Editor's note: April is Autism Awareness Month.
High school: the terrifying, turbulent world of teenagers when we become vessels of chaos due to the pressures of school, interactions with others, attempts to explore individuality and, of course, raging hormones. In the process, we want to emerge with our reputations and dignity somewhat intact (or at least not smashed to smithereens).
For those of us with autism, it’s even more challenging.
What's hardest for me is that my friends are experiencing the same rapid changes I am. Some have abruptly decided they don't want to hang out with me.
The rift itself may happen blatantly and savagely, cutting all threads holding the relationship together. But more often “friends” indicate their disinterest more subtly.
They may not nod or wave at me anymore. Their eyes may wander or glaze over when I try to talk to them. Their replies may go from being stories or jokes to terse answers such as “uh-huh” or “oh.”
The gray areas are most frustrating. Is this about me . . . or her? Will my friendships with the other members of the group start fraying as well? Is this a phase or a permanent thing?
Since I am about as good at reading subtle social cues as a fish trying to climb a tree, I often find myself bewildered, moping at the edge of the group.
This situation would be tough for many non-autistics, but for me the feeling that a friendship is slipping away is not only scary because I’m losing social interaction, but also a sense of routine.This was the person I ate lunch with or partnered with for group projects.
In a world where social behavior is a confusing cacophony, I thought I'd figured out a rhythm of interaction that stabilized me while dealing with the struggles of perpetual sensory overload and irrational teenage emotion.
This relationship had been one certainty in a sea of gray. One where I thought, This person is my friend. This means they will stay with me and add positive relationships to my life.
Then it's gone. And life, which was already pretty out-of-control, becomes completely out-of-control. It's scary. And disheartening.
So I've learned to control my reactions. I could try to keep an already dead friendship alive by pestering the once-upon-a-time friend.
Or I could cut off all social engagements – better to hurt the other person before they hurt me.
But I've discovered a middle way. I give my (ex?) friend space. I use the time to catch up with others, do school work or decompress from social and academic stress.
I still wave when I see the (ex?) friend, but I do not start conversations, at least for a while.
The break can vary, depending on whether said friend is just having a hard week or a year of moodiness. More often than not, the friend just had a bad week, nothing to do with me, and all the problems blow over.
Whatever happens, I try to adapt to the constantly changing social environment. Which isn't easy for anyone, but is especially hard for us with autism.
Friends are experimenting, and sometimes they need to clear away the old to try the new. I'm not thrilled when they do this.
If they are mean to me or make complete fools of themselves, it's hard not to judge them or even dislike that part of them. While I need some level of judgment to assert myself in the boiling cauldron of peer pressure, I've found that too much judgment can leave me isolated and unhappy.
When I started high school, I categorized the people around me according to stereotypes about high school cliques so that I could make sense of the social scene faster. Even within my own group I wanted to find out, as quickly as possible, who was trustworthy and who was not.
Sometimes, those snap judgments turned out to be correct. Other times, they were false. Though it is efficient to box people into categories such as “jock,” “theater geek,” or “overachiever” when you feel lost in a sea of people, sensory input and social cues, the truth is that high school is not a group of boxes but more of a spectrum of individuals.
Someone may dress like a snooty, popular girl but behave like a kind, somewhat awkward nerd.
Someone else may look nerdy but know nothing about nerd culture, except how to wear cheap, plastic glasses.
Besides being the opposite of how they look, some people can mix and match various characteristics traditionally associated with an array of high school groups.
Take, for instance, a girl I would label as popular at my school. She dresses in old jeans and hoodies. She breaks various bones playing sports. She sings in the school play and choir. And in spite of all these achievements and academic smarts, she still manages to be genuinely humble and caring.
If I had snap-judged this girl, I would have missed all but her popularity status and fashion sense.
Besides being wary of snap judgments, I try to avoid absolute judgments or at least come to them with ample evidence.
By absolute, I mean deciding to dislike a person completely and forever. If I thought in such black-and-white terms too often, I'd end up very lonely, because people change a lot in high school.
Sometimes, growing up can be an ugly process even in the most wonderful people. But other times, growing up is an ugly process in ugly people.
I often cannot predict which one of these it will be. I know that even if person A is obnoxious this month and person B is kind, next month the opposite could be true.
I know this because I myself have learned some obnoxious, rude behavior in high school.
When I was little, I clung to rules about manners, thinking they would make up for my sadly lacking social skills. I tried to use politeness to charm people. I'd been taught that being rude was bad, so if I was rude, I would be a bad person.
But in high school, I needed to learn how to be rude in order to act like everyone else. Some types of rudeness, such as giggling over “taboo” words or cracking raunchy jokes, don't really hurt anyone.
Everyone swears. Everyone reacts strongly at the mention of sex.
Sex is complicated, and often the best way to sort through a complicated affair is to joke about it.
Naturally, I do not want my teachers around when I am firing off cuss words or sex jokes, but these forms of rudeness usually do not hurt anyone and help me fit in.
And then, there's generic rudeness. Like when kids chat loudly in class until teachers tell everyone to quiet down, wait for 30 seconds, begin again and repeat the cycle.
With my auditory processing issues, this form of rudeness bothered me the most when I started high school. I tried to take the high road and hoped that if I didn't talk, the whole class would quiet down a little faster. But after the first year, I gave up and joined in.
I know it's rude of me to hold up to hold up lessons and create extra background noise, but now I just join the crowd.
I simply enjoy the fact that high school is the time of life when I can demonstrate the politeness of a 4-year-old and drive a car like a 24-year-old. Well, maybe like a 16-year-old.
Many people view high school as nightmarish. Most autistic kids view high school as a total nightmare.
But it doesn't have to be so horrible.
We autistics are actually in good company. It's a time when non-autistics feel almost as socially awkward as we do.
There are many factors that make autistics greatly suited to thrive in the high school social scene. We just need to accept the many shades of gray in social interactions. Once we do, we'll fit in just fine.