People who are on the Autism Spectrum tend to have social issues, which normally include talking to and meeting new people, which makes it hard to create friendships. But did you know, that people with autism do need friends? They simply have trouble making them, and they might not have many at a time.
Well, my story begins during kindergarten. My brother, Dave who would become a great and stable friend up to the present, was born. Before school, I didn’t have social interaction with peers. My cousins on both sides were always a lot older than me (my younger ones came years later, though they were a lot younger). For this reason, I never really became close to them either. I believe that my first close friend happened by chance during kindergarten. He befriended me, and was a good friend for many years. I needed a lot of nonacademic help at school in the early years as my development was way behind that of my peers. The good news is that my friend was always very helpful. It was said at one time, by a teacher, that he did too much stuff for me. She said that he would help me chew my food if I let him! I think his intentions were great, though at least one teacher was concerned.
As helpful as he was some places, others not so much. Probably one reason he was able to befriend me so easily was that he was outgoing. He talked to a lot of people. On the bus in elementary school for example he wasn’t much company for the reason that he wanted to socialize with everyone on the bus. He was almost like a “community friend” to the students on the bus, which meant that he had only a little time to talk with me on the bus. Now in his defense on not having a lot of time, I rode the bus from almost the beginning, and he was picked up towards the middle giving him less time on the bus.
Recess was another time where he wasn’t that helpful as he tended to play with other students, though he was around occasionally. He also tried to help get me interested in an activity, riding on the seesaw. It didn’t work. The trouble was, I was afraid of being on the high end, and certainly for a person to have fun, you have to go up and down. I wanted to stay on the ground which didn’t leave many options. Having the lever flat (in between the high and low position) was the best I was able to accomplish. Needless to say, it didn’t work out well, and was abandoned.
He also had a lot of energy. Though I initially went to his house to visit, I discovered that if I wanted a person to play with, it needed to be on my turf. At his house he was too distracted. The few times I was there he got the Legos out. Somehow, he would end up leaving me behind, and walking down the street to play ball with a neighbor. As for me, I would rather play with my Legos at my house, rather then his at his place. He did invite me to the one and only birthday party I went to in elementary school.
On my turf when my friend was there, he was there. He was like a whirlwind. He would flit from one activity to another without cleaning up. It also seemed that as I was really getting into an activity is when he wanted to bale to participate in something else. After having to clean a mess up alone after he left, I learned to insist that he help me pick up before starting something new. As he got older, he got better with sticking with an activity to its completion. He introduced me to the game Talking Battleship, and he watched Disney Cartoon Classics Starring Chip ‘N Dale with my brother and me. As Dave was getting a little older by this time, he would also play with him as well. With the introduction of Nintendo this added a new dimension, as we both liked playing games. Dave and I had Disney’s Chip ‘N Dale Rescue Rangers for Nintendo, and he taught us how to beat the first boss (major enemy at the end of the stage).
My friend also spent time with me at school when I needed him most. I was uncomfortable with Color Day, as well as Career Day. During Color Day he would circulate around the bleachers where I was sitting from time to time. He was instrumental in me getting settled up there with my grandmother who had also come to watch. When I participated for the first time I was at a great disadvantage. I had missed the previous year due to asthma, and didn’t know what to do after each school did their performance on the field at the beginning. Once that was done, I didn’t know where to go, what to do, or even that my grandmother came to watch. I was nervous on the way to Career Day the first time as it was held at Benderville Elementary, an unfamiliar school, and my friend did sit with me on the bus ride.
During my second grade year, a new student moved in who also became a friend of mine. Though I don’t remember much of the earlier things we did, I remember that we talked about Nintendo after I got mine, and he was one of the kids who sat at the top of the steps during sixth grade playing chess at recess.
During sixth grade, I had a group of friends that I liked to play chess with. Two of them were extremely smart, and would become key players during my high school years.
In September of 1993, high school was grades seventh through twelfth. The middle school didn’t exist yet. My friend from kindergarten and my chess playing friends were still very relevant. We all played chess, and received permission to play chess in the library before homeroom instead of waiting in the auditorium as our buses came early. We also played chess at lunch after we were finished eating. My kindergarten friend, was in a school production of Oklahoma in 1994, and came out special to the audience to talk to my whole family during intermission.
