Lost in the Lint Filter (stories from the autism spectrum)

I’ve always had a difficult time calibrating my social needs.

I have social needs…I’ve just never been able to pin down what they are, how they work. What happens is that I tend to isolate a lot, until the loneliness gauge goes deep into the red. Then I throw myself into the world, seeking interactions…at which point I pinball around erratically, guided by the random interference of external forces more than any internal sense of direction.

To put that in some sort of context, I think high school offers a pretty good example. High school is when I made friends for the first time. Like a lot of kids on the autism spectrum, I very much wanted friends…had a strong desire for connection…but could never hack it. I could never make it work. I’d try to befriend classmates, neighbor kids, but wound up getting rejected every single time, sometimes bullied. Back then, I didn’t understand it, but I was too socially awkward; too clumsy-headed to navigate those mazes of people.

So that happened…kid, then teen, no friends. High school came around and I finally caught on to a few tricks. I learned two lessons that seemed simple, yet they completely transformed my life. When people were talking, if I just nodded my head a lot and agreed with everyone all the time, about everything, things worked out okay. I’m not recommending this strategy…I’m just saying I stumbled onto it and got by. I went into my nodding routine and found myself with friends, for the first time in my life.

As soon as that happened, I learned the second lesson: never tell anyone about your own thoughts and interests. Ever. Just bury that stuff as deep as you can. It took no time at all to realize, with my new friends: they could care less about anything I had to say. They just wanted to talk, be listened to. And I thought that was okay. It was simpler, easier to navigate conversations once I understood that.

(I’m not recommending this strategy either…it’s no coincidence that the second I made friends, I felt lonelier than ever. I was getting too walled off inside of my head, too distant. That’s the primary benefit of my writing: I’m a living example of what not to do. So, you know. Take notes. Do the opposite. You’re welcome.)

My first friends were nerds. And the truth is that I didn’t choose them as friends, so much as wind up sitting at the same table with them in the lunch room. The nerd table: it wasn’t that anyone wanted to sit there…we were just excluded from all of the other tables. We had nowhere else to sit. The nerd table is basically a big social lint filter, and some of us just wind up there by process of exclusion. Once you’re there, you make do. You strike up conversations, try to make the most of it.

I’m okay referring to my friends as nerds because I was one too. The problem is that I was a different breed of nerd. I liked books; my friends liked chemistry. I liked old French novels and short stories by depressed Russians; they liked fantasy novels and card games featuring ogres and dragons.

It was hard to feel any kinship with my friends, but I just leaned hard on those two lessons. Russian short stories? I kept my mouth shut about those (lesson #2). And when they talked about dragon spells and magic damage, I just nodded my head like an idiot (lesson #1).

This didn’t fix all of the problems. When I was visiting with friends and they started playing the fantasy card games, I didn’t really have anything to do. I never bought the card packs that would allow me to play along, so even when I was hanging out with them, I mostly just sat around, bored. I was surprised to learn that being with people can leave you with as much free time as being alone. I didn’t anticipate that one.

To deal with it, sometimes I’d go off to a different part of the house, watch TV alone. Other times I would just hang out with my friends’ parents, pelt them with questions, make them entertain me. It’s not cool to hang out with your friends parents…but that’s one of the benefits of being in a nerd clan: cool is already off the table; you can just relax and make yourself comfortable.

So, that was my social life in high school: just me, nodding forever, tumbling around in the lint filter.

(College ended up being more of the same, only I managed to add in a few new ingredients. Depression, for example. Alcohol. Again, take notes. Do the opposite. You’re welcome).

It was later in life, at the age of 30, that I finally received an autism spectrum diagnosis…finally began to understand my issues with social pragmatics. Which helped. I’m even in a good relationship today. But outside of that relationship, I don’t have any friends. I haven’t made friends in a very long time, and I can’t tell if I want them. It’s not that I’m conflicted, I just don’t know how to know something like that.

One time a psychologist told me that when you can’t identify your own feelings, it’s called alexithymia. So I told him that I have lots of feelings. I told him about my pinball self and my lint filter self. But he said those are metaphors I use to describe past events, not emotions. He then gave me a piece of paper that had a list of emotions on it; he asked me choose one that I’d felt over the past week. I scanned the list…I didn’t see the words “pinball” or “lint filter” anywhere. I just put the list away and dissembled and waited out the session.

Still, I think about these questions a lot. I get curious.

What does it mean to know your own feelings and needs?

What do you lose by not knowing?

Find more Invisible Strings on Facebook and Twitter. Recent posts: I compare and contrast two psychologists; more on social needs and the spectrum during high school; how families can misperceive autistic traits.
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