Susan's Blog

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

This Cookie-Cutter World of Ours

I’m worried about my little guy, Benj. This seems to be a year where he is becoming more of an individual, and I wish I could celebrate that, but we live in such a cookie cutter society, it is hard for me to feel okay about who he is. I love him so deeply, I even feel it in my guts sometimes when I look at him. We like to joke that he is dessert personified. Anyway, his personality does not fit with his perfect little face. He is such a rigid thinker; one bad experience with another kid and he will never again consider that kid a friend. So his playdate pool is getting narrower and narrower. He doesn’t seem to notice, however; only that when one particular kid can’t play, he gets upset. He is very possessive of that kid, who is very popular, and so I find I am constantly gently pushing Benj towards other kids. But he has so little interest in the other kids, who are largely into sports or XBox. Benj hardly watches any t.v. All he does watch are the videos that Nat happens to have on, mindless Disney Sing-Alongs. I think he enjoys spending the time with Nat, though, so I let them do this. It gives me pleasure to see them together, but their age-inappropriate activity makes me a little sad, too.

But only if I judge us by the rest of the world’s norms. Too bad I can’t tell the rest of the world to F*** off. Sometimes I just want to keep my boys to myself, in the house, safe and sound, my cocoon. Where no one can tease them or mistreat them. How many times have I fantasized about homeschooling them for this very reason? But I know my limitations. I don’t have it in me to spend long days instructing them. I also know that the very thing that hurts us so much — venturing outside — is what is going to make us strong. Nat needs to be in contact with the community to keep the world informed of people like him, and to inform himself of these experiences. Ben needs to be in contact with more and more different kinds of kids so that he can have more friends instead of fewer and stay flexible, grown, and learn. Other kids can benefit from a mind like Benji’s, too. A kid who has invented his own world (Stickfus, a planet made of stick figures) and an entire language (Sticktopian) and alphabet. He remembers all the details, too, each time. All the characters, all their foibles. He has created so many amazing things, I can’t even begin to list them all here.

But why can’t his peers see how wonderful he is? Why does a boy have to be a little cruel, a little tough, and know how to throw a damned ball to be liked in this society?

Why does love have to be so sad?

1 comment

It’s all a question of which peers, and to what extent you feel compelled to be integrated with the surrounding society when *it* does not meet *your* requirements.

Rachel — who like Benji, is bright, lovable, and definitely marching to the beat of her own drummer — once complained to me that 95% of her peers were consumed by things that were utterly irrelevant to her, and that she despaired of connecting with them. That is a definite “been there, done that” for me. My response to her was to seek out that other 5%, because *they* would be the peers worth investing her time with.

She learned to do that. For a while her circle of friends dwindled down to a very few, and that worried my wife Susie; but eventually Rachel struck a new equilibrium, with a few friends she spends a lot of time with (her best friend lives in NJ, so a lot of that time is actually spent together by phone and online), and additional less extensive friendships among school peers. But these are the kids who really do share her interests.

It took me well into an adulthood only belatedly correctly identified as an Aspie adulthood, but I eventually figured out that there seem to be two distinct mechanisms for the inception and nourishment of friendships. One I call “shared externals”, the other “shared internals”. “Shared externals” friendships form and are nourished by mutual interest or sharing of things external to each of the friends: activities or hobbies in common, political or social goals in common, areas of intellectual or aesthetic pursuit in common. “Shared internals” friendships, at some point, become about sharing the details of one another’s lives.

I am convinced that folks on the spectrum are more naturally predisposed — and more innately *skilled* at — “shared externals” relationships, than they are at “shared internals” relationships. I think to some extent that holds true for at least some folks in the broader phenotype too.

This isn’t to say that some relationships can’t involve both mechanisms, or a changing mix over time; in fact I think most “shared internals” relationships start out on the basis of shared externals that perhaps become trivial relative to the eventual depth of shared internal exchange. Nor is it to say that a given individual doesn’t have a mix of relationships involving different proportions of both or either mechanism.

But the extent to which each mechanism is a natural, instinctive fit, I think, *does* vary between folks on the spectrum and non-autistic folks.

And I think the society around us devalues “shared externals”-based relationships relative to “shared internals”-based relationships, as somehow less “deep” or “mature” or “important” or “desirable” or “worthy”.

We who live on the spectrum, or with family on the spectrum, need to know when we really *do* have to tell the wider society that it is wrong. (And yes, sometimes when to f— off.)

And it is wrong on this one.

We need to really critically question social skills programs that perpetuate the societal bias against the kind of relationships that we on the spectrum form and conduct more naturally.

We need to teach our kids that just because *their* way of making and sustaining friendships is culturally out of vogue, does not mean that it is inferior.

We need to teach our kids that it is *OK* to be as selective as necessary in making friends, to ensure that friendship is about what *we* want to do and what *we* care about.

And ultimately, we need to teach them how not to doubt themselves, when society is simply wrong about something they are right about.

— Phil

— added by Phil Schwarz on Wednesday, March 15, 2006 at 7:18 pm