The amount of hours I have spent in therapeutic settings learning the social skills, body language, and facial expressions of the neurotypical world has consumed enough hours that I should be an expert on the topic. This non-verbal language system that our society boats as essential to living seems to rattle around in my head like BB’s – more powerful when in the BB gun of the social skills teacher than when in my tin can head that was used for target practice. It’s not the concept of non-verbal language I cannot grasp. It is the gross misuse of it by, well, everyone.
True, I struggle with intent, reading boredom in others – those “hints”people give instead of words that I should be pre-programmed to understand. Though, I am not so dense that I cannot see truth, personality, and expression (or the lack thereof). I do not miss meaning altogether. I can read more than people realize, and I can hear the music they are made of. I can hear people’s pain, and I understand why they want to wear the face of someone who is in control. But I also see the variety of ways people express their friendship to me, versus how they treat their friends they see as normal, equal to them in social intelligence. It’s not vicious, or intended to be mean. It is simply the complexity of the mask people call “friend.”
The English word friend, much like the English word love, has a fantastic multi-color definition that is often diluted by people’s fear of being themselves. Whether it is to defend the deep scars left by others, or simply to avoid the embarrassment of not matching the recipient’s perception of the friendship point for point, the friendship mask is used so often that the word friend comes to mean just about anyone to whom you have said more than just “hello.”
Perhaps I enjoy a world where definitions are more concrete, with obvious beginnings and ends, but I do not believe it drives my perception of everything. However, must we accept a world where everything is grey area? Where lines are blurred and decisions avoided so as to protect everyone’s feelings at the expense of our own individual fulfillment and happiness? What use is a mask if it suffocates us?
This observation of masks came to me while observing people at a public autism event. In the weeks before the event, I had been thrusted into a period of reflection when the 10th anniversary of my autism diagnosis, my 37th birthday, trickled by without any of the celebration, or goal achieving, I had envisioned for myself. The intense feelings of loneliness that ensued intensified the music around me, forcing me to deal with the reality of neurotypicality. The autism event, so perfectly timed, became the orchestra serving up a hallelujah.
As people approached their peers, they talked of interests – favorite songs, food they enjoy to eat, movies and books that impacted them, and if they were brave, political interests. They talked, laughed, and in a relaxed form of vocal volley, they exchanged compliments they only partially believed. As people turned to those with autism, the topic hardly ever left talking about autism. I watched autistic adults fight stimming urges, use forced eye contact, and partake in calculated head nods while NT people told their views/stories/opinions/definitions of autism. As NT’s slipped into their monologues, they excused and defended their quirks with misused clinical diagnoses, hoping to garner sympathy from the autistic listener, otherwise we be viewed as a hypocrites. Not all people did this, but most did.
I then was hit with the realization that the social skills models taught to autistic’s in therapy had not allowed us to enjoy the human exchange of friendship. Rather, it had relinquished all of our conversational control, and forced us to suffocate along with everyone else. These weren’t social rules we were taught, it was social control. It was adherence to a system that lacked definitions because it was built on the back of avoidance rather than connection.
I hear the pain of the human race in the shadow songs they cast. It is so overwhelming that I rarely record the shadow songs of people. The saddest part is not that people have experienced so much pain, but that they cling to it no matter how much of their inner beauty and happiness they tithe to the pain. This inner battle of people I hear overwhelms me, thus making my avoidance of people shadow songs an expression of my empathy for them. Sadly, it also ensures my loneliness will persist in areas of intimate human relationships.
Amidst this battle, and even through my moments of sadness, I still believe that the world is filled with beauty. I refuse to wear the social mask, or give up my claim to meaningful conversation. I address the world with clear definitions of colleague versus friendship versus lover. Those I see as my friend cannot push me away, they must ask me to leave; and though I can hear the cry of the pain they insist on carrying, and in some cases throwing, I keep their song a secret.
We must remember that those of us with autism do not experience less of the world, we sense more of it. We are juggling impulses, insights, and sensations to which the world at large is numb. If you have someone in your life with autism that you call friend, maybe, just this once, you could learn the social world from our view. Trust us with your desires, your fears, your dreams, your vulnerability, even if that expression is without words. And when we refuse to wear the mask to which you have grown accustomed, don’t assume we lack the empathy to hear your cry. Hear the purity of our words, and respect the power in our hugs you call silence. Maybe I can’t tell you what you want to hear, no more than the ocean can tell the sailor where to go, but we can still be there for you in depth, in journey, to the shores of your life’s ambitions.
If you call someone with autism your friend, reach out to them as a peer. Then, be ready to enter into a new realm of social exchange, without a mask. Your song is beautiful, let it sing for you.