I grew up in a small farming community in northwestern Iowa, where the land is so flat you can see for miles and miles across what was once open tall-grass prairie. My father’s ancestors settled there after immigrating from Germany in the 19th century. I was a kid in the 1980s when the farm crisis hit and my dad quit farming.
In spite of that, my childhood was a happy time. It wasn’t perfect, idyllic, or without its troubles, of course, but it was enough for me. One of the things that I loved most about growing up in a small town was that everyone already knew me. I never had to introduce myself or tell anyone my entire life story. They knew my family, where I lived, what grade I was in, where I went to church, my hobbies, my personality, my quirks, etc.
In my last post, I wrote about the many characteristics of autism. One of those was insistence on things remaining the same. Things in small towns never really change much, at least not in a dramatic sort of way. New people and businesses hardly ever come to town. This isn’t good for the local economy, of course, but it was the perfect setting for me. Things were constant and reliable. Most people my age talked about getting out of there as fast as possible, but not me. I wanted to live there forever.
Unfortunately, all this made leaving home and going to college extremely painful for me. I never really wanted to go at all, but felt I didn’t have much of a choice in the matter. It was just what I was expected to do. When I got to college, I had a very hard time adjusting.
I didn’t really make any friends when I was away at school, except for one roommate. I ate meals alone in the cafeteria and didn’t live the stereotypical college student lifestyle of parties and constant social activity. I was in an unhealthy relationship, didn’t know how to end it, and didn’t want to end up completely alone if I did.
Even though people on the spectrum usually function better alone, that doesn’t mean that we aren’t unaffected by social isolation, whether it’s voluntary or not.
My son is 12 years old and has never had a friend, never been invited to another child’s house for a sleepover or just to play. I’m not sure how much this bothers him. He doesn’t talk about it. He’s happiest when he’s home and doesn’t seem to mind doing things by himself.
But I can tell you from my personal experience that feeling utterly alone in the world – particularly in a social situation where it’s clear that you’re altogether different from everyone else, such as eating by yourself in the cafeteria – hurts. It hurts a lot. It hurts in a soul-crushing kind of way, particularly during childhood and adolescence.
You might be wondering why I never just summoned the courage to introduce myself or start a conversation during those times that I struggled. I didn’t do those things because I didn’t know how. I must have missed the day in kindergarten when the teacher handed out the social manual for life. It always seemed that everyone else instinctively knew how to act in social situations except for me. Everything that I now know about social behavior took me many years of observation to learn.
I also hated seeing the way people reacted to me when I did put myself out here, like I was some sort of social pariah. When I went to freshman orientation the summer before college, all the students in the group had to introduce ourselves. I thought to myself, “This is my chance! I can start over where no one knows the real me and everything will be different!” So I started talking in a very bubbly, outgoing, valley-girl type of manner, as I had seen the others introduce themselves. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it was obvious when I was done that it was not normal. The guide who was showing us around paused for a few moments and said, “Okaaaay … ” I still have the scar on my heart from that.
I’m telling you this not for pity or to make you feel like you have to speak to me if you see me at the grocery store. I’ve learned to deal with it over the years by trying my best not to place myself in certain situations and by mimicking others’ behavior in my own way. I’m at peace with my reality.
I’m telling you this because not everyone you meet will be in the same place as I am now. Especially the kid sitting by himself at the lunch table. Or the girl standing alone in the corner at the school dance. I was once them, alone and wishing for a way to make a connection, hoping for someone to reach out to me.
Over the years, I’ve gotten much better at adapting to change. Having three children has a funny way of doing that. Being a parent forces you to prepare for the unexpected. Having children has also taught me to see the humanity in people, especially in those who are on the fringes of society. One of the best things to come out of my experience is that I received an excellent education in compassion.
To those of you reading this who are comfortable enough to extend yourself a little for the sake of another, I ask you to do just that. I can almost guarantee that it will be weird, cringe-worthy, and a little uncomfortable for you. The other person might even react in a way that makes your effort seem somewhat unwelcome, mostly because they don’t know how to react. Do it anyway. They won’t forget how you made them feel.
After all, wallflowers have feelings, too.