Come As You Are, Part One

by dpreyde

I was in my second year of university. I had no friends and no social life. Weeks would go by in which I never had a conversation with someone I wasn’t related to.

Strangely enough, I was happy. My routine was simple: I commuted into Toronto from Oshawa, reading a novel. When I arrived, I walked to my college’s library and tried to study, but usually ended up drawing dark, twisted cartoons or reading the novel. I never had more than one class a day, because I was a part-time student. My class lasted anywhere from one to three hours. Afterward, I probably should’ve studied, but I usually didn’t. Instead, I wandered.

I wandered all over Toronto, investigating main thoroughfares and side streets, exploring many different neighbourhoods. I gravitated toward grocery stores, corner stores, and libraries. When it came time to eat lunch, I found a burger place or pizza place and ate while walking. I didn’t like people watching me eat.

Eventually my dad would call and tell me to meet him at a subway station out in Scarborough near his workplace. So I’d hop on the subway, reading a novel on the way.

Simple. Easy. And yeah, a little lonely.

I got an e-mail from my academic advisor. I didn’t hear from him too often, because he was 97-years-old and spent most of his time in a medically induced coma. So the mere fact that he sent me an e-mail intrigued me.

It read:

“Hope things are well.  Btw, one of the Learning Disability Advisors is running a social
group for students with Asperger’s — not a support group per se, but a “get together and do things” group.  I wondered whether you might be interested in joining.  The advisor’s name is Nathan Chapman, and he is a highly competent and exceptionally nice person.”

I figured that this Chapman dude was probably some ineffectual bleeding heart who felt sorry for retards and wanted to toss us a bone. I also figured he and his group were probably harmless, so I phoned him. We set up a time to meet. Instead of me just showing up at the group, he wanted to tell me a little bit about it and get a read on me. To see if I’d be a good fit, he said.

We met at his office in the accessibility services centre. It was a cramped, windowless, basement room.

Immediately Nathan seemed different from a lot of the other service providers and specialists I’d met. He wasn’t loud, perky, bubbly, demonstrative, or even particularly happy. I appreciated this greatly. He seemed sincere, and chose his words carefully.

He asked what I was studying. I told him.

“We don’t have any other film majors,” he said. “But sometimes we go on outings to movies.”

He asked if I played any musical instruments.

“A lot of the group members are into music,” he explained. “It seems to be common among people with Asperger’s.”

He invited me to go to the next group meeting, and told me the group was called the Social Association for Students with Autism- S.A.S.A. for short.

“I’m terrible at directions, so I can’t explain to you where the meeting is held. But if you meet me here, we can walk over together. I know sometimes it feels awkward to walk into a room full of strangers.”

So I did exactly that, and followed Nathan out of the library, into an adjoining building, into a basement, through a maze of lockers, and into a large, dingy windowless room. The first meeting was a blur of noise and dysfunction.

There was a guy lying on a table with his shoes off, reading a book. Another guy paced back and forth monologuing loudly to no-one in particular. Every now and then the first guy yelled at the second guy to please keep his voice down. There was a third guy who tried to talk to me about computers, and a fourth guy who sat in the corner and said absolutely nothing to anyone throughout the entire meeting.

Every now and then I noticed Nathan watching me, perhaps trying to gauge my reaction.

It was the first time I’d ever been enveloped in autistic culture, it was totally out of hand, and I loved it.

Afterward, I walked out into the street and noticed how different it was. Out here, people abided by particular social customs and rules, and there were expectations for how they should behave. Everyone acted the same way. It felt boring after the chaos of S.A.S.A. I figured I’d go back a few times, and that I’d eventually get bored of it.

I kept going back, month after month, not completely understanding why. There was something refreshing and nourishing about S.A.S.A. It was something that part of me recognized as somehow familiar.

Over the next year, S.A.S.A. became an important part of my life. I attended every meeting. Usually I sat and listened to what people said, or I talked to Nathan. I didn’t feel like I had a lot in common with the other Aspies who attended. They were mostly into math, science and computers- Mathpies, as I later recognized- and seemed less socially aware than me.

There were a handful of five or six regulars, all of them guys (after about two years, we gained a regular female member- a Mathpie music student). Every now and then we’d have a new person, and usually they didn’t stick around. A lot of the ones who didn’t stay were more linguistically oriented, or more self-aware, and I was disappointed to see them go.

So even though I was one of the regulars at S.A.S.A., I still didn’t have any friends.

At one point, the other regulars developed a common special interest. You know how when women co-habitate together for long enough, their periods sometimes sync up? Well, apparently when Aspies hang out together for long enough, their special interests can sync up. It is fucking terrifying. All the other Aspies decided that Monopoly- fucking Monopoly, of all things- was the apex of humanity. So every goddamn meeting for three consecutive months they played Monopoly.

I have got to get out of here, I thought.

Then the strangest person I ever met showed up.