This week, the National Autistic Society suggested that autistic people are four times more likely to be lonely than the general public. This figure is striking but not all that surprising to me and many other autistic people who deal with this everyday of our lives – just see the comments in response to the story on social media. It’s time we talk about our - often unique - experiences of loneliness. Only by talking can we make sure autism isn’t forgotten in the national debate on loneliness and the Government’s upcoming strategy for tackling the issue.
Being autistic, social events consisting of small talk and - even worse - networking are normally akin to being trapped in a lift with big spiders or your ex’s new, much less awkward girlfriend.
It was my friend’s birthday last week. He is the best type of person for an autistic woman like me to be friends with: he’s an actor and can spot a fake smile in a million-mile radius and he is so straightforward it makes my communication puzzle so much easier. This year I finally found the confidence to go to a party he hosts each year. When I arrived he hugged me and said he knows I love him now as I actually left the house for him.
He gets it. He’s gay but why oh why can’t I find a straight man that gets it too? Oh that’s right, because I’d have to leave the house to find him.
What if parties full of other people make you feel more lonely than actually being alone?
Past events have also shown that, upon finding a nice man, they seem to not be as thrilled as I am at the prospect of, what I call ‘being alone together’, by week two. To me that’s heaven. Being alone together consists of being in the same room, not talking, yet the silence being comfortable.
Some people show companions they care by phoning them, making friends with their friends or committing valuable chunks of their free time to hanging out with them. In my case, it’s different – and not least because I need recovery time, alone, to recharge from simply working or being a parent. If I have ever left the house for you, on your terms, please view that as a genuine act of love. Please also know, when I’ve stayed home, this is not to be misunderstood as being anti-social, a lack of empathy or a lack of interest in others. It’s quite the contrary.
I feel everything, all at once without being able to process and therefore understand it quick enough. How can you make small talk when you have the biggest questions imploding inside your mind, yet you’re required to talk about the weather and their job roles (both very readily available on Google)? How can you let down your guarded poker face, disguising the fact that social small talk feels like an invitation to an archaeological dig with the most fascinating discoveries to be made yet you are only permitted to sweep the first layer of dust and leave?
It makes sense then perhaps, that just as I experience socialising differently, I also experience loneliness differently too. Does that mean my loneliness is less valid?
It’s often the case that at the very moment there is a logistical, ‘special interest’-based, purpose to be social that I become motivated and, to a degree, utterly blinded. A notable example of this being last year when I was invited to the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission at Parliament. I was attending in my role of a disability advocate with Scope. Parliament being one of my absolute favourite places on the entire globe, the objectives are clear, and my excitement was high.
Jo Cox famously said that we have “more in common than that which divides us” and her hope for more understanding and social cohesion is something that inspires so many of us. Just by being invited to be a part of the commission meant I felt included and a useful part of society. I went home with the appreciation that you do not have to be old to be lonely, you can be lonely from childhood. I started questioning whether I had ever truly not felt a degree of isolation? I was on stage acting at an early age. Was this purely because it was one of the best ways for me to have friends, a script being a rare time I was equipped with the right words to say?
In my role of a British Autism Advocate I wear many hats - speaking at universities around the UK, designing new empowering ‘autistic girl power’ t-shirts, acting, writing, helping women in court cases and so much more. Busy, busy, always wanting to take on more.
What if, just like in childhood, my work has become my friend? What if over-achieving has become my spouse? What if I spent all evening writing this very blog simply because that’s what my brand of loneliness looks like?
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