This month Lydia Wayman, Autistic Speaks, writes about autism friendships and ponders why society can’t grasp the idea of an equal friendship between two people who aren’t ‘equal.’
A very good friend of mine was in the hospital in December, and part of what she was dealing with involved a lot of pain. It was pain that the doctors had said she “should not have” because there was “no reason,” and this went on for a week before they found the cause, one which causes excruciating pain. Their family is one of faith, and so I had been asking friends for prayers. But here’s the thing; my friend is nine years old. “Oh, did you babysit her?” “Do you tutor her?” “Does she go to your church?” No, no, and no. She’s my friend, as in: person whose company I enjoy and even seek. It’s equal footing. But she’s nine! Yes, she is.
I also have a friend, a boy in his early teens. He graciously helped me in the grocery store last week, where we also took the time to talk about interests and hobbies. He told his friends at school that I’m a writer, and how he thinks it’s cool, and his friends insisted that no 27-year-old would really be his friend, that I was just being nice to him. I don’t “be nice.” Heck, I don’t know how. If I really don’t like a person or situation, I may walk away mid-conversation (and sometimes that means leaving a friend or family member to bear the brunt… oops!), but I’m never mean and I don’t fake the nice. The kid is my friend; he’s kind and intelligent and driven and rather quirky. I like talking with him, I’m interested in learning more about things he knows that I don’t know, and I like hanging out with him.
I have friends with various disabilities of every age, gender, faith, and just about any other outward difference.
For some reason, society can’t grasp the idea of an equal friendship between two people who aren’t “equal.” All men are created equal… as long as they’re considered to be on the same “level,” right? If you’re close in age and of the same social class and level of education and gender, then you’re “created equal” and can be friends. Otherwise, there has to be a different motive.
I see a lot of patronizing of my friends who are visibly disabled, and I’ve been on the receiving end of the loud voices with slightly slowed-down, short words. I was at a church-based group for adults with any type of disability as well as family members, and a group leader came over and patted my shoulder and said, “My, look at your coloring, all in the lines!” Outward bodies don’t always match inward ability for some, not in the ways most people expect. It’s never fun to be chronically relegated to”special helper” or “a very good girl” or a “special friend!” I know a teenage girl whose interests and social overtures make her seem much younger and leave her easily pegged as a person with a disability. She’s always ostracized by her peers, and some believe that she has an inability to understand and show empathy. At a recent party, she was across from me at the table. I was getting tired and had begun to close my eyes right at the table; once I start to get tired, it’s only a countdown until I totally crash no matter where I am, but it was my own party, so I was silently worrying. When I opened my eyes, her hand was stretched out with her palm facing me. I reached my arm out and put my palm on hers. “You okay?” she asked. I nodded. “You’re tired.” There were fifteen other people in the room, including my family and closest friends; she noticed first and she knew just thing to remind me that I wasn’t alone. “Love you,” she said.
When it comes to autism and many other disabilities, far too many people look straight to the weaknesses as reasons that person cannot be a friend. It’s not any better to patronize them and make them the friend you keep out of pity because you know she has no other chance of having friends. It infuriates me, because the moment someone is put in that role, she has very little chance of getting out of it… If everyone is only looking toward the ways they can pat-pat, good-girl, special-friend someone, they are then blinded to the many qualities that person has that make her a really great friend.
But then it comes to guys. Boys. Men. What is the accepted label for the group of similarly-aged males of potential romantic interest at 27? Yeah–them. I’ve always been told I really don’t know that I don’t want to get married. I remember hearing the exact same message, said in the very same tone, when I was six, and I meant it then as I mean it now. I’ve always been told I don’t really know. When I’m 40 and still unmarried, then can I know? Out of pure curiosity, I recently asked my mom, “I’m not ugly, so why don’t I ever get any attention from guys?” My mom said that I don’t send any signals at all that I’m interested. “Oh, good,” I said. “Cause I’m not. That’d be annoying.” Unlike girls who feel slighted by a lack of male attention, I am quite relieved that I don’t have to deal with it. Many people like me find a lot of relief and reassurance in the asexual community. I’m glad, and I understand the importance, because I think my autistic friends create a strong community for me, and it’s transformed my life. But when it comes to sexual orientation or lack of it, it’s about as important to me day to day as the fact that I don’t wear high heels. Same level of life-altering function, and same total lack of holding my interest. It would be like trying to get into a detailed conversation about car engines with me; the walking away mid-conversation very well might apply here, too. I pretty much shrug and go back to my writing or my cat. When people try to force on me the idea that, one day, I will surely date and marry, I think to myself that it would be mighty unfair to commit to spending my life with someone whose romantic interest is as important to me as ugly shoes that would shred my feet and make me fall on my face. No warm fuzzies.
And yet, it pops up when I least expect it. When I talk about a male friend, the occasion acquaintance asks, “Is he your boyfriend?” It’s the same tone they asks fifth graders whose friendships cross gender lines. If a young adult doesn’t chase men and go out for drinks, what else to life could there possibly be for her? Cats! Writing! Art! Advocacy! Family! Friendships!
Society has such ingrained expectations of friendship. I think each autistic person finds his or her own balance of altering ourselves to fit in and standing up and saying hey, wait, this is really pretty ridiculous that society works this way. And when a kid is told someone can’t possibly want to be his friend, when a teen is valued only for her existence while her heart is passed over, and when a 27-year-old still doesn’t “really know” that marriage holds no interest, well, these are the times that do it for me. I might be the oddball here, but I dare to say that this oddball is not in the wrong on these points. This is me standing up and saying hey… society? This is ridiculous.