On Saturday night, my autism group did a Zoom movie night watching the PBS documentary Autism in Love. This entry is not a movie review (although as a whole, it did a particularly good job chronicling four separate people with autism and their experiences in relationships), but I wanted to focus on one specific aspect. Lenny is easily the person of the four profiled who struggles the most. It is mentioned early in the movie that he did have a successful relationship (before the time of the documentary) that ended abruptly due to his lack of understanding of how to be in a committed relationship. He spends most of the movie alone and struggling to come to grips with who he is as a person. Lenny, to me, is defined by his overwhelming desire to “be normal”. While it is good for people with autism to learn how to tone down their symptoms sometimes in certain social situations, Lenny takes things a bridge too far.
Two scenes in the movie particularly stuck out to me. The first scene occurred when Lenny was asked in an interview what his interests were and all he could say was “sports”. When pressed, the interviewer mentioned that he was interested in conventions and had attended ComicCon the previous year, Lenny dismissed it saying, “A girl wouldn’t be interested in that stuff”. Lenny was also asked in another part of the interview about his desire to get a job. He noted that he felt a strong pressure to get a job because “you need a job to have a relationship. Women hate broke men”. Lenny, who never graduated from college also added, “I can’t hang out with people who have graduated from college because they’re higher than me”. Lenny genuinely believed that just because other people had graduated college, that automatically made them a “better person” than he was because of that one trait.
There’s a lot to unpack from the above paragraph, but I find it easiest to do all at once, because it all relates to the same thing. I used to be a lot like Lenny, and I sympathized greatly with him when I saw him struggling with these issues. In college, I struggled to relate to people, and it felt like no one wanted to be my friend, even though the reality was that I was just having a hard time initiating the necessary interactions with people that would cause them to want to be my friend in the first place. Lenny has responded to this struggle to relate to people by assuming that he needs to be “normal”, above all else, for people to like him. However, his desire to be “normal” is crowding out other aspects of his personality. He doesn’t want to tell people about ComicCon because he assumes they won’t be interested, when in reality, there are many girls that are interested in attending conventions, and he would likely have better luck searching for relationships if he eyed girls with this common interest. He also is seemingly hung up with the idea that the male must be the primary breadwinner in the family, when there are plenty of modern relationships that this is not the case. Finally, he seems to be hung up too much on comparing himself to others. While it is generally true that college-educated people are more likely to be friends with other college-educated people due to a similarity of common experiences, it is not because some people are “better” than others but simply because life happens anyway. When making friends, Lenny would do better to focus simply on common interests rather than thinking, “oh, this person’s too good for me”.
It is easy enough for me to give this advice because, for a long time in my life, I was Lenny. I used to walk around completely anxious and unconfident every day. I knew I wasn’t “normal”, I knew I couldn’t fix it, and I knew that this would cause me to struggle to relate to others. I was very self-conscious about all my autistic stimming because I felt it was costing me friends and I had seen people judge me for it. I also had some negative college experiences that made it clear that it was harder for me to relate to people than others, and because of that I thought other people didn’t want to be my friend, which is a terrible, daunting thing to go around in life assuming about everyone you meet. However, at some point shortly after I moved to Chattanooga, I just stopped making these assumptions. I’m not exactly sure what caused the transformation, but I realized I would do better in life if I just stopped caring. Sure, it may be harder for me to relate to people, but it’s going to be even harder if I go through my life with my arms slouched and head down. I need to own who I am, and not just the weird stimming and occasional lack of social grace but also my gift with music and my weird obsessions with music and game shows and alphabetizing things. I need to not be afraid to show who I am to other people.
As a result of that, I feel I’ve made more friends in the last two years than ever before. I do think part of this is because people in their 30’s are less judgmental than people in their early 20’s, especially their early 20’s, so for people with autism who are in that tough age group, trust me: it does get better. But I think things have mostly gotten easier for me due to my increased confidence. I know that who I am, naturally, as a person, is good enough for some people, and because of that, I feel no compulsion to mask it most of the time. This frees up the space in my brain that would ordinarily be spent obsessing over every little thing I say to just be, and have fun, talk, and interact with people, volunteer to do things I’m good at, occasionally stretch myself, and also not be afraid to speak up and say why I would rather not do something. It is as if a weight has truly been lifted off my shoulders the last couple years. I feel more “normal” than ever even though I have not really changed any of my activities and special interests. I have just embraced who I am, and decided that is good enough. It’s been a lot of work, but that is truly the first step to getting to know others, and it is the most important step of all.