes some character traits such as ‘focused on detail and results orientated’, is authentic and can be checked/ referenced. It shows my proven capability and business worth.
I wasn’t given any specific feedback about how I’d failed in that interview. It really worried me, I went over and over the meeting in my mind, the discussions we’d had and simply couldn’t work it out. Who knows what was expected of me and what I’d said or done wrong, but I kept my eye on that company and it never did launch.
There’s something wrong with you…
Receiving confusing messages like that work example, or just simply, ‘there’s something wrong with you’ has been a constant experience throughout my life. Either someone’s saying it to me directly and unvarnished or to other people about me. I’m aware there’s something different about me – I think about it and wondering what I can do to fit in. Unexpectedly meeting new people provokes a lot of anxiety.
That’s not to say I don’t do some really stupid things. Years ago I was at a friend’s house and her male lodger came into the front room with her. When he saw me he stopped and looked uncomfortable or unsure of what to do or say. My friend had said ‘I don’t know if you’ve met before’ and then there was this freaky awkwardness, so I decided to say “Its OK, we haven’t slept together!”. Hahaha, Oooof!! My friend said “Oh, Jo!!!”, the lodger, who was a stranger, didn’t say anything and abandoned the room. Left alone with my friend I said “oops, sorry” as she just shook her head at me.
I didn’t think about the impact. An inappropriate thought can become a blunt comment in an instant. It felt like that particular comment just launched out of my mind, a bit like how I read Tourettes described. That was a particularly bad call as that lodger is now the head of our UK Buddhist organisation.
Mind blindness is like being in a totally dark room
I’d describe being mind blind like being in a totally dark room. I walk around in the darkness, I can’t navigate, suddenly bumping into things I can’t see. Sometimes sharp and cutting, sometimes softer with a bit of a bump, other times crashing into something that shatters into thousands of pieces. Each relationship feels like a different thing in the darkness of the room. There’s a fear of what I’ll bump into next and, most of the time, I’ll be trying very hard not to bruise or cut myself. It really hurts. The cuts and bruises I receive in that darkness, feels like joy from my life is bleeding out.
Through my life I have many recollections of someone saying ‘you shouldn’t have said that’. Fear of my own bluntness, misunderstandings due to my reliance on visual thinking… these have accumulated in my life, repeated experiences have created patterns. All I have been able to do is to try and stop these behaviours. Suppression and fear ended up rendering me almost totally mute, hardly able to say any words at work, at buddhist meetings, in groups and even in single dialogues.
Hello to isolation, severe anxiety and depression!
How many ‘mental illnesses’ being diagnosed and mistreated are in fact, just an accumulation of unrecognised autistic behaviours in adults?
My behaviour often feels so extreme… fear or no fear. I’m socially inept and as an experienced adult should probably just find a way to let people know in advance: “By the way, I’m not very good at small talk” and as I feel very uneasy when touched by strangers, I need to find a way to communicate with respect, “this may sound silly but I prefer not to do the hugging and kissing style of ‘hello'”.
Trying to mask behaviours, being awkward and receiving years and years of negative feedback will take its toll. Things I could get away with when I was younger are a definite issue nowadays. I just want to stay indoors, I certainly feel happier lately when I have lots of days in on my own with my dog!
But still, I do feel very fortunate.
Throughout these experience in life it has been vital for my health to have a source of personal encouragement that has always, always supported me. I have been able to turn to this source regardless of the personal reason for needing encouragement, coaching or needing help when I’m at a terrible, emotional dead end.
What or who is it? Its been my spiritual connection and my practise of buddhism. Here’s an example of a quote that has encouraged me and kept me going in the past;
“Whether we are striving for promotion at work or encouraging a friend battling depression, in order to succeed we need courage, perseverance and the spiritual strength to withstand hardship and moments of hopelessness. Nichiren stresses that if we are fainthearted we will surely fail, and we each know how miserable it feels to be defeated by our own weakness or cowardice
Nichiren’s own life provides an example of supreme courage in the face of opposition and persecution, and the Buddhist practice he established can help us clarify our goals and also provide tools with which to reach them.