At the beginning of the year, all seventh graders got led around the school to their classes until they could find them on their own. Most students had the help for around two weeks. Having more difficulty, I had extended time. Eighth graders usually performed this role for the new students, but I was given a senior for my entire time. Interestingly enough, eventually my friend from kindergarten wanted to take me to my sixth period class which he shared with me. He wanted to sneak me there by leaving before the other guy came to get me. I waited and did it the proper way. Other stories included his worm bookmarker made from a dissected dried-up worm, as well making him guess “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” as a word when we were playing Hangman.
Not much changed the following year other than the middle school being created, but during ninth grade I went separate ways from my kindergarten friend due to the different path of classes we took. During the rest of high school, I was close to my smart chess playing friends. They were very tolerant and kind to me.
Senior year, I was in need of a new friend. Senior privileges were granted, and my friends didn’t have a class at lunch time. They also had transportation, besides eating a different lunch period than I did. I had no one to eat lunch with. With the help of my enrichment teacher, (the previous year I discovered I had a learning disability, thus requiring taking an enrichment class for any schoolwork I needed help with) I met a new friend. Besides having someone to eat lunch with, now I also was able to use senior privileges myself. As long as my friend and I were caught up in our work and didn’t need anything, we were encouraged to go outside and walk through the town. Sometimes instead of eating lunch at school, we went to the local pizza shop for lunch. Though the previous year I needed help for a school project, and of course in Geometry class, this year I was learning social skills through practice. I also needed to learn to cross the streets with the traffic lights.
We stayed friends through much of my early college years, though I lost touch with other friends who went off to college. We’d get together a couple times a month, and play board games. Sometimes they were complex games such as Scrabble, other times simple games I loved from childhood. She taught me how to play a new game, 500 Rummy. She also introduced me to the wonderful world of Hershey Park. Though I had been there before, it was when I was a young child and went on mostly children’s rides (my whole family did go in 1999 for my dad’s work function, but I only got a small taste of the rides they had to offer.)
Christmas time was fun with her. She would go along with us to look at Christmas lights. I remember the joke I told about the “neat looking Christmas lights” that started out green, then turned yellow, then turned red, and back to green again! You can guess what I was actually describing. We also exchanged Christmas gifts. She was fun to buy for, and she was creative in finding gifts that I would enjoy.
I stayed local for college with the exception of The Commonwealth Technical Institute at the Hiram G Andrews center where I took classes for a year and a half. During Hiram, I had to start over with friends yet another time, and a teacher there helped me make one. He was cool, yet was busy a lot of the time. He was trying to learn how to drive and the written test was causing him problems, and thus he spent a lot of his time studying. His major also wasn’t an academic one, and was for two terms, meaning he graduated halfway through my time there.
Going home every weekend during the Hiram days was essential to me, and something that was too hard for my parents to do every week as both had busy work schedules. Hiram was several hours away one direction! Fortunately, I met a man who also wanted to go home every week, who could take me home as well. Though he normally would not have driven past my house on his way home, it wasn’t that much out of the way so he didn’t mind helping. He became a friend of mine for my first three terms.
He had to take time off from school during the beginning of my fourth and last term, leaving me without any friends at school, or a way home every week for that matter. My parents made the trip every other week. In addition, we bought phone cards. Remember them? I tried to make another new friend, but wasn’t particularly successful.
I did have a friend at home for most of the time— my brother. He was a really close friend as soon as we could do stuff together. As mentioned in another blog, I played with him while my high school friends did other things during my high school years. He was a very important friend during the days I spent going to Shippensburg University. We roomed together for two years. We didn’t always see eye to eye which is common between any roommates, but he had a special role in my life. He introduced me to American Chinese food. There was a Chinese buffet by the college that we would frequent on days when we traveled between home and college (for weekends and for piano lessons.) One time we discovered diet grape soda which was a big deal, as we knew diet soda was better for a person, but grape was a flavor that up to that point didn’t seem to exist. It had an after taste, though it was a good first attempt. “Late Night” was a period of time at the college union building that Dave and I would go to where they were selling food like pizza, and rolls.
When we first started at Shippensburg University, we had trouble trying to make friends, though try, Dave did. Eventually we met a guy who liked to play chess which gave Dave and I someone to hangout with. Eventually more people were added to that group. I’m not quite sure how it happened, but I think it had to do with a connection to one of Dave’s classes. Believe it or not, I never did meet the original person that Dave met that added friends to the chess playing original, because he quit!
