Defeated by Shakespeare

This evening, Martha and I were invited to a picnic and a night of Shakespeare, courtesy of WFCR, our local public radio station. I presume they did this because we are supporters of public radio, but I’m not sure. Martha had a printed invitation.

We arrived on time, a few minutes after six, at the Hartsbrook School in Hadley, on whose grounds the event was being held.

We walked to the door, where we were greeted by Mike, from Fund Raising. He was flanked by Steve, representing Major Donors, and Jim, from Development. They gave us name tags on which they’d written “John,” and “Martha,” and motioned us to the food line. “Where’s Gerry?” I asked, wondering if anyone I knew would be there. “He’s not here,” Steve said.


I don’t do very well standing in lines. Never have. Most autistic kids I meet don't do lines either. We fidget, bounce, and become noisy. Even at my age. I just know enough to step out of the line so it's not evident.

After a few minutes, having abandoned the line and examining the surrounding vegetation and paving stones, I walked forward to see where it led. Well, it led to a pile of sliced chicken. I don’t eat chicken. I quietly abandoned the line. Martha remained to the end in order to obtain fruit and pasta salads. She doesn’t eat chicken either.

While she stood in the line, I walked around the room. Passing at least a hundred people, and seeing no one familiar, I went outside, where signs directed me to an outdoor stage, in front of which several hundred folding chairs had been set up. The show was not scheduled to start for almost another hour. What were we supposed to do? On the chairs I observed another fifty or sixty people, all of whom were also unfamiliar.

I walked out front, where Steve from Major Donors said brightly, “Looking for some fresh air?” “Yes,” I said, thinking he might offer me some from his private stock, hidden beneath the tablecloth. But he didn’t. Nothing happened. After a minute, I turned and went back in, continuing to consume the same air as everyone else.

I became more and more uncomfortable. I went in and stood with Martha, and my discomfort did not moderate. She said, “You can talk to me.” And that’s true, I could. But I was not comfortable doing so, with all those unfamiliar people around. So I didn’t. After a few more minutes, I said, “OK, let’s go.” And with a few more words, we left.

What went wrong?

Well, I don’t ever go into places where I don’t know anybody, and there is no context for my being there. I do not have the social skills to make my way among a crowd where I know no one, and no one knows me. Consequently, I avoid situations like that.

I realized I do OK in other social settings because I only place myself in situations where I am surrounded by context. People see me as John Robison, a Land Rover expert, or a business owner, or writer, or something. The “something” gives people a way to begin talking to me. Since I can’t walk up to them, cold, that’s essential for social success. I place myself in places where people can talk to me.

If the people do not talk to me, at least some, I become even more uncomfortable. I see them talking to one another, and it’s clear that some kind of social interchange is taking place, and it does not involve me. Since I am not on the inside, I must be an outsider, and consequently, I may find myself singled out as the others band together and turn on me as some kind of intruder. They could even attack.

What should I do? Experience from my youth says: leave before anything goes wrong.

Additionally, I don’t go places where I might incur some perceived obligation to someone I don’t know, because I don’t understand the subtleties of social obligations like that. The people I knew from public radio, were not there. The people who were there, I did not know. Who knows what they might have wanted from me? Best not to find out.

Realizing that I did not know a single person there, I suddenly did not want to place myself in unquantifiable debt to strangers, eating their food or attending their event. What might they expect in return?

I was glad I had not picked up a plate, a possible symbol of social obligation. I had a Shakespeare program that someone had given me, but I discreetly set it down on a table and backed away. No one noticed.

I don’t really know how to sit in the audience at plays, concerts, and performances. I can photograph them, or do sound, or run lights, or even work in production. The role of being in the audience, though, is unfamiliar and scary. The audience is where the crowds are. And crowds, as I saw in Savannah in 1979, can swarm and even riot. When I was in the music business, I was almost killed on several occasions by crazed, rioting crowds. Thirty years later, I guess I haven’t forgotten. I always keep the exit in sight.

I am not at all comfortable sitting in the midst of a crowd, at any time, for any reason.

Thinking about tonight, I feel a little sad. I’ve come a long way, learning to be a social and friendly-looking Aspergian. But at times, I am still reminded how big a gulf exists between me and those cheerleaders and football captains – the folks who could make friends with everyone – back in high school.

I might look like I have social skills, and for a misfit, I do. But I’m still a long way from normal. Still, I’m the best I know how to be, and I guess that’ll have to do.

And now, it’s dusk. Shakespeare is there. And I am here.

I’ll send public radio a donation.


Polly Kahl said…
This made me very sad John, and I see the Aspergian in my life so clearly in it. I'm going to print it out and send it to him. On the other hand it's wonderful that you know how to take care of yourself and just leave. You don't have to take care of anyone but yourself, and if anyone's offended by your leaving, screw them.

