It’s taken me most of my adult life to really understand friendship. Even then, I don’t feel like I really understand more than the most basic of concepts. I'm sure it’s easy for other people but for me, the lines between friend, acquaintance, user and colleague are all very blurred and I often can’t tell one from the other.
In my early years, long before I understood what Asperger’s syndrome was, I used to think that my problems making friends were all down to my hearing loss. After all, I reasoned, If I couldn't hear people well enough to converse easily, then obviously my friend-making and friend-keeping skills would suffer.
This would have been a great theory if I hadn't lived next door to a very popular boy with a much worse hearing issue than I had.
For the first ten years of my life, that boy next door was my only friend - except of course, for my dog. When he was on holidays, and that was quite often, I would simply play by myself. I used to be a little jealous of my friend. After all, he had lots of other friends and I was a very small part of his circle. To me though, he was my only friend, my world.
Eventually my parents moved house and due to our mutual hearing difficulties, telephone conversations were impossible. We separated and I went quite a while without any friends at all.
I didn't have friends at my primary school, I had parallel players. I was obsessed with Star Wars (it was 1978 after all) and I spent many lunchtimes playing with the figures with a "friend". After a while though, he wanted to play trucks instead. I didn't have trucks and I wasn't interested in trucks - my special interest was Star Wars. I never brought and trucks in and eventually we stopped playing together.
I spent my last years of primary school wandering around and talking to the girls. I related better to them because they weren't interested in football or in bashing me up.
Not long afterwards, I changed schools. I remember a boy coming up and talking to me during a soccer match. I hated sports but it was mandatory, so I'd just try to find a spot that I though the ball would never go to and then I'd stand and daydream. I probably seemed lonely to others but I was always happy with my thoughts.
Most of the time, if anyone came up to me during soccer, it was to shout at me for not doing anything. This time however, the boy just wanted to talk. At first I was afraid because after all, he was a much bigger kid than me but he didn't seem to be trying to bully me.
I understood bullies really well but didn't understand friends.
The next day at school he introduced me to a bunch of "nerdy" kids in other classes and told me to play handball with them at lunchtime.
Being a good kid, I did what I was asked. After a couple of years of playing with this friend and his other friends at lunchtime, our school put out a call for library monitors and I immediately signed up. After all, I loved books and I didn't really have anything else to do with my lunchtimes. I’d been playing handball but really I’d just been letting them win all the time because that’s what I thought they wanted. It simply didn't occur to me that I was liked “as a friend”.
When these friends found out that I’d signed up to be a library monitor, they were very annoyed that I hadn't consulted them. Again, I simply didn't understand why. The very next day, they all signed up to be library monitors with me.
Over the years, I've lost touch with a couple but mostly these guys are still my closest friends today, 26 years after leaving school. These guys are in my absolute trust zone. Of course, I've met lots of other people in the workplace, in my neighbourhood, at university and on Facebook since then and each time I've been surprised to have been asked to go to places with them. I rarely do though because I always feel so uncertain.
It's not that I don't care for these people deeply, it's just that for me, the line between friend and colleague is so unclear that I never know what I'm doing. I have no idea of what is and isn't appropriate or when someone is being nice to me because they like me - and not just for their own reasons.
Having friends when you have Asperger's syndrome is like walking around in the dark and not knowing whether the next thing you bump into is going to be hard or soft - or whether it is going to shatter into a thousand pieces.