Autism Spectrum Disorder: When More Friends Equals More Loneliness

having autism spectrum social life
I am desperately lonely. I am incredibly burnt out on people.
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I am desperately lonely. I am incredibly burnt out on people. These two things may seem like a contradiction, but when you live with autism spectrum disorder like I do, they are a single truth.

My mind often goes back to a night out with my friends about a year and a half ago.

At that time, the whole concept of friends was still pretty new to me. I'd never really had friends up to that point, and even my family had largely left me behind by then, so I had no one left. Other people had always seemed more trouble than they were worth to me, but by then the loneliness was suffocating, so I knew I had to make changes.

It took me a few years of going to a series of meet-ups and social events, but I finally found a group of nice people I clicked with. We started having outings beyond the meet-ups where we'd met, and the night in question was one of the first of those.

We started with dinner at a nice Italian restaurant, then stopped at an ice cream shop before ending the night at a board game cafe, where we played games and ate snacks for several hours. It was a night full of fun and raucous laughter.

For me, it was hell on Earth.

I have sensory issues. My brain can't tune out extraneous information – I hear everything, all at once, with incredible intensity. It makes loud, chaotic social situations very difficult for me. I've never really found the words to describe the sensation. I usually say I feel overwhelmed or burned out because that's the closest I can get, but really there's nothing else like it.

Imagine being absolutely exhausted down to your bones. All you want to do is sleep for days. But your mind is racing a mile a minute, and you can't stop moving because every nerve in your body is on fire with nervous energy.

It's like that.

I tell people it's noise that bothers me, but really it's more complicated than that. While volume can be a contributing factor, it's really about the amount of information my brain has to process. I've gone to rock concerts and been blasted by music at deafening volumes and been fine, but if you stick me at a table with six people where everyone's paired off into three different conversations, you might as well start hammering nails into my skull because that would probably be less painful in the long run. And if you start adding other sources of information, like a task to complete or background noise, it just gets worse.

There were about five of us that night. Multiple conversations going all the time. For the last few hours of the night I also had to contend with learning the mechanics of new board games, and all the while there was the constant background hum of other patrons at the venues. For a while at the board game cafe, we were seated next to a table of young children playing Jenga. They were constantly laughing and screaming, and it was like fingernails on a chalkboard to my already overburdened senses.

All told, the outing took about six or seven hours. There were many parts of it I enjoyed, but by the time I got home I felt absolutely terrible. For the next few hours all I could do was lie there and shiver uncontrollably. I wasn't cold; my nervous system was just that fried.

I slept maybe two hours that night. It took me days to recover. It felt like I had some terrible flu.

But I'd been so alone for so long. I wanted to reach out. I wanted to make connections. So I kept going out and subjecting myself to more ordeals like this, for months.

I thought it would get easier with time. I thought I could just build up a tolerance. Even now if I tell people about this, they always think it's something I can overcome with time. They think I just have social anxiety and that if I build up enough confidence, I'll be fine.

I believed that too, for a while, but eventually I realized that's not how this works. I have struggled with social anxiety as well, but that's gotten much better. I find it pretty easy to talk to people – even strangers – these days. But stick me in a loud room with too many people, and I'll still need days to recover.

I kept subjecting myself to these large, chaotic get-togethers because I didn't want to feel alone, but eventually I realized I was just trading one kind of loneliness for another. While all my friends were smiling and laughing all around me, I was trapped in my own private nightmare, my brain betraying me every moment. I could never feel the joy they did in these moments, and they could never understand the way I was struggling.

I tried everything I could to try to fix the problem. I took numerous prescription medications. I experimented with CBD and THC oil. I attempted mindfulness meditation. I tried listening to theta wave recordings to help me sleep on nights when the burnout was bad.

Nothing helped.

Around the same time I had that night at the board game cafe, there was a brief period where one of my friends, who lives near me, would drive me home after our outings. I quickly realized that I was looking forward to those ten-minute car rides more than the hours of “fun” that preceded them. I was able to spend time with someone I liked without feeling miserably overwhelmed. For ten minutes a night, I didn't have to feel alone.

From that point on, I started trying to feel out my limits. I tried to figure out what would be comfortable for me, since large group adventures clearly weren't. I eventually realized that any more than two other people will start to make me uncomfortable, and spending time with just one person is what I find the most fulfilling.

This knowledge is a double-edged sword

On the one hand, I learned that I could enjoy being with other people without any downsides. I learned that there were circumstances where I wouldn't feel alone.

There's another night that looms large in my memory. A few months ago, a girl I fancied came over to my apartment for dinner. It was wonderful. It wasn't just the obvious joy of spending time with a beautiful and charming young woman, but also that it was the kind of social setting that meets my needs perfectly. Just the two of us, in a familiar setting with no background noise. There was nothing stopping me from fully enjoying her company, and it was fulfilling in a way no night out with a group of friends could ever be.

For a few blissful hours, it was like all the years of loneliness, isolation, and discomfort had never happened. It felt like I'd come home after being lost in the wilderness for years.

But then on the other hand, imagine how limiting it is to realize you can never interact with more than two people at a time without beginning to come undone. Imagine all the career options that shuts out. Imagine all the dreams I had to let go of.

These days my social life has settled down somewhat. My friends don't go for marathon outings much anymore. Mostly we get together once a week to play Dungeons and Dragons for “only” four hours. On the rare occasions they plan something more ambitious, I tend to respect my own limits and go home early.

Gone are the days where it took me days to recover from every social event. But at the same time, I'm still not fully comfortable among my friends. It's too many people for too many hours. It's less hard than it used to be, but it's still hard. Some nights I have enough fun to justify the buzzing in my brain. Most times I don't, and I come home feeling lonelier than if I'd never gone out at all.

But what am I to do? I can't ask for people to be excluded from the group to make myself more comfortable. My friends are all good people who treat me well. Their needs aren't compatible with mine, but that's not their fault, and it's not fair of me to ask them to rearrange everything for my sake.

Sometimes I think about just staying home, but everyone tells me that going out is what's healthy, and I don't want to go back to being alone all the time. I do it because I have to, because I'd hardly ever see my friends or speak to anyone if I didn't go.

I like my friends. I like seeing them. It just comes with such terrible side effects. It's like an allergy. When someone is allergic to peanuts, it doesn't mean they don't enjoy the taste of peanut butter. But enjoying it doesn't stop it from causing harm.

I dearly wish people would reach out to me first sometimes, but they're happy with things as they are, so if I don't make noise, I don't get to have any social contact that's on my terms.

Beyond that, I just have to satisfy myself with what scraps I get. Every week I show up early to Dungeons and Dragons in the hopes of having just a few minutes of spending time with one person, before the rest of the group arrives. Sometimes people cancel, and I get to have a quieter night with less discomfort. Most of the time that's the best I can hope for.

So that's my life. I have tons of friends that I see all the time, and I think I'm lonelier than I've ever been. I have very specific needs when it comes to social interaction, and try as I might I can't seem to get them met on a consistent basis.

I have at least made some progress. A few times a month, I get to genuinely enjoy being with another person, without any downside. I just wish it wasn't such a rare treat. I wish other people could better understand how hard it is for me.  I wish I wasn't on the spectrum and could just enjoy a night out with my friends like everyone else does.

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