We all wish to belong; to be accepted. Some of us identify with a certain group of friends and adopt their style of dressing, talking and general attitudes and beliefs. As humans, we look for our ‘tribe’. Family provides this usually at first, but then at around the beginning of teenage-hood, we start looking outside our family to find our tribe that’s independent of this.
However, as part of that tribe-hunting comes rejection. The tribes themselves won’t accept anyone who may differ from their code. Maybe, once upon a time, this was a survival tactic; only accepting a member who could provide protection and progression as a tribe. Survival of the fittest. Not risking the inclusion of a member who was weak in any way.
Now, that survival is within the school yard. Acceptance is based on the likelihood of that person increasing or decreasing their popularity or the risk of being bullied. Our desperation to survive in the school yard is never more important than in the early high school years. Our lives are the school yard, we spend at least 32 hours a week there and it means everything.
When kids on the spectrum experience rejection, which is very common, it’s probably felt most keenly during those early teen years. That drive to find yourself and be accepted and belong is there, but often horribly allusive. That rejection from others soon becomes internalised and self-hate grows fast. The most difficult thing about Aspergers is not so much the traits experienced by the individual, but the resulting depression and anxiety (Attwood, T. 2006). Not surprising if there has been a lifetime of rejection from others and self.
My son experienced sporadic teasing, bullying and rejection in early primary school, but thankfully had a good strong friend-base from very early on to buffer the experience somewhat. After moving schools, he was able to find a new group of friends after a natural process of some changes amongst them. However, the occasional nastiness felt worse because he didn’t have his original safety net of friends.
The first year into high school, his friends were starting to bore him. He liked them but they weren’t interested in anything he liked. He’d found himself with the misfits. The other kids were experiencing much the same as he was, so they stuck together. They preferred to sit away from the ‘crowd’ and just talk. My son has always been very active and probably found the chitchat boring and wanted to do something. The recess game at the time was ‘down-ball’. He enjoyed playing it, but his friends no longer wanted to play. He tried to join in with some of the other down-ball games going on, but was rejected time and time again. No one would let him in. The nastiness towards him was also on the rise.
Not too far into that year my son was stating he felt depressed. He didn’t want to go to school. I noticed little scabs on his arms, which he said were from him scratching them. I realised later that they were his response to his anxiety; picking at his skin. He was sad at bed time and found each day more and more of a struggle. I’d watch him trudge off, with his heavy backpack on, heading to the gladiator’s den. Not flinching, just heading off, knowing rejection and nastiness was waiting for him. I fought tears watching him from my car as he disappeared.
In just the first couple of visits to the ASD specialist, my son was advised to watch The Big Bang Theory (TBBT). His specialist believes it creates a fantastic way to relate to Aspergers through the main character Sheldon’s experiences etc and see the funny side. I’d never watched TBBT , it’s not the kind of show that I’m drawn to. So at home, I binge-watched numerous episodes to assess if it was suitable for my then 13 year old son. To be honest, I’m rather baffled by the specialist’s enthusiasm for his clients to watch this show. He reassured me that his clients really like TBBT and benefit from watching it.
Apart from the sexual innuendo and topics, which I think are unsuitable for my son’s age, my main dislike for it is that the comedic side to the show is that of laughing at the characters. Not with. At. How can that be good? How is that helpful? Wouldn’t that just reconfirm the belief or fear that everyone is laughing at him?
The other aspect of TBBT that I find pointless for my son to watch it, even if it was a suitable show, is that my son wouldn’t be able to identify with the characters, as his specialist believes. TBBT characters are the very cliched nerdy type who love computers and numbers. That is so not my son! (He hates maths!). So, telling him to watch TBBT in the hope he would identify with the characters would most likely drive home further the idea that not only does he not fit into the neuro-typical world because he now has the title ‘Aspie’, he also doesn’t fit into the Aspie world. Who on earth can he identify with to feel ok about himself?!
This lack of connection with the identity of Aspergers constantly makes me question his diagnosis. The only thing keeping me accepting it is knowing that every person with ASD is different, with a different array of traits added to their own mix of personal characteristics.
Not long ago, I found (again, on YouTube!) someone who much more closely represents my son. It’s been helpful, for me anyway, to be given a representation out of the cliched set; Michael McCreary, The Aspie Comic. His video “Autism: See the Potential” https://youtu.be/ubR7VLw8gq0 explains the common experiences and traits of those on the spectrum. The most endearing quality is that he’s having a laugh at himself, not at someone else, so the comic relief is applicable and not cruel.
So, where does my son fit in and belong? I believe we need to help him to have the viewpoint that Aspergers is not his identifiable personality. It’s just a part of him and not his title. He hasn’t told his group of friends, the ones he’s had since kindergarten. They know him just as him. I’m thankful for this group, they are I guess, his tribe. They’ve known him before they were at an age where harsh judgements are made. They’re just comfortable with each other because they’ve always been in each others’ lives. I’m sad he was taken from this group when we changed schools mid primary school, however with extra effort, he’s been able to keep these friendships. Perhaps that’s why he’s been able to soldier on. I’ve been in awe of my son at times, wondering how he keeps facing school. The buffer of having a group of friends he belongs to, I believe, has made all the difference.
Attwood, A., 2006. The Complete Guide to Aspergers Syndrome. Jessica Kingsley Publishers. London, UK.