BTW, these gigs are no fun even for us "normals." Boring, tedious and annoying, yes, but fun, no. But nowhere as excrutiating as it is for you, I am sure.

Thanks for continuing to share your world.
Anonymous said…
The Aspergian mind is so vulnerable and childlike. Thank you John for sharing this painful experience. All of us "normal" people actually have the same feelings of awkwardness and being uncomfortable in those kind of situations. We have just learned how to pretend that we are enjoying all of these strange people. You don't know how to put on pretenses...What an endearing quality to have.
Kanani said…
Just a question, John...

Did your wife feel as uncomfortable? Or is she the more social and not unhappy when it comes to taking up a seat at a table of strangers and making small talk?

And have you ever been somewhere and wanted to go and she wanted to stay? How did you respond under these circumstances? Do you sometimes take 2 cars --just in case?

I understand completely about being more comfortable if you know someone or have a purpose to being there. Even us non-Aspergians feel that way. I mean, it's always optimal to have a reason for being somewhere. And approaching a table of people you don't know can be a bit daunting --but I'm one of those people who says what the hell, jump in, see what happens.

But my own reactions depend greatly on the vibe of a place. Or sometimes I'm just tired and want to go home after working all day!
John, you're not alone. I have two people in my life who can't attend functions with total strangers. Most people care not to walk into a place filled with strangers and then be forced into small talk. Personally, I can't be in the middle of a crowd. I always stand at the control panel on elevators, sit in the aisle seat in theaters, and nver go to concerts for the reasons you mention. I've never thought of it as strange, it's my normal. You have your normal. There is no standard.

AmandaT said…
Hi John -
I am feeling like a total loser today, but after reading your comment, i feel better - not great, but better. you reminded me to count my blessings and accept myself. i am probably considered normal, but i am NOT. i see things that make my heart ache and that others would laugh at, or not notice at all. that is a really painful characteristic of my personality. example, when i saw RWS, the audience laughed at certain scenes in which i was tearing or really upset. that is where i see my biggest 'abnormality'. it generally leads to self-pity and then turns to anger and then humility. i am sorry you are blue or whatever, but you have helped me greatly if that means anything. peace it on the good foot - amanda
ps i cannot wait to read your book - is it a tear-jerker? i love tear-jerkers. they leave me feelings cleansed and inspired!!!
AmandaT said…
oh!!! and i want one of your FANTASTIC nicknames!!!! will you name me?!
Michelle O'Neil said…
John this is so beautiful. Thank you for sharing so honestly. You are helping me understand my child and I am grateful to you for that.

I appreciate you.
The Anti-Wife said…
Sometimes I think you're writing about me. I often leave social events where I don't know anyone - just silently back out the door. I was painfully shy as a child and young adult and still have difficulty in unfamiliar situations. Also, I can't do crowds because I'm claustrophobic - not to an extreme, just enough to make me always stay near an exit or not go at all.
Drama Mama said…
I am the most social person in the world, and I hate these functions and feel the same way. I have quite a few Aspergians in my life (Thank God!) and all cope exactly the way you did. They are happy when they have a task or intention to do (such as stage manage, hang/design lights, or run the event) I'd have to say that isn't that what we ALL want, a little intention? Purpose?
I'm learning with my daughter - not everyone has to be a social dynamo. Cordial and polite goes a long way.
Unknown said…
While I don't have any experience with Asperger's (either myself or people around me), I do suffer from severe anxiety disorders that have similar (and same) symptoms you describe in this post. So I empathize, and thank you for opening up and sharing this story with me.

Personally, I don't think anyone is "normal."
John- I have to tell you this. Everything you said describes a relative of mine. He does not have Aspergers, but none-the-less reacts the same way you did in social situations. In his later years, he started to wear a Navy Submarine hat. He is a veteran so it meant a lot to him. I can tell you, that hat has given him a sort of walking-conversation piece. People approach him all the time now, wanting to talk about the Navy or Submarines or the military. He is an expert in those subjects so it is perfect. I never really thought about it until recently. But that hat not only gives him comfort but also gives others a reason and purpose for talking with him. Maybe we should all wear a sign that says, "I feel really uncomfortable in social situations- Talk to me about XYZ." LOL I think there are more people who are uncomfortable than people who aren't. Hang in there John. What you're doing here is fantastic and I am honored to "know" you.

Karen L. Alaniz
ORION said…
Why dont you and martha eat chicken- do you not eat snake either cuz I hear it tastes like chicken...
Irene said…
Wow John. This is a really moving post. I take for granted all that's invovled in a social situation like that. Thank you so much for sharing your experience.
I love how Martha is in synch with you and can help you when you need it. I'm sure you do the same for her too.

