By Brent White
I observed an interesting encounter yesterday between ACAT/ACT teachers and our participant Rafael. Rafael and his group were working with a relationship curriculum and discussing friendships. The teachers ask Rafael who his friends were. He thought about it for a while and said that Ihe was his friend. Rafael and Ihe have been forming a lovely bond over the last few months. The teachers next ask Rafael why Ihe was his friend. This question took longer to answer, but after careful thought, Rafael said, “He is sitting in a chair.” It is easy to take Rafael’s answer literally; Ihe was sitting next to him at the time, but I understood the intention differently. Their friendship is expressed by proximity, but not by words. They choose to sit together all the time on BART, at lunch or when working in groups as they were yesterday.
It got me thinking about how important it is for me when someone chooses to sit next to me in social situations. Like many autistic folks, social pragmatics are an issue for me. It isn’t that I don’t want to be friendly or meet new people, nor is it simply an issue with shyness or awkwardness. The issue for me is walking up to someone [stranger or not] and striking up a conversation makes no sense. I have no access to how it works. I know intellectually how conversation, particularly small talk should work, but I cannot conceptualize the process in in my mind. It is blank. Add to this, difficulties with understanding spoken language or understanding the flow and mechanics of conversation in general. Social situations, especially as gateways to forming friendships are most often frustrating and stressful.
This is life-long for me, from my childhood until now at age 55; it has never changed. While I’ve learned adaptations along the way, the nuts and bolts of social interactions have remained just out of my reach, a confounding mystery. It can be lonely and isolating watching social interaction happening all around me and feeling shut out, not because I’m not invited, but because I can’t internally access it, at least not on my own. This is why someone choosing to sit next to me and attempt to strike up a conversation is so important. It doesn’t always work, but it works sometimes. Someone taking the time and looking past my conversational awkwardness can be a blessing. While I don’t have many friends, my friendships have often started when someone chose to sit next to me.
When Rafael said of Ihe’s friendship, “He is sitting in a chair”, I heard something beautiful and profound. I heard that Ihe is kind and sweet and takes the time to sit with Rafael. I heard that Ihe is willing to bridge whatever conversational gap might exist, and importantly, that friendships can exist on a non-verbal level and succeed. In fact their connection runs both ways, as Rafael also chooses to sit with Ihe as well. The friendship between Ihe and Rafael is forged through the presence of the other and language is not necessary. “He is sitting in a chair” as a description of why someone is a friend, is a deep and endearing answer. For me, it is one of the most interesting and understandable I have ever heard.
Original Post from ACAT: Ala Costa Adult Transition Program :http://alacosta-acat.org/2014/03/26/he-is-sitting-in-a-chair-a-description-of-friendship/