Solving the Friendship “Puzzle”

I’ve reviled the puzzle piece image since I fully understood what it meant-who it was associated with, what they stood for, and what their end goal was. I still do to this day. I’ve never viewed myself as someone needing “a cure” for my autism or anything close to it. After all, why would a 20-year-old History and Political Science double major who has a perfect GPA and who’s on track to graduate from university a year early and just got into his university’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter need to be cured of autism? Sounds like I’ve risen above whatever limits or critical deficiencies that and difficulties that my neurotype has given me, no? And more to the point-would that cure not potentially take away some intrinsic part of why he’s achieved what he’s achieved?

To me, at least, that answer is a resounding yes-a “cure” would necessarily take away a big part of who I am and who I’ve been. It would change fundamentally who I am and how I approach the world, what I’m tolerant of, what I’m capable of, and potentially the very moral fibre and voracious sense of justice for all that pervades my being.

I tend to think in a form of almost comparative thought, my thought process often involves two main things: visualization of the effects of something or relating one concept or idea to another helps me to build connections between the two. Occasionally if I’m just not *getting* a topic, an idea, or something else, it’s that I have no earthly idea what the effect of the thing could be or that I have no point of reference to work on. (The beauty of both of my passions in political science-I’m particularly interested in the evolution of regimes and election systems-and history-particularly European history, just generally-are that they both allow for broad-based connections and visualizations, even mental, of effects. You can think of it as a chord progression. If I know chords 1 and 4, I need to figure out 2 and 3, if we have the framework by which to analyze those, I can figure it out relatively quickly. I’m also a conceptual thinker generally, so I’m not super interested, per se, in the specifics. Ask me what’s under the hood and I’m likely to have no clue, even if I can get from A to D without points B and C.)

However, there have just always been things I’ve never understood-no matter how hard I try-which has led to several issues. I think they’re both tied to my particular neurotype and how I view the world-which, again, is in starkly different terms than most people. The first is love. I still can’t figure out what exactly that term means, even in its most nebulous sense, but this may have more to do with my sexuality than anything else. The second is a concept which many of us seem to understand very well from day one without ever needing an explanation and without many, if any, missteps-friendship.

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When I was a little kid, about 3 or 4 years old, I was insistent on routine. Lunch right at or around the same time every day, pick up from my ABA therapy too, always making sure I did the same things around the same time every day. It was an arduous process to break me of the need for a routine-something which took me more than a few years. (In hindsight, it might have been worse for me had I not been broken of this need.) By the time I entered regular preschool at the age of 4, I was adorable and had no inkling as to how to interact with most kids. At the time, I lived across the street from another kid my age and we would regularly play with the same things, organizing them just so (model NASCAR cars-my step-grandfather was a big NASCAR fan). However, it was very clear to me after a few months of this routine, among other things, that he was no fan. We ended up going to the same schools starting when we entered Kindergarten, I never reconnected with him.

In elementary school, my troubles with making and keeping friends continued. I became friends with a pair of twin girls who happened to be on the same path as me academically. They were practically the only friends I had in elementary school. As might be expected when a six-year-old kid (to be clear though, we were friends for much longer) is friends with a girl of the same age, and as middle school approached, we were regularly the target of ridicule. Accused of being in a romantic relationship that, ironically, neither of us wanted. To be sure, there were other kids that some might have called my “friends”. Even through high school, I was friendly with pretty much everyone, even if we never hung out or anything.

When I got to middle school, things got slightly better. (Oh, would I not go back and slap middle school me if given the chance-“how dare you deny justice to millions and demand it for you and yours!”) I got into what could be deemed a “bad” friendship my sixth-grade year with another guy (the first male friend I had in hindsight), which ended with us basically not on speaking terms by the end of the year. As I grew older, and the question of why I just had no desire to do the things that the other kids my age were doing (“dating”, among other things) came ever more into my head, I had more friends than in the past, but no one I ever felt I could talk to about any of my concerns-until the end of my eighth-grade year.

Antwerp, Belgium is a place that will always have a special place in my heart. No, I’ve never been there, but I have won two competitions in my day because of the existence of Antwerp. The latter of the two was the 2015 Virginia National Geographic Bee which led me to compete in the national competition that year (for the record, I was sent packing in prelims). At that competition, I met a bunch of incredible people, but most important for young me was a group of four guys and a girl-we dubbed ourselves “the Nerd Herd” (don’t ask me why). I still am at least on speaking terms with four of them, but not particularly the last and the last is the most important to my narrative.

Most of my longtime followers, and certainly my friends who read this, will know who exactly I’m referring to. We were, in a sense, perfectly made for each other as friends. Both extremely analytical people (though he was details oriented, unlike me) and both misunderstood by our friends and family-not just in our goals and dreams, but perhaps in what we understood about the world. We were friends for the better part of three years before the trouble began, but I knew by the end of sophomore year that there were real changes at hand in my own life (most of which he helped me realize).

He began drifting away. Slowly at first, a couple of days, a week, but always returning. Then the first semester of my senior year, I didn’t hear from him for the space of a few months. I heard from him that previous summer, and maybe in October, but after that Christmas, I didn’t hear from him until his spring break in March, and then not until July of the next year. The next time we talked at any length was back in June of 2020-almost a full year. Quite a few of my new friends told me I should cut him off, that it was clear that he didn’t quite care for me, but to this day, I’ve never been able to do it. I’m going to explain why that is, and perhaps why my reaction to other things may seem a bit knee-jerk.

There was a friend of mine who I’ve only ever interacted with online who put it extremely well when I said “I want human interaction, but only on my own terms”. In hindsight, this makes an incredible amount of sense. I’m not exactly the most social type. Yes, if I see a funny post on Instagram or TikTok or something else, of course I’ll send the post to my friends, but I’m not someone to spend all day texting someone. My particular pattern is to talk to only a very few (maybe two or three at this point) people every day or just about every day. Oftentimes it’s about nothing too major, how their day went, those sorts of pleasantries, but when you find someone whose interests and goals align so much with your own, it can be extremely hard to let go of them.

This leads to a broader question of what exactly you can do with your autistic friends? How do you make sure that they feel appreciated and heard? I can think of three solutions to this question.

  1. If you can’t talk to them, and you can say “hey, I can’t talk right now!” do so! It may sound simple, and perhaps it’s something that doesn’t need to be said for neurotypical people, but I can only speak for experience when I say it stresses me out. Certainty, as explained earlier, is something which many of us are still comforted by, no matter if we are as rigid about it as we were as kids. Now, of course, one can’t and that’s fine too, but frankly, there’s probably no excuse for you to wait forever to respond.
  2. Nurture their interests! Just as you wouldn’t want to hear from someone else that you just don’t want to hear about their interests. Give your friends the time and space to tell you about what they enjoy. Even if it’s something extremely boring to you, surely they will enjoy having at least one person who wants to hear about whatever they’re interested in. (Sure, my dad’s a history buff, but we’ve never enjoyed the same stuff there and outside of dance, my sibling and I never really had much in the way of similar interests.)
  3. Perhaps most importantly, make them feel loved. Even if it’s implicit, and not explicit, making it clear that you care about one of us is more likely to get us to want to keep making an effort. Now, I know that occasionally it may appear as though we care too much, but if you set a boundary, I think most of us can be reasonably expected to understand it and respect it.

History and political science undergrad at U of SC. #ActuallyAutistic, 20, He/Him. Views my own.