Friends Like These

How do I make new friends? Often enough, it’s by looking for the person in a crowd who isn’t talking to anyone. and going to say hello. When I went to a lot of youth retreats in my early 20s, I did this a lot. I saw it as my Christian duty to welcome the stranger. But back then, I didn’t ask myself why they weren’t getting conversations, nor why I wasn’t. In my case, it was probably to do with the lack of ‘talk to me’ body language I was broadcasting. But as for the others… I’ve noticed over the years that I seem to pick up more than my fair share of manic depressives, paranoid schizophrenics and other troubled individuals among my friends and acquaintances. I’m guessing this is because I am blissfully unaware of the negative body language which is putting off most of the crowd from approaching them.

Back then, I was naïve enough to believe an unlikely sob story which I would now recognise as someone’s paranoid delusions – showing part of  an Aspie’s trusting nature, but also a symptom of our tendency to prize what is apparently empirical evidence (a first hand account from the paranoid person) over our own lived experience of how the world usually works.

Nevertheless, I have made friends over the years, and not only those with troubled backgrounds. On more than one occasion, my first meeting with someone has been marked by a sharp disagreement. But an Aspie doesn’t worry about losing face if they turn out to be in the wrong, and a heartfelt and humble apology can be a powerful foundation for a lifelong friendship.

You may be aware of the concept of ‘Five Love Languages‘ – that of the five things we can do to deliberately communicate affection (words, helpful deeds, gifts, spending time together and physical touch). Most people have one or two which speak to you most strongly and fill up your ‘love tank’. That makes sense to me – I definitely have a love tank, but it is empty most of the time. Several weeks can go by before someone communicates affection in a way direct enough for me to notice and feel an emotional response.

There is a much misquoted statement that 83% of all communication is nonverbal; the correct version is that A. Mehrabian found that this is true in the particular case when we are trying to briefly communicate how we feel about a particular idea. But it doesn’t hold for communication in general!

I once asked my friend Chelsea if it was true that when we were together, even before I used any of these five ways of communicating affection, that she would already sense that she was in the presence of a person who cared for her deeply. To my surprise she said yes, and when pressed about how that worked, said she could see it in my eyes.

That makes me wonder… what is really going on in my Aspie brain? Is the ‘feeling centre’ atrophied and only responding to the biggest, most obvious tokens of affection? Or is it working well enough, and even signalling contentment through my eyes, while for some reason not transmitting that positive emotion into the bit of my brain that holds my consciousness?

In the past it puzzled me why my friends didn’t do more to tell me they cared – a card now and then, a phone call for no motive other than ‘just to catch up’, an invitation to do lunch. In part it is probably because most of them don’t need to go to those extremes to know I care for them, or to communicate care for their friends. In part it is the structure of the priestly life, which means I am often too busy to go out or even take a phone call in social hours.

I do wish my friends would communicate affection more often. It is sad to spend most of my time with an empty love tank. But it is difficult to ask directly for help – if I say ‘I won’t feel loved unless you write, call or touch me’, that sounds like emotional blackmail. I sometimes get angry about this – ‘Hey, I have an emotional disability, can’t you at least make a reasonable adjustment?’ But I guess for the typical human being, it feels weird to over-emote and perhaps even risks triggering the wrong sort of affectionate feelings in them. Nevertheless, I live in hope that one or two of my friends will realise I am emotionally hard of hearing, and start shouting!

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Explaining Myself

Over the years since I got my diagnosis, I have found it useful to explain myself, at least to some degree, in appropriate circumstances. it’s not always necessary to use clinical labels.

When I’ve had a ministry in a school, I have confided in the Headteacher that I am autistic. I trust Heads, as educational professionals, to keep confidences and understand something about what a diagnosis of Asperger’s implies.

As a newly appointed parish priest, I haven’t used the clinical label. Rather, what I say to my new parish council goes like this: In seminary, we are encouraged to became aware of our own personal strengths and weaknesses. What I learned about myself is that I am very head-centred, and in committee meetings I might focus to exclusively on the task at hand. I might not notice if I have touched a sensitive nerve for one or more persons present – so if that should happen, please bring it to my attention.

With friends, it gets a bit more difficult. When a friendship becomes close enough, I do disclose my diagnosis. But here the tricky part is around how I talk about communicating affection. I can say, quite truthfully, that if they feel warm towards me, I will not pick up on that warmth unless they communicate it very directly through an unambiguous word, action or touch. But it’s almost impossible to explain this without it sounding like ’emotional blackmail’ – ‘Unless you tell me that you care about me, I won’t believe that you do!’

So, gentle reader, if you have a friend who is an Aspie, let me ask on their behalf. If they were deaf, you would speak up, wouldn’t you? So in this case, check what they are comfortable with, learn their love language(s), and when you find yourself naturally emoting, amplify it to become a big, unambiguous gesture.

I once read an account of someone who arranged for a group of badly disfigured World War II pilots to each have a beautiful female companion for a special evening event – actresses who were well able not to betray any feelings of disgust at the wounded faces. The story touched me deeply, because it showed that someone understood the need “to be loved” is present in people who are repulsive for reasons beyond their control. So if you care about your Aspie, tell him or her, even if communicating it so clearly takes you out of your comfort zone. Isn’t this what you’d want someone to do for you?