Alienated: a stranger on my own planet

Dearest readers,

This topic is one that is quite on point for those of us who have lived experience of autism. The title came to me (like many things do on the spur of the moment, I'm not very good with my studies having ideas in planned blocks timetabled in my diary or phone) and it felt appropriate to be able to discuss this. As with any very personal adjective, we will be looking at something quite subjectively so was I may say obviously isn't necessarily going to be exactly the same as someone else's experience as in places, people and timings, although there is likely to be echoes of themes and potentially feelings. Also this is merely descriptive, this does not seek to be punitive or with an essence of blame. This piece seeks to share life through someone else's eyes in their purest and most valid form, to open up a dialogue where we are not shoving this underneath the carpet but listening to others through the medium of written text. (I also was told when I was typing this that I was typing with purpose!)

It is not uncommon for individuals on the autism spectrum to feel like stranger on their own planet. But how come? Why so?

People often complete actions without really having to explain what they are doing or why exactly they are doing it. If you have no idea why someone is doing something, it gets pretty confusing. I have to admit to being my most confused as a teenager in secondary school. If you haven't guessed by now, I really didn't enjoy school: I felt physically sick most mornings from anxiety. I felt I never really settled in (even though I was there for 7 years and was with most of the same people during that time). I have felt so much freer in higher education. But one thing I really didn't get was teenage group dynamics and the subtleties of this 'girl world' that had seemingly emerged out of nowhere. All this emerged also the same time as changing schools to a new group of people. Where I had really good friends in my primary school (who I am still friends with now) who had grown up with me and just taken some of my odd or eccentric behaviour and accepted who I was and I had also taken years to form these friendships, I couldn't reform similar friendships overnight in my new school. Friendships grow like trees for me, but seeing everyone else just seemingly 'click' with each other on the outside confused me. How do they do it? What am I doing wrong? Then moving into friendship groups - why can't I express myself the way I wish to? Why do I feel lost? How do I make the kind of friendships I almost took for granted before but now seem to lack the ability to build. There was then also the importance of other social media and communication forms like 'hanging out' (which I didn't do as often or felt people thought I was boring .... one friend even told me this once! Cheers mate - an elephant never forgets), 'texting' and the worst: 'MSN'. Trying to use these to try to catch up I always felt was rather one-sided anyway and not very reciprocated, which confused me even further...

Two steps behind 
Every time I thought I had caught up, I then found I was even further behind. I have come to accept the fact that I do seem to be a few steps behind in terms of confidence and feeling comfortable socially. I have to admit at times the gap felt much bigger than two steps; much more like 10 or 20! The fact I just didn't get it made me feel odd, almost like an alien that has just landed and that is learning the rules of the human race (and teenage girls I think have some of the most complicated, sophisticated rules that may be out there) and is stumbling along just to keep up. The older I have got, the gentler I am on myself and the less I have forced myself to keep up, the more I have felt that I can celebrate what I can achieve and make the best environment for success. I still feel behind in some regards but I do not force myself to be like my peers. However when I was younger I did not realise that I was stumbling along, trying to keep up - I was just getting along with life and thought that my social sat nav was a bit faulty. The emotional impact of stumbling behind or feeling unable to catch up is negative: I often felt inadequate, lost, confused and insignificant. My self esteem was in tatters (as it has been at various times in my life) and did have depressive episodes.

But being two steps behind didn't only make me feel inadequate. It blared a marker for vulnerability. It didn't wave a flag of 'I'm autistic', but what it did do was mark me out as 'naive' and 'vulnerable'. That added into the fact that I do sometimes find it hard to know when people are trying to have one over me or are actually being serious opens up a can of worms in itself. Other incidents may include me saying something inappropriate but not being told why exactly it is out of tac ('you should know!') or equally doing something problematic ('why did you throw that ball so high [that it landed in that garden?] Did you not see that happening? You ruined our fun') thus causing me distress and leaving me open to further ridicule and pain.
It can in hypothetical terms, give a group a reason to bond - all against this one individual. Bullying and teasing is a real problem for individuals on the autism spectrum at all stages of life: just because you leave school does not mean this would never happen again. I have had unfortunate experiences in later in life too and heard of others with equally negative experiences in employment, for example, and adult friendships and relationships are another kettle of fish that could be written about separately.
The point I am trying to get at hear is this 'oddness' sets you apart and can work against your favour.

No one like me
The fact that I was feeling two steps behind or more, feeling confused by others behaviour and ending up in situations that no one else seemed to highlighted, at least to me, a sense of aloneness. I've never really been one to 'find someone like me', in fact I liked being unique and still do to an extent. I never liked people copying me and very much liked to do what I wanted. I was the person who when everyone went crazy about shopping in New Look refused to step foot into the shop for a good year! I usually felt most comfortable in my own company, yet did yearn for friendships like those represented around me. What I did miss was that ability to share these experiences with someone who just 'got' this. Especially someone my age.
I also wasn't 'very good' at expressing how I felt and very good at internalising how I felt. That is to say - not showing how I felt, not talking about it. I've never been great at putting words to feelings as you always end up either getting the wrong word or reducing what you are trying to express. I also thought it was pretty obvious when I was cheesed off, or upset, or fuming, but unless I was literally at breaking point many did not pick up on this. And this frustrated me more and confused me yet more - why don't people get it?! But equally it was a surprise to others when I did flip: 'well where did that come from then? Calm down! Considering autistic physiology, telling someone to calm down when they have potentially broken the barrier for a meltdown, shutdown or rage and their adrenaline is through the roof is about as unhelpful as you can get, even though the intention is good. Autistic individuals also have naturally higher levels of 'stress chemicals' in their blood stream, which means it takes a lot less to hit boiling point.
The internalising component is something I have come to understand recently, but seems to fit quite well into 'no one like me'. It further illustrates a difference quite well in this aspect.

Obviously a lot of the examples I mention were from at least 10 years ago and I have forgiven and moved on. In an odd way I am grateful as it gives me writing material - stimulus to advocate with. I'd rather not look back but look forward to the changes I hope to make - in churches in particular but also through the blogs I write, trainings I run, the taster I hope to do with the youth group - to speak what is taboo and make it less taboo and more accessible.



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