Don't beat yourself up for not feeling like you could remain there - I've seen you at public events and you are engaging and yes, John, sociable, in your own style. Not everyone is that cheerleader. Some people quietly keep the stats books on the sideline. Both make the team work better.

My father, who is not Aspergerian, used to go to parties with his young, beautiful bride (my Mom)and sit in a corner with a book he had brought and talk to no one. I kid you not.
And thank you for helping to explain why my Mia often gets ornery in new places with crowds.

How do you send a hug in dog talk? Woofle?
Anonymous said…
this such a moving post, john, so honestly told. i think it's great that you left--not that you were feeling uncomfortable--but that you know how to take care of yourself and do so, and that martha was fine about leaving. i tell you, our little family went to a friend's house for dinner, not a common occurance for us. they have older children. the interactions between their kids and our fluffy were fine--no conflicts, in fact, the 13 year old was very gentle and dear, like a babysitter, leaning down to fluffy's level to hear and understand him better. fluffy seemed to have a fine time. during dinner he whispered to me that he likes it better when we vist people with kids younger than him rather than older because he can defend himself against the younger ones. i was taken aback by that--he must feel threatened so much of the time. i wonder if it's like that crowd mentality? the feeling that they may become aggressive?

by the way, i am a very social creature and those events are only fun if the play starts promptly and is fantastic and if the people i'm with are people i adore. not that i can know what it felt like for you, just to say my bet is that many of those people were most likely uncomfortable to varying degrees, consciously or not.
Kanani said…
Yeah, I like chicken too.

I guess we could always break open the bag of beef jerky should John swing by.
John Robison said…
Well, the focus has shofted to chicken. And possibly even jerky.

Well, here's the deal.

I am very wary of chicken served in most restaurants because of what I saw on 60 minutes years ago about fecal contamination and the fact that most mass produced chicken is just filthy.

Now, local organic chicken is another matter. I just don't want chicken meat that's been smeared with the shit and guts of a thousand chicken before in the processing plant.

So it's not that I don't like it; I just want to be sure of its provenance. Same for steak. And I don't really eat much red meat anymore anyway because I figure certain kinds of fish are better for me.
Sandra Cormier said…
I feel exactly the same way when in a social situation where I don't know anyone. And I hate standing beside a group of people who are arranged in a little circle, talking about stuff I know nothing about.

Even when I'm sitting at lunch with friends, they chatter away and I can't get a word in edgewise. Sometimes I just shut up and listen.

As far as crowds go, that's my husband's specialty. No concerts or amusement parks for him!

I totally understand your discomfort. Do you feel guilty for leaving, or does anyone really notice?
ssas said…
I have always sort of "missed" the social intricacies that make up life. Most of the time I have good qualities (I think!) and I'm relatively fun to be around, but every social situation is like a thrill-ride for me. I like it, but it's a challenge as well.

I much prefer to deal with people in writing.
Tena Russ said…
Hi John,

Your post was very moving. Your experience reminds me a bit of the panic attacks I used to suffer when I was in the middle of getting divorced. The world felt like a very unsafe place. Every once in a while, I can feel still the fight-or-flight response coming on in situations where there are lots of people (especially strangers) swirling around. An airport waiting room is one of those places. I have learned to "close down the aperture" so the world isn't so dizzying. In particular, I find it useful to watch children. They're innocent and aren't threatening. Of course this is nothing like your situation but I share some of the same anxiety.
Anonymous said…
You're right about the chicken - that's why we stick to Bell & Evans. Big difference between air chilled and the water-chilled chicken where everything is just floating together in nastiness.

Echoing others' comments, I just found your blog and plan to visit regularly. As the mom of a beautiful, engaging child with HFA, it is helpful to know what the experience is like from the inside. And I make it a point to tell him every night, when he's wrapping his arms around my neck to keep me next to him in bed, how special and smart he is, that I understand how hard the world can be for him and how one day, the words will sort themselves out. I know he understands me because his body language says it all.

Thank you for providing us with a glimpse of what your life is like from the inside.
Polly Kahl said…
"what I saw on 60 minutes years ago...chicken is just filthy."

Totally, I remember that report and am much more likely to have chicken at home than in restaurants, and I wash it thoroughly at home. Remember the report on bedspreads at hotels? They did black light tests for bodily fluids. Turns out hotels wash sheets, but not the bedspreads, and the bodily fluids in most hotels would make Guligula look tame. I always remove them, and when possible, take my own.
Kelley said…
thx John. It helps in understanding my son. He paces. So lines, social situations...we avoid as much as we can. Your sharing helps.

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