It is often in group dynamics where I stand out the most. I will hover on the outside, unsure of when to speak or engage, sometimes I’ll be quiet if I sense judgement, and other times I may fool myself into a sense of safety and make jokes that others perceive as inappropriate. This is not me purposefully being aloof, awkward, difficult, or shy. It’s simply me wanting to make a connection, wanting to be involved, but not quite knowing how to be. I have heard this experience from other autistic people and so it felt like a good point to share about.
Complications with communication is a notorious aspect of autism spectrum disorders and social isolation is known to affect many autistic people. But I have often wondered if other autistic people relate with the experience of loneliness even when surrounded by family, friends, colleagues, etc. The experience of wishing you could keep up with the conversation, while you watch others so eloquently take part. There’s a loneliness that comes with being autistic, that can at times be suffocating for it’s unspoken truth. This is something I have always lived with, and through my work in supporting, and counselling autistic people I have found that many ASD folks share this experience. It can be crushing when one so wants to be involved in groups and feels they have a lot to offer but cannot find the words to match the time and the flow of the conversation. This can be followed by a barrage of anxious thoughts and overwhelming feelings, leading to meltdowns, shutdowns, further isolation and judgement.
This paints a bleak picture, yet I love spending time with people. I love company and want to be a valued part of social groups, but I always know that I stand out for the words I use, the movements I make, the tone and volume and body language. My work with autistic people tells me that I am not alone in feeling so out of place, so noticeably different from our peers. We don’t have striking physical characteristics of our condition, but the longer we spend in the company of non-autistic people, the more out of place we can feel. When neurotypical people say “we’re all different”, they’re right, we are all different. We all have different ways of being, different interests, different abilities and strengths. But this is not the same. This is autistic difference, and it hurts every time we realise how much we stand out amongst groups, but have no way of knowing how to fit in, no matter the effort to appear “normal”. We’ll say something strange, or inappropriate and watch as we are gradually pushed aside, or silently ridiculed. We notice the glances of people, the amused exchanges of non-verbal communication when we’ve said or done something wrong, but don’t know the specifics of the transgression or how to correct it.
Inclusivity is such a big word these days, and thankfully autism is becoming more accepted, more understood. But those everyday interactions with others can leave us feeling like we don’t belong, like we have no voice, like we have no-one beside us, like we are unworthy. We are not unworthy, we are autistic and sometimes we say the wrong words, but we are capable and worthy of friendship and love and affection, and we deserve to be a part of groups, and to be given the chance to belong.