Friendships have been one of the most challenging things for me to understand. It was a long and sometimes awful journey, and there were times I had no friends at all. Thankfully, it turns out that I bumped into some pretty fantastic people as I was wandering around trying to find mine, and they decided to show me out of the woods or walk with me until we could find our way out together. We tossed the compass when we realized that our friendships were our own. Instead of trying to follow the rules, we do things our way:
- Say what you mean.
- Mean what you say.
- Be kind.
- If someone sounds unkind, don’t assume they’re being nasty–assume that something came out wrong, give them some time, ask them what they meant, or forget about it.
- Don’t make a big deal out of little deals.
- Be encouraging.
- Be respectful.
- Don’t say mean things to them or about them.
Be. A. Friend.
Seems pretty straightforward, and… it is. Nearly all of my friends and I have disabilities, mostly autism, but many of us have other diagnoses, too. Others are siblings. My friends are all ages. Some of my best friends are in other states, so we mostly socialize online, which is great when typing is your first language! But I am involved with an autism center, too, where I get to see local friends. The groups bring the same members back overall, but one day could have any number and combination of the usual crowd. We always ask where so-and-so is today, if they’re okay, but whoever is there gets along just fine.
Why? Be a friend. It’s really that simple. You don’t need special skills, you don’t have to follow rules, you don’t have to count seconds as you look in someone’s eye or pretend to be interested when someone talks and talks and you don’t know about that thing. You say, “Hey, Mike, um, I don’t know about Pokemon. So, if you want to talk about it, can you teach me first?” Or you say, “Mike, I am not into Pokemon. Can we change the topic?” Maybe you’re overwhelmed and you kind of wander away when Mike is talking to you. Shrug. So you were overwhelmed. It happens. Nobody minds.
A while back, one of my friends had a gentlemen hold a door open for her and another friend of hers, both girls with disabilities…Then the guy shut it right before they got there and laughed at them. Another friend of mine got the eyebrows of “seriously?” and the sigh of impatience from an employee when her mom guided her through the steps to fill out a form…the employee didn’t seem to realize that the hurrying couldn’t happen without the help. One friend was called a freak a few weeks ago by a total stranger passing by. The r-word was in there, too, but it doesn’t deserve the time it takes to type it.
Can you tell me who is verbal? Who isn’t? Who wasn’t but is and who can be but isn’t always? Who is the loudest or the quietest? Who likes Disney and who hates cartoons? Who is always right smack dab in the middle of the action? I can tell you who is usually the least engaged, rarely with the group, often watching from the outside but never left out…that’d be me. Look again at the bottom right photo…I’m in the foreground, wearing a purple shirt.
But you can also see that I was pretty relaxed. Sometimes the noise level gets to me, but that was shortly after I got there. I was just…acclimating. Sometimes I spend the entire time acclimating without ever actually getting acclimated, so I spend most of the group sitting up front, sometimes talking as people wander up there, sometimes, iPad-ing, sometimes working on my own stuff. And that tells you the most important thing about this group, which is that everyone is included, accepted, and appreciated. We have one label in common–autism–and absolutely nothing else. There is no struggle we all share that lets us silently exchange glances when someone needs a little grace or a bit of space. Our conversations aren’t guided, our silences aren’t bulldozed with prompts to be social! Because we are being social–our social. If someone wants to talk, they’ll talk, really, I promise. There are usually parents in and out—we don’t make them stay or force them to go—and you will hear a knock it off or a hey now, but you’ll also hear, “Oh, no, I told her to!” or, “That was my fault, not hers!”
This is first time I’ve ever been part of a group. And it’s not just a social group…they’re my friends. One of these girls came over here after the party, the first spur-of-the-moment visit I’ve had in the year I’ve lived here. Another friend brought me wrinkly teen magazines from my own back-in-the-day years…she remembered a time last year when I was laughing at the music videos from infamous boy band, and she thought of me. I mailed her a flip flop as a get well card–yep, you can decorate it and then mail it as-is! Another friend thinks minion scavenger hunts in every store are as essential as I do. One of the girls scripts to perfection…we can’t always hear the movie, but since she knows every line, there’s no problem following along. One girl asks about Lucy every time I see her…oh, wait, no. They ALL do.
We live in a world where normal adults scream obscenities and insults at strangers on the internet for being something other than their own clone. And those normal people who have it all together look at people with disabilities for their horrible social awareness, and they shut doors in our faces, call us r-word freaks, and so much worse. Life-or-death worse. Because…we don’t act like them. So we spend our lives learning social skills so that we, too, can learn to slam doors on people and laugh, and see every person who isn’t just like us as worthless?
I’m not saying we’re perfect. The very definition of disability means that we aren’t able to access resources, skills, employment, and so much more without assistance from other people. At the center in our specific group, you’ll see that we sometimes have to be redirected, prompted, or coached when something unexpected happens. We absolutely do not like when our routine gets messed up. Lunch has traditionally been pizza, and when they did a nice mother’s day lunch one day…it did not go over well with more than one member! We have seen girls become so interested in one boy that the guy is completely overwhelmed. Money, scheduling, driving…every one of us has areas of need that make us more dependent on others than our typical peers.
It’s not a matter of “everyone should be like autistic people!” It should really be a matter of accepting that we all have a lot to learn from people who are not like us, including those with disabilities. It isn’t, though. That’s wishful thinking. But I cannot understand why we are forced to break out of our scripted conversations so that we can talk about the weather…which is nothing but a socially acceptable script. We’re taught to smile, shake hands, and follow the script for greeting people just so, because it’s not okay to meet someone and ask if they like cats. All the while, we’re surrounding by campaigns to take off our fakely-perfect masks and be vulnerable, be real, be YOU! But don’t say anything about cats. Just…be you, but don’t be you your way…follow the same script as everyone else.
I wish I could make force fields around my friends so they never hear the ugly stuff. For some of them, it follows them around every day at school, and it wasn’t much better for me in high school. I wouldn’t mind one for myself, either. Turns out force fields are hard to come by. But if we can build people up, help them see what we see in them, over time they’ll end up like Teflon. A lot of people say they want to work with people with disabilities…nearly always, they say they want to work with kids with disabilities. Try to find an OT (occupational therapy) provider who does sensory integration with adults–there is nothing remotely near my sizable city. For someone who wants to go into that field, or for someone who is already in it, the single best thing to do is to go befriend a peer with a disability. Peer. Equal. It isn’t about teaching, helping, or waiting to be knocked over by the inspiration. When typical peers focus less on teaching us, that’s when they’ll really learn how many of the roadblocks we face have nothing to do with disability and a lot to do with the way society views it.