I met a friend through Shippensburg’s special needs services. She was quite a loner, to the extreme of preferring to eat Raman Noodles alone in the dorm room while playing a role playing game on line rather than go to the dining hall. She was in to Mega Man, and liked playing the games. I would usually spend one evening a week playing a Mega Man game with her. We were friends until she left school.
Another friend, was originally Dave’s lifelong friend since kindergarten. I first met him during Dave’s senior year of high school. When I really got to know him started when he went to Shippensburg University for Grad School. I’m not sure how it happened, but in 2009 Dave and this friend saw a sign for an Open Mic located in Shippensburg, and went. Both he and Dave played guitar. Dave encouraged me to go along though I don’t sing or play guitar. At first, we just watched other people perform. Then Dave and the friend started to play songs and sing. In addition, I made other friends who I met at Open Mic who became part of my support system.
Now, Open Mic was originally run by two of the singers from the local band, Ledbetter Heights. Dave, the friend, and I were lucky enough to meet, and eventually befriend, the lead singer of this band. We also befriended the band’s manager. I remember at the last concert before the group folded, of the band playing their whole catalogue of songs including their obscure song, “Rise and Fall”. This song happened to be my favorite of theirs. It’s funny, many of my favorite songs, and things in general that I like seem to be obscure! Anyway, since the lead singer knew I really liked this song, he called me up front when they played it at the concert. I was very surprised and felt like a million bucks!
Another opportunity I had with some Open Mic friends was to attend the horse races in Grantville. Dave, two Open Mic friends, and I were visiting Troeg’s Microbrewery in Harrisburg (now it’s located in Hershey). During the trip, our two friends got the idea to go to the horse races. Dave and I had never been there before, and agreed to go. The four of us had a fun time, with a couple of us winning a small sum of money at the end (I was not one of the winners.)
An important memory from Open Mic itself was chowing down on hard pretzels and drinking pitchers of Mountain Dew while watching people perform. Because of the way I would “shred” through the pretzels, I received the nick name of “The Shredder”.
Eventually, Dave’s best friend from school moved to Virginia to work in Williamsburg. Then Dave moved to Taiwan to teach English to children. I moved on from the Open Mic as it just wasn’t the same. I kept contact with the old crowd for a while, but everyone’s lives were busy and changing, and we only have occasional contact now.
I also met the brother of Dave’s lifelong friend who also became a friend. For a while he was giving me swimming lessons. I never did learn to swim due to trouble putting the strokes together, but I enjoyed the time we had talking when he was at the house. Unfortunately, he too moved from the area.
There’s three other people I would like to mention. I made these friends due to being enrolled on the Autism Waiver, and choosing Focus Behavioral Health as my provider. After being diagnosed with Autism in 2008, and being part of a faraway support group in Lancaster, I wanted to start my own group closer to home. I wasn’t able to attend the Lancaster one regularly because of distance. After joining Focus, the staff and my parents helped me get a group up and running. At my group, I met two more actual friends plus some other great people.
The final person I want to mention, I met through my mom. He was a janitor at the school she was teaching at. Taking a chance, my mom called his mother and talked to her which led to me meeting him. As it turns out this guy likes science, outer space, and Star Wars. He also likes playing board games including the simpler ones I enjoyed playing as a child. We also enjoy going to Hershey Park together once a year. Back in the early 2000s, I went with a high school friend who knew the park well and showed me the fun rides. When it comes to this guy, I found myself taking the lead. He didn’t seem to have any particular preference. Fortunately, I knew what rides to suggest, and we have a good time. He’s become a great friend! One ironic thing is that he did have a specific rollercoaster that he liked, The Great Bear, which I didn’t take him on. In fact, it was the kind of rollercoaster I am afraid of. One day when talking to him I found out that he liked this ride. He was afraid to tell me he liked it when he knew I was afraid of rollercoasters that went upside down. As it turns out, I was glad to let him ride on it if he enjoys it. The only shame is that he didn’t tell me sooner. I didn’t want him to miss out on a ride that he liked. What do I do while he is riding it? I get a drink and rest up for more rides to come. It gives me a much-needed break. So, it actually works well for both of us.
I hope this blog enlightens people that one can be on the spectrum and have friends. In fact, even people with autism need friends, we may simply have a harder time finding and making them. The blog also alludes to the idea that though friends can come and go, people can get new friends when they lose contact with their old friends. Remember though a door may shut, a window will open.
To read more of my blogs, Tom’s Tidbits go to URL www.tomstidbits.net.