My friend once told me that she felt that there was something I was holding back. It upset me greatly at the time because I felt I was being very open with her and was at a complete loss at to what that something could be. She felt I wasn’t being truthful. I guess that is the problem when an aspect of oneself is outside of awareness. Being older and wiser (both of which just happened really over time without any particular effort on my part, which seems in some way to be putting myself down) I suspect that she was talking about my autism.  Since my diagnosis I have been able to use to vocabulary of autism (what do I mean by that? I seem to be in an insecure place at the moment) to describe what I am going through. Last night was a case in point.

The Second World War (WW2) caused major upheaval and mass migration. Well all wars do, just look at what is happening in Syria, but WW2 had a particular impact on my wife’s family. Both her parents generations were affected leaving her father’s family to flee from the National Socialists in Germany, and her mother’s to flee the Japanese Army invasion of East Asia. They were large families and now there are spread around the world. This is very handy for the following generations because it feels like wherever we go in the world, there is a cousin to stay with somewhere nearby.

This Canadian trip is a case in point. We have stayed with maternal cousins in Vancouver and Toronto and yesterday we visited some paternal cousins also in Toronto. Meeting people for the first time is never easy but in some ways the first time is easier because you can spend a lot of the time going over the basics such as the current holiday, reviewing family history, and the occupations people have. I don’t usually have much to say about myself and often as in yesterday, the chattier females who are caught up in the flow of the conversation, step in and answer for me. I do not have a vocation or a career to speak of because I don’t feel I know what I want to do. The whole lack of feeling things and ability to make decisions seems to hold me back. Another post perhaps. Whatever the reason, it is a confusing area for me in which I easily tie myself up in knots and mental pain.

The family we visited consisted of two professors of Anthropology and three twenty/young thirty year olds that were all researching doctoral theses. That seems quite intimidating written down but it didn’t bother me before we visited, I am used to academics and my wife’s family tend to be very sociable people with the associated people skills. And indeed that turned out to be the case. Groups form when the people in them share an activity. I guess we do this instinctively by invited people for a meal, that shared act of eating gives us a foundation to begin to get to know each other. We shared a meal and conversation flowed. We celebrated my daughter’s birthday together. Some of us played a board game.

I write we, because I was part of the group but my contribution reduced at the evening went on. I felt part of the group that answered questions when we first sat down to some finger food and a drink. I chipped in with the occasional comment and listened attentively. We then moved to a table to partake in the meal. From three new people the numbers increased by two and so there was now ten people (5 new and 5 in my family) sitting around a table. Before we were closing packed around a coffee table, now the table sized increased. Our hosts sat at the head and tail of the rectangular table and the rest of us intermixed down the sides. The table was quite wide so we were spread pretty far apart. I have a quiet voice due I suspect to my ASD so this isn’t a good environment for me, I don’t think I said much apart from thanking the people either side of me. I felt less engaged with the group as a whole.

With such a spread of people it seems inevitable that eventually whole table conversations stop and other conservations start up in smaller groups. This causes an increase in the level and complexity of the background noise. I tried to talk to our host beside me but our talk was rather short and broken. I was unable to carry a conversation beyond the basics. There were times when I wanted to ask explorative questions but I lost my confidence, I couldn’t decide if there were good questions or not and couldn’t find the energy to take the risk. The risk of being wrong and feeling stupid leading to a full emotional shutdown. But the shutdown was happening anyway, it was just a matter of time.

I had a reprieve when a birthday cake was bought out for my daughter and we all sang happy birthday but even that was difficult. I normally harmonise on the last reprise and I did try this time but I wasn’t confident so I wavered. Probably nobody else noticed but to me it was a sign of the strain. During cake and ice-cream my host asked me about my wife’s family. I rambled on as best I could but I knew I was getting distracted at times and telling him completely irrelevant information but I couldn’t stop myself, I just had to get to the end of the list. I’m not sure how useful my monologue was. I know I felt uncomfortable.

Eventually a board game was suggested and chosen. My family gathered around to learn the rules and somebody asked if I was going to play. I said it depended on how fast the game was because I can’t cope with fast moving games. I was open to giving the game a try but as the game was explained, more and more rules were heaped upon the basics and my brain just couldn’t keep up with the information. Eventually I fully disengaged and went to side elsewhere by myself. I was still too close to the game, I could hear the conversations the discussions and decisions, the laughter and the disappointments. It sounded like a good involving game but I just wanted to go outside and run away. I tried to read a book, but couldn’t concentrate on it.

Our hostess asked if I was okay. I wasn’t but of course I said I was fine because I couldn’t face telling her that I was autistic and was being overwhelmed by the level and complexity of the noise. I know for my own good I should have been truthful and on another level I was curious about whether ASD came up in their anthropological studies, but all my energy was going into surviving. I closed my eyes and tried to let go of everything. Maybe I went to sleep but I doubt it. Eventually my wife and our two hosts came to sit with me, my heart sank because it was the last think I wanted. Whilst my partner talked about Shakespeare with one of our hosts, I tried to engage the other by enquiring about the house and the neighbourhood. It worked for a while but not having anything to say about my own life, the conversation petered out again.

It was only later when we were on the subway heading back to the other cousins that I thought of good questions to ask. I was reminded of the times people say that wished they had thought of a clever comeback to a putdown at the time the putdown happened rather than later. This was basic conversation in my case. I vowed to make some space to practise useful questions next time before such a meeting, space to gain a basic understanding of somebody’s work and perhaps space to prepare my own answers. I suspect I am being rather optimistic in my designs but it would be nice to feel that I had made a new friend rather than it being a struggle to keep present all evening. I am naturally curious about everything but somehow since my diagnosis, my awareness seems to knock that ability out of me eventually. I hope I find ways to mitigate my failure to engage.