Hello folks. I thought today I would tell you the story about how my best friend and I came to be the dynamic duo that we are. I would love to tell you that the tale is full of adventure, mystery and maybe a dragon or two, but alas, that would be a lie. Instead it involves (no lie), approximately 400 games of go fish, 200 games of дурак (a Russian game which translates as “fool”), and 100 games of gin rummy. So, here’s the story:
(Additional comments by Sof are in italics, and in the audio recording are differentiated from my voice by using a demon filter, which is how they would want it)
My best friend is called Sof, they study biology and we met in our first year of university as we were in the same flat. We didn’t actually see each other for the first month or so as we are both far to introverted to spend any more time than necessary in the communal areas. The first time we encountered each other was when I was talking to another flat mate in the kitchen and Sof walked in to make some tea. The flat mate looked up and asked if their name was “Sophie” – which it is not – and Sof corrected them, boiled the kettle and left again. The next time I saw them was when they ran out of the kitchen as I entered the corridor and asked for my help to get rid of a wasp, which had flown in while they were cooking. After said wasp was removed, we exchanged a few words and I left to go to my room.
A few days later, I was woken up at roughly 2am by the fire alarm ringing. Luckily, I kept my ear defenders (which I now, affectionately, refer to as my ‘ears’, because of me) by my bed and so I put them on quickly and evacuated the building. Sof was standing outside wearing a coat and I stood next to them, regretting my decision to not wear a coat, and we made small talk until the campus patrol showed up, checked there was no fire and let us all inside again. Sof then said they were going to make some tea and asked if I liked tea. I said yes which was not strictly true at the time, and so we went to the kitchen together and had some tea. I only found out Sarah didn’t actually like tea several months after getting to know her, which was disappointing but I do admit it was a good way to bond. In order to make it less awkward, we decided to play a card game… and then another and another and another and so forth. So many card games, seriously we’re not exaggerating.
As it transpires, our fire alarm was faulty and so in the following couple of weeks we had 2-3 fire alarms a day on average, until the campus patrol decided that after multiple people failed to understand why this was happening, the best way to proceed was to disable it. Rest assured though, as the new fire safety method they came up with was foolproof. There was a man sitting at the bottom of the stairs who would look into all the flats periodically through the night, and if there was a fire, he would shout “Fire” to wake us all up. We were also encouraged to shout “fire” ourselves if we discovered one. While these fire alarms were annoying, it did give Sof and I ample opportunity to talk to each other as we waited to be let back inside. An opportunity that we did not seize, and instead spent an unbelievable amount of time playing card games while not really talking. Being a bit awkward, despite both of us wanting to be friends, we just waited for the next fire alarm, like normal social people.
This is where I believe my ASD came into play. I have sometimes been described (fairly), as being slightly socially awkward around new people or people that I don’t know very well. I have gotten better at it recently, but my anxiety at being at university with all new surroundings, coupled with my distinct lack of natural social skills meant I was not being very engaging and was struggling to talk, even though I really wanted to be friends with Sof. To be completely fair, I also have really bad social anxiety and didn’t want to bother Sarah too much in case she secretly hated me (she did not), so it was a bit of a mess from both sides. So, after the fire alarm was disabled and I accepted the fact that I could burn to death in my sleep, I decided that enough was enough and I revisited my old method of figuring out people: studying! As a young child, I used to teach myself all about how to be a functioning person in society and had masses of notes of everything I learnt. I got out the trusty book I had written them in, and I revised them. I spent ages pouring over them and practicing the rules I had written. An example would be me practicing saying sentences with different inflections, so that my meaning would be clearer. The sentence I used to learn the basics was “I didn’t kill your hamster”. If you say the sentence 5 times, each time putting the emphasis on a different word, it changes the meaning slightly. If you say “I didn’t KILL your hamster” then it sounds as though you did something else to the hamster. Whereas if you say “I didn’t kill your HAMSTER”, then it implies you have killed another pet of theirs.
Now armed with my refreshed knowledge of the rules of interaction, there was only one thing remaining. Conversation topics! For this I turned to google which was, in hindsight, a mistake. According to my research, I found that the best way to develop a deeper friendship with someone was to talk about personal topics. The example they gave was asking about partners and other people in their lives. They also said that you should do an activity together like invite them to see a film with you and your friends. I decided to try these top tips the next day.
