My mom often related my childhood reading habits to devouring food. From my mother’s perspective, I was speeding through books as though my eyes were a machine with a conveyer belt tongue feeding me one after another. Convinced I wasn’t actually reading them, she required me to write book reports to prove I retained the information.
I never liked my reading habits described as devouring. Devouring gives the illusion that the information, stories, and characters only passed through me like a meal. But books never passed through me. The relationships I built with the characters were as real to me as the girl next door.
What she didn’t understand – and how could she since I wasn’t diagnosed with autism until adulthood – is that books were not fun stories to entertain me. Books were my friends. Within the pages of my books, I understood the art of communicating without a mask or filter. I created a friendship with the main character. Every word they said was shared with me; every thought was shared with me. And their circle of friends? Mine, too.
As a mother of an autistic girl was quoted in Sarah Hendrickx’s book, Women and Girls with Autism Spectrum Disorder, “She loves books and plays with them as well as reading them – almost like they have their own personalities.”
Books have a life of their own.
Standing stiff in a perfect salute along my bookshelf, the spines of my books offered a doorway into communication and friendship I couldn’t find in the real world.
As an autistic child, I fell behind in understanding the subtle art of non-verbal communication. I’d misread facial expressions; most jokes fell flat at my feet. I’d force laughs when others would laugh. Hide behind a chameleon’s mask, copying the facial expressions of others in the group. Quite simply, stepping into the friendships within the pages allowed me to go in bare naked – no mask, just myself. My whole self was fully exposed but entirely accepted.
In books, motivations and intentions are laid out in black and white. There is no need to read facial expressions; the book tells me what each character is doing.
A pattern of social predictability emerges in every book. Friendships break, but I know they will reconcile in the end. Characters’ personalities are less fluid and complex than in the real world. Behind each action is an intent – a purpose. Every character’s actions fall into a box based on their personality. There is a truth and comfort to this predictability.
In my pre-teen years, when social skills suddenly took a more significant role in defining social cliques, The Babysitters Club was my jam. Through my books, I could safely observe the social dynamics of teenage girls and, in a way, be a part of them.
Mary Anne, Dawn, Kristy, Claudia, Stacey, and Mallory were my closest friends for a few years.
I even attempted to recreate the relationships in the real world. I started my own babysitters’ club and convinced a few girls to join and take up the roles of each girl based on similar personalities. We never picked up babysitting gigs, but we did hold meetings.
I took up the role of Mary Anne.
Looking back, I remember the desperation and panic when the other girls broke out of character. In character, in my mind, the dynamics were predictable. I was accepted because Mary Anne was accepted. But out of character, the real world set in. I would, again, be the outcast: rarely invited over, often left out of conversations and made fun of. It was the ultimate masking attempt I’ve ever tried. And it failed.
Within two months, the real world set in. The play-acting was no longer novel to the other girls. They moved on to the next thing, and I was left behind. Allowed to tag along at school but rarely invited for sleepovers or to ‘hang out.’
Books, unlike people, have always been there for me. Accepting. Understanding. Thrilled to invite me in.
They also teach me about relationships. As Sarah Hendrickx puts it, “Not only does reading offer a solo escape from a chaotic world, it also provides knowledge and data that may help that [autistic] girl to manage that world once she has to return to it.”
For the past week, I’ve had morning coffee with Matt Haig. I intently listened as he shared his Notes on a Nervous Planet. Brené Brown and I are tight. She drops by in the evenings to share her latest success in researching shame.
I was there the day Scout beat up Cecil, and she taught me a few things about not accepting an unjust world. I imagine her when I’m looking for the courage to be myself. Bilbo helps me face my fear of the unknown; Mary Oliver allows me to tag along on her walks through the field next to her home.
These are the most honest and deep friendships I have. They show up when I need them to. They never have an excuse not to meet up with me.
I’m always welcome and there is always an open invitation.