”For Nichiren Buddhists, the greatest good toward which one can strive is spreading a deeper understanding of the limitless potential for courage, wisdom and compassion which exists in every individual’s life—the hidden treasures collectively described as Buddhahood.” The full article is here
I feel very close to and have constant gratitude to my faith mentor, who is the leader of our worldwide movement for peace, Daisaku Ikeda and the buddhist worldwide organisation of people who create Soka Gakkai. Its so important to have a mentor in life. It’s the only reason I’ve never given up! I’ve experienced some horrendous failures and setbacks and through re-aligning my thoughts and spirit have been able to use those experiences as springboards to the future. By focusing on my inner picture or objectives, by strengthening my self reliance, I have found the courage to start again.
I put my buddhist practise into action. through study, chanting and sharing my life with others at structured and respectful buddhist meetings or during one to one conversations, I actively draw on that spirit to refresh and to begin again.
When I achieve a goal and feel a breakthrough, I feel my self worth and inner happiness shine. My experiences of happiness are the very things that propel me forward… towards personal growth and courageous action.
This year, I have sought professional help having experienced the most crippling anxiety and depression. Someone, somewhere had the perseverance and focus to create a medication (Fluoxetine) that is currently helping me. So I feel huge gratitude to them too. That medicine is giving me a chance to rest and build up my spiritual fitness again. (I’ll write about my experience of depression separately.)
The question for me has often been, what do I believe in more, the power of my past failures or the power of my hope for the future? My present moment, my attitude, my integrity, is something I am in control of. I have to spiritually fight in my Inner World to protect my belief in my Buddhahood and make it my priority.
I can reshape my past by learning from it and create a positive future by continuing to ‘master my mind’, rather than letting ‘my mind master me’.
In relationships, I feel I understand that if what I ‘need’ to feel more stable, more happiness is just one person, one intimate relationship, that special friend, then I actually need to WANT to be close to a person. So I have to start again and transform my past, less happy experiences, into a new picture. I need to strengthen my faith and practise and fill my heart with belief in my Buddhahood, that I will meet that ‘one’, that special friend. OK, enough! well that’s the next big challenge for me isn’t it?
With my future work, I have to do the same thing, start with a clear picture of what I desire, overcome my past experiences and choose to throughly use my buddhist practise to navigate my way to the right setting for me to enjoy my work and earn money.
Awakening to my autistic self has been such a great benefit in my life and I’m grateful to all the courageous people who have shared, written, given access to their experiences and helped me to get to where I am today.
People affect each other in subtle and complex ways, so its important to develop the ability to discern the nature of that influence – if you can. To someone who’s experienced being ‘mind blind’ it can often seem impossible. As well as developing inner fortitude, I really do feel like I need compassionate encouragement and support. I really do need a close companion I can trust to talk things through with.
Compassionate encouragement is a gift that changes people’s lives and its value to the world is immeasurable.
Its worth knowing that according to Buddhism, “bad” friends are those who encourage our weaknesses. Even when intentions are ‘good’, the degree of our positive influence on each other will vary. As Nichiren Daishonin says, “Even a feeble person will not stumble if those supporting him are strong, but a person of considerable strength, when alone, may fall down on an uneven path“.
Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, (1871-1944) founder of the Soka Gakkai, used the following illustration. “Say you have a friend who needs a certain amount of money. Giving your friend the money they need is an act of small good, while helping them find a job is an act of medium good. However, if your friend is really suffering because of a basic tendency toward laziness, then constantly helping him or her out may only perpetuate negative habits. In this case, true friendship is helping that person change the lazy nature that is the deep cause of their suffering. A truly good friend is someone with the compassion and courage to tell us even those things we would prefer not to hear, which we must confront if we are to develop and grow in our lives.”
The full article on how buddhism describes ‘good friends’ here