Sof and I were now talking more and when we were both making dinner in the kitchen, I decided it was the time to implement my new strategies. First, I was going to inquire about people in their lives and so I asked if they were dating anyone. When Sof said no, I realised I forgot to prepare for this eventuality, and so I panicked slightly and asked if they were interested in anyone and what their ideal date would be. After a short conversation about that, we went pretty quiet. I then decided that step 2 was needed. Unfortunately, I was lacking in the friendship department at university, so I didn’t have anyone else I could invite. I brushed this off however and asked Sof if they wanted to go with me and see a film I wanted to see at the weekend. The film was ‘The Miseducation of Cameron Post’ which is an excellent film and I would highly recommend. It is also centered around a young woman being sent to conversion therapy for being gay. You might see where this is going by now.
What I failed to realise whilst I was busy trying to make a friend, was that what I intended and how it came across was getting slightly mixed up. We have since talked about the situation and laughed about it, and I have come to understand that Sof was confused as to whether I was interested in them in a romantic sense. They knew I’m gay and I was fairly sure they were in some way queer, based solely on stereotypes and how they presented. While we did later date, break up and remain friends, to the point that we now live together as best friends in the most platonic friendship known to mankind, at the time I was not trying to ‘make a move’, and was instead trying to be friendly. I was blissfully unaware that I was not getting across my actual intentions clearly. Just FYI: asking people if they’re romantically interested in someone, what their ideal date is, and inviting them to a film all in the span of of a few hours sends fairly strong romantic signals. Results may vary from person to person.
The following weekend we went to see the film together and it was excellent but also involved a couple of sex scenes and was very thought provoking about how people in the LGBTQ+ community are treated and what some are subjected to. This did not help to dispel Sof’s suspicions that I was into them. I also realised that a film involving conversion therapy was perhaps not the most sensitive film to invite the person I was trying to become friends with, who also happened to grow up in Russia: a country known for its appalling treatment of LGBTQ+ people, which Sof had left – mostly due to this fact. This film did however open up a conversation about how we identified and other, more meaningful topics than which set of fish we tried to collect during our many games. (I always tried to get the chub and Sof always tried to actually win regardless of the fish species.) And I did win almost every time.
The point I wanted to make is that even though there was a series of unintentional social ‘mistakes’ made on my behalf, that did not mean that I was unable to make a friend. In fact, I now have a best friend who I am very happy to laugh about those mishaps with because they understand and accept that my brain didn’t quite process my actions the same way they did. Now if we are getting confused about something, we will stop and double check what each other means to make sure it doesn’t happen again, and that is something that warms my cold dead heart. (I heard this phrase and I’m not clear on its usage, mostly due to the fact that a by-product of being alive means my heart is both warm and living. I figured this applies to everyone else who uses it so I thought I would throw it in there too!) I always found making friends very stressful, and that wasn’t because I was bad at it. On the contrary, I am generally “well liked” in the words of my Mum, and I do my very best to be friendly with those that I meet.
The issue that I find with making friends is that conversation is very difficult and tiring, and more so when I don’t have much experience with that person. I don’t recognise differences in body language or tone particularly well, so it is often a bit of a guessing game as to how I think the conversation is going. It isn’t until later on when I have watched people experience different emotions and made a mental note of what expressions they make, that I can start being a bit more intuitive. There are of course general rules that I can apply to people, but they all have exceptions, and I wouldn’t want to start comforting someone when they are actually crying from laughter not sadness. (That has happened before.) The situation with Sof though was a huge turning point for my self-confidence, because it was conclusive proof that even if I were to misjudge social tact, I could still make meaningful connections with people that wouldn’t think less of me because I am autistic. The fact that we are now flat sharing and they automatically adjust the volume of shows we are watching if they know there will be a loud noise, is something I genuinely thought was off the cards for me. Doing small things like that because they know it will make my life easier for me without them even thinking is incredible. So, I am very glad we played all those card games, even if we both burst out laughing at the thought of it. It both gave me a friendship that helped me feel a lot more comfortable in my diagnosis, as well as a thorough introduction to Дурак – a game that is one of my favourites and apparently almost impossible to teach to my family, however hard the two of us tried.
Thank you for reading and I suppose the take away is this: If you are autistic and perhaps feeling isolated or different, then know that there are people out there that will take you seriously without even thinking of you as lesser. You might meet them in unexpected ways, but they are out there, so I recommend trying to be as positive as you possibly can! And if you are not autistic, turn down the volume for your autistic friends if you know someone is about to fire a machine gun or the surprisingly loud Brooklyn 99 intro is about to start!