When I was fifteen, I had never made a friend before and I was getting stressed out about it. I thought, you know, “This is weird.” The loneliness was overwhelming by then- it had been weighing on me for as long as I could remember. My efforts to connect with other kids always went awry…I was too confused by people. People are strange.
So, tenth grade, I began to intensely study others to try and figure out the mechanics of people stuff. How they talk, how they move, etc.
One of the first things I realized was that I didn’t know how to structure a conversation. Specifically, I didn’t know how to start one off. I had always interacted with others by walking up and verbalizing whatever thought was currently running through my mind, which was usually one of the seemingly endless loops about whatever books or music or video games I was joyfully obsessing over. I didn’t exactly start speaking to someone mid-sentence, but certainly I would be mid-thought and I would just launch right into the discussion. My words tended to hit people like a wall. I cranked out a lot of them, usually free of context. If it was a good day and I really thought about it, I would do a super fast recap of the topic and then ramble on until the person, irritated, walked away.
That’s what hurt the most, seeing people walk away. Every time. For my entire childhood. It sucked. I could never trick people into putting up with me.
The stereotype is that autistics are “shut down” or not super interested in others, but I never really stopped talking to people. I couldn’t wait to engage with someone about all of the stuff that was going on in my mind, so I would ramble for hours, roaming around school or the neighborhood looking for connection, walking up to other kids, exuberantly going on about favorite topics, getting pushed away, sometimes hit, knocked down, all the while my mouth running brightly. I wasn’t great at taking hints. I’d think, “Maybe if I try talking more?”
As I worked on my project of figuring people out, so that I could finally nab myself a friend situation, I found it interesting that most people began conversations using the same types of phrasing. Greetings, small talk questions, that sort of thing: I was genuinely astonished to notice that people said the same general things, over and over. I hadn’t noticed that before.
People were scripting- that seemed to be what they were into- and I loved memorization, so I made that the new project. Memorizing greetings and small talk questions and all of the interstitial social noise that we make as a way of co-existing with people.
Starting then, at the age of fifteen, it took me two full years to learn a basic repertoire of conversation beginnings. I had the easy ones down pretty quickly…”hello,” for example, but I tended to over-use words and start repeating myself until it became awkward. I would say “hello,” a conversation would begin and if I couldn’t think of anything else to say, I would repeat “hello” a few times, hoping, as if by magic, I was doing this people thing correctly.
It took awhile to memorize the basics and then transition into the middle bits of interactions, the small talk questions and the social filler. It wasn’t really until college that I could begin, continue and end a conversation in a way that seemed like the normal sort of thing people were doing.
But even then…even as I “improved”…I was really just parroting others. I still felt alone. Instead of connecting, I was checking boxes on a mental list I had memorized. Doing the people thing “right” was more like completing dull homework than forming genuine relationships.
The trajectory, from that point on, is that I made friends for the first time in my life…but they were low-level friendships, everything stayed at a very generic, distant level (I wouldn’t start attempting romantic situations until my 30s). I parroted small talk and memorized each person’s interests and said things I thought they would like. I checked all of those boxes and it all made me extremely tired and depressed and miserable. I was operating with a blue-collar mindset of, “Welp, let’s plow through another day of this shit,” and that was the extent of my social life during college.
Internally, I was still enthralled with my music and literary interests, which ebbed and flowed and kept me curious about the world and human life and the strangeness of reality. But the social mimicry was fueling a depression that gradually overwhelmed my ability to enjoy much of anything. The stuff that had previously allowed me to appreciate being alive slowly drifted into a chronic, listless, boredom. I was lonely beyond what my emotions could absorb. I started to give up on people. I started to detach from existence.
I can do the next fifteen years very quickly: isolation, dark times, therapy, diagnoses. Fifteen years and then things got better. We can skip all of that. That’s not really the point here.
What I think about a lot is being fifteen and realizing that people had techniques for starting conversations. They didn’t know they were techniques…I think people just naturally picked up on how to do the social thing, but the scripting of small talk, the repetition, the bird-like exchange of cues that the regular people do, I was fascinated by all of that. I was so curious.
And yet, teaching myself to exchange those cues really became somewhat of a downturn for my life. It led me to a place of mimicry, of going through the motions, of exhausting myself with the endless checking of boxes. I’ve found the social skills I learned to be useful, in a practical sort of way, but not particularly helpful when it comes to human connection.
That’s really all I have to offer…I don’t do answers or inspiration. I do “what not to do”. I have a lot of “what not to do” to offer.