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.
Share this Article!Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on TumblrShare on Google+

Leave A Comment!

  • http://thethirdglance.wordpress.com E (The Third Glance)

    Thanks for writing this. I have nothing insightful to add, I just wanted to say thank you. :)

    • http://theinvisiblestrings.com m kelter

      aw, thx, all comments are appreciated :)

      • Michele Day

        I think Pinball & Lint Filter are excellent ways to describe feelings-maybe some people lack imagination. I very often feel like a pinball(wizard!)

  • http://lettersfromaspergia.com Aspergia Jones

    The whole ‘nod and smile and don’t talk about your own interests’ is something that’s happened so much to me. And so much advice about making friends, not just for people on the spectrum but anyone who’s vaguely introverted, basically boils down to that: nod, smile, be a good listener. But when does it every go our way, and someone nods and smiles and listens to us? (I just finished reading Harpo Speaks, and it would be so great to infodump about it to someone whose who would at least pretend to be interested. *sigh*)

    The ‘lint filter’ analogy is very apt. I’ve met a few nice people through ending up in the ‘not otherwise specified’ group of misfits. But I’ve meet some creepers there, too.

    I think I can identify my emotions, in that I know when i feel happy or sad or whatever, but I can’t necessarily give them names. I’m usually OK with words (which is just as well, since I’m not good at anything else!) but as soon as I have to talk about feelings it’s all awkward pauses and “like… you know…” and flailing gestures. I just can’t wrap words around it, and sometimes I wonder if people think, because I can’t name it, I don’t feel it.

    • http://theinvisiblestrings.com m kelter

      “But when does it every go our way, and someone nods and smiles and listens to us?”

      yes, I think it’s a pretty major problem that folks on the spectrum are basically encouraged to “fit in” in order to get by…even though this can cause a huge amount of stress, anxiety…and if someone learns to puppet their way through an interaction, jumping through all of those social hoops can leave one feeling distant, alienated. i wish people were given a little more breathing room to be themselves, it definitely seems unfair and in many cases not at all helpful.

      • Madmother

        Reading this makes ne very grateful we encouraged our son to be himself and embrace who he is. Whilst high school and puberty has now led to him keeping more to himself (his choice) whilst in school, he still has friends who accept and know him in all his brilliant rainbow glory, he just does not shimmer to the masses. I hope as he gets older (he is 16) he will drop the cloak and let others see the wonder he is.

        At home it is a different story, and this is where his and his brother’s friends see the real him. They welcome, enjoy and embrace as he opens their minds to so many different concepts and thoughts.

        He makes our world the most fantastic place to be and we are lucky that he does allow us to share it.

  • http://www.autism-mom.com Elizabeth

    Very insightful. I so appreciate your posts describing your experiences, it is extremely helpful to me as I prepare to assist my son entering adolescence. The better I can understand, the more I can try to help, or at least be more aware of the issues. Thank you!

    • http://theinvisiblestrings.com m kelter

      thank you so much Elizabeth, that means a lot. best of luck to you guys as he enters adolescence…a tough time, but also lots of opportunities, chances for him to find his place and do well; sounds like he has a terrific mom looking out for him, that will help more than you know.

  • http://www.adiaryofamom.wordpress.com jess

    I often wonder if things like this – the psychologist’s definition of identifying one’s own feelings from a narrow list of descriptors – really has a god damned thing to do with the price of beans no less actual emotional identification. your metaphors are the way that YOU identify / describe your feelings. And frankly, i find them a lot more insightful and instructive than words like “happy” or “sad.” I think it comes down, once again, to NT presumption that the predominant way to experience and express feelings is the only way to prove that one actually feels them, which is, of course, inane.

    now i’m feeling growly. grrr. and i’ll bet that’s not on his list either.

    p.s. i know i’m not around the corner, but we are, without a doubt, friends. i mean, if you’ll have me. but yeah.

    • http://theinvisiblestrings.com m kelter

      Even the 2nd psychologist I spoke with, who I learned a lot from, used the list of simple emotions (which were accompanied with the relevant smilies)…i don’t know, i never found that to be helpful in terms of identifying emotions. and i do worry that too many mental health professions use standardized definitions when it comes to emotions, how they are supposed to be expressed. i think that can be too rigid, prevent true discussion.

      (p.s. you are a very dear friend…my life is a better life with a jess and her terrific family in it. means the world to me).

  • emmapretzel

    gonna write a rambly long commenttttt. trying not to careeeeee.

    i need to second jess in saying that someone telling you that using concrete/sensory words to describe how you feel means that you aren’t describing actual emotions is complete and utter bullshit on so many different levels at once. as someone who reads studies about everything ever, and happens to have read a lot about alexithymia, because my emotions are also objects/sensory things, i can tell you the science reasons why it’s bull. the philosophical reasons why it’s bull seem obvious. (bonus points to jess for, as per usual, being intuitively right about hella complicated things without even breaking a sweat).

    according to science people who do science things: data describing people with alexithymia is best explained by a statistical model consisting of two independent factors: 1. difficulties filtering internal/bodily sensory info, and verbally categorizing internal/bodily states, and 2. uncommonly low levels of emotional responsivity and awareness. high alexithymia scores can result from someone possessing trait/factor #1, or #2, or both. you and i are probably “factor 1″ people. we aren’t oblivious to the concrete sensory experiences that make up emotional states, we just struggle to categorize and organize the internal sensory states we experience in a way that fits into normative emotion-boxes.

