My apartment building is testing the alarm system so I’m at the park today, sitting at a picnic table, writing. It’s a beautiful day and the park had been deserted until a few moments ago when a group of kids on a field trip showed up to eat lunch at the picnic tables and play on the nearby playground.
Watching them find seats and settle down to lunch reminds me of how much I dreaded field trips as a kid. The unfamiliarity of the setting. Having to find someone to sit with on the bus. Worrying that I would end up without anyone to hang out with during the inevitable free time we were given as a reward for enduring the educational portion of the outing.
As the kids are finishing up their lunch and breaking into little groups to play football or soccer, I hear a crash. Two boys were off by themselves swinging on the swings and one of them has literally fallen on his face. He gets up, pressing his hand to his mouth, but doesn’t cry or run to the adults for help. Instead he walks off to the side of the playground, away from the group, repeatedly touching his lip and looking at his fingers.
None of the adults notice what’s happened. They’re distracted by the other children, most of whom don’t hesitate to seek