The Autism Lie


This post is the fourth part of a series for Autism Awareness Month.

Here is the lie we tell ourselves about autism: People on the spectrum don’t want friends.

We tell ourselves this lie because we don’t always understand people with autism; we believe it because it’s easier not to try.

I’ve encountered a lot of myths about autism—I have knowingly and unknowingly perpetuated some of them. But this is not a myth, it’s a lie—and I cannot stand for it.

My son began attending public school this year, and I went out of my way to buy him the perfect first day of school shirt. It was one of those Ninja Turtle numbers with all the bells and whistles. I spent ten too many dollars on it knowing good and well he’d outgrow it before spring. The funny part is that he doesn’t even really like Ninja Turtles that much. But then, I didn’t really buy the shirt for him—not directly, anyway.

I bought the shirt for the other kids—the primal little creatures who, even at four years old, smell “different” from a mile away and swarm like sharks in bloody water. I bought it on the outside chance that one of those kids might think “sweet shirt” and mistake my boy for one of the PreK approved cool kids.

They did not.

A few weeks ago, at his school’s annual “Fine Arts Night,” I watched Declan chase down his classmates with an incessant “Hi! Hi! Hi!” mantra. Most of those kids ignored him entirely and, here’s the kicker—Declan was not remotely surprised. At four years old that’s what he knows to expect from interactions with his peers: a lopsided communion, one in which he’s ignored at best.

I doubt his classmates know what autism even is, let alone that Declan has it, but I won’t be surprised if, one day, even the kind kids tell themselves “he doesn’t want friends.” The magic little lie that turns exclusion into a mercy.

I sometimes joke that Declan likes dogs more than he does people. This isn’t true, exactly. Declan approaches dogs with confidence and kindness because there are no unwritten human rules to sidestep—landmines you’re only aware of once you graze one.

We have intricate, systemic social codes and the majority of people understand them. They’re useful things, sometimes—and when someone deviates from this system it’s easily noted. It’s often awkward. And I get that.

So feel uncomfortable when my son quotes wrestling songs at you—Lord knows I did when the lyrics happened to be “I hear voices in my head, they council me they understand,” quoted at a store clerk. Help him along when he can’t get past the “hi” part of a conversation.

But know that when you refrain from interacting at all, the only charity you’re extending is to yourself. The fact that he doesn’t engage in friendship in the usual ways doesn’t make him an island unto himself, content not to engage in friendship at all.

Maybe this is why Declan loves dogs: When he calls Fenway’s name, our pup comes running eagerly. He has never noticed the Ninja Turtle shirt.