    also basically everything in this post also describes me. so, if it helps, it’s so not just you (it is, at the very least, the two of us). i totally get the “not knowing what you want/need” thing. i feel like when i’ve spent my whole life without specific kinds of positive relationships/experiences, it’s very hard to determine when i need/want said positive things, because i have no idea what the positive things i might want even feel like.

    i’ve been relatively lucky, friend-wise. being a girl helped, being athletic reeeaaally helped. but mostly i live(d) in a city, and went to super nerdy schools with lots of people kind of like me. i struggle a lot with making friends though; especially now that i’m not in school with people 8AM-3PM every weekday. BUT! jess refers to me as friend and you refer to her as friend and i refer to her as friend. ergo, if you and i become friends then we each have greater than/equal to two friends. cumulative friend-triangle (triangles = the strongest shape)! deal?

    • http://theinvisiblestrings.com m kelter

      deal. cumulative/friend/triangles seem like very good things.

      as a kid, making friends was a monumental challenge…today, I don’t know if i’m just in a good place, as in I have minimal social needs that are being met…or if I just changed, if the social struggles cause me to alter my needs, change my expectations. it’s something I think about a lot.

      with emotions, I tend to not be able to identify them in the moment…and then some experiences go on replay mode, I run them through my mind, and slowly build up a reaction; the replay made is pretty intense, it’s one of the reasons I write: in addition to locating emotions, it helps get a lot of these experiences out of my head. words have always been related to feelings for me, the look of them, the shape, the sounds; I’m not personally interested in labeling that, “alexithymia” has always seemed like a fairly sketchy concept, too narrow.

      thx so much for the comments, emma, always love your insights.

  • http://resistit.net Chad

    I’ve had difficulty, and still do, identifying my emotions.

    When I was seeing a councillor for depression he asked me “as a kid, did you ever think I’m happy, and my life is great?”

    And I said “No”.

    When I went on anti depressants, suddenly I could start to feel happy – I could feel all sorts of things. But it was still difficult to identify emotions. We are wired differently – does that mean our emotions are different too?

    Lately I’ve been having trouble experiencing what I first felt with my medication – but I don’t feel bad. It seems to be when I get stressed and busy with work or something else that my emotions go away – maybe we repress them to cope with everything else? I think that is ultimately what it is.

    • http://theinvisiblestrings.com m kelter

      you’re absolutely right that factors other than emotional perception can impact how we feels things, i’m glad you brought that up. depression or other experiences can alter how we access emotions, so it’s a great point. thx for that, chad, hope you are continuing to do okay.

  • bec

    the emotion thing sounds very familiar, but my issue is more that people attribute and project feelings onto me that i don’t think are accurate at all. i was accused of being mostly apathetic in childhood (my mother thought it was funny), then in high school people thought i was angry – and that one has stuck. i am angry. i must be angry. and silently judging you about Everything. the internet had an answer for me a couple of years ago when a lot of people suddenly identified with a video about Resting Bitch Face, but i think there is more to it than just facial expression. i also believe this misunderstanding is another invitation for people to bully us. i dealt with a bully at work for more than 15 years, and sometimes would get in trouble for getting upset – letting her abuse get to me and “making a scene.” when my boss sat me down one day to talk about a 2 week old incident she suddenly felt she needed to deal with, i asked her what she wanted me to do instead. she told me to take this coworker out for coffee and work out our differences – but i had actually already tried to do that and the coworker refused! i asked my boss for help, but she said this was my personal problem. i asked her again what to do when these circumstances came up, but she said just to let the woman abuse me. she expounded that she felt i was a tough person and i “could take it.”

    as for friends, i was super fortunate to meet and begin dating my future husband in high school, and our best friend is one of the easiest people to get along with on the face of the earth. the number of my own friends is impressive until you ask me to name the people that i could be entirely myself with. i’m really just comfortable with the two people i already named. funny thing, though, that i have a reputation among my acquaintances for throwing social expectation to the wind – an “i live to please myself” kind of attitude. if they only knew how hard i work, how exhausting it is, to please them (okay, just not piss them off). sometimes i wish i had someone who wasn’t my husband to relate to, but i found that i don’t have any close friends because i really just don’t like most people. don’t get me wrong; there are lots of people out there that i think are fine. i have nothing against most of humanity. i just also don’t Favor most of humanity. i find women especially are hard work to keep happy, and really, how do people have energy/time for this kind of thing? if i spent my energy on social swimming, i’m still not sure i would be successful, but i’m damn sure i wouldn’t have anything left for being a Productive member of society. i have some great giftings (from asperger’s? who knows?) that deserve my focus.

    any NT reading this would take the last set of thoughts as a personal judgement against them. they’re not likable, they’re too high-maintenance, they’re not trustworthy, they’re insensitive. why don’t i like them? what do i have against them? has it occurred to me that the problem may be with Me, hmm? maybe i should get some help! have i thought about counseling? what about my children? do i think it’s good that i have this attitude and have decided to raise kids?

    and that’s what’s so exhausting.