Liane Holliday Willey, author of Pretending to Be Normal, wrote, “My deep, dark fear, the one that makes my bones scream, is that there are AS people in search of friendships who will never find any, no matter what they do, solely because of their AS. … I know the reality that will wound them as they stumble forward, deeply lonely, and ever more estranged from others.”
After learning that I have Asperger’s syndrome, I set about learning what my weaknesses are and how to overcome them. I developed many tools and skills that have actually helped me in socializing with others. Still, I went back to my psychologist in discouragement and told him that, no matter what tools I have or skills I learn, I still can’t overcome the disconnection from others that comes with Asperger’s. If a person is unable to walk, a wheelchair might help that person get around better, but it won’t help him actually walk. To help such a person such a person access a building, a ramp is often needed.
I’ve had several conversations with friends over the last several months on what I need from them to help me fully enjoy the relationship. In the end, it seemed what we came up with are things that would benefit all relationships. I’d like to share some of them with you…
1. I need my friends to help me understand the rules.
Relationships have rules, and just like any other aspect of socializing, the rules are fluid, contextual, and usually communicated non-verbally. This puts me in the position of having to hit a moving target while blind-folded, as the criteria for Asperger’s syndrome include, “marked impairment in the use of multiple nonverbal behaviors … to regulate social interaction.” (DSM IV) I have a default set of rules that are designed to keep me out of trouble, but unfortunately, they also keep me at a distance. Here’s a great example: I like hugs, and I will happily hug virtually anyone. However, since not all people like hugs, a hug is not always the best thing for a relationship. My default rule is that I will not touch anyone without permission. Some friends have told me they dislike hugs, so I will never hug them. Others have told me that I should hug them whenever I see them. Still others will ask me for hugs or warn me when they are about to hug me. I’m ok with all of this. The important part is that those friends who have discussed this with me have helped me be more comfortable in the relationship by making the rules clear to me.
2. I need my friends to help me understand how they feel about me.
People are generally quite verbal when expressing negative emotions. I usually don’t have any difficulty knowing when someone has a problem with me. Sadly, positive emotions are expressed in more subtle ways. Think about the ways you know that your friends love you. Most of it is non-verbal. I need more overt expressions. As my wife puts it, I “need people to love out loud.” Try hugging me, spending time with me talking about something I’m into, or just tell me.
3. I need my friends to help me understand how to respond to their feelings in a way that builds the relationship.
I can usually identify when a person is sad or upset, but I have a tough time figuring out what to do. When it’s someone I care about, this will usually cause me to panic. It helps me greatly if you can tell me what you need. I will happily listen for hours, or give you a hug. I just need to know.
4. I need my friends to believe me when I say I can’t do something.
It may be possible for me to do whatever it is, but not at that moment, or not in any way that I can see. If I say I can’t, let’s back away from it. Maybe we can take another look and find a way for me to do it. If not, please don’t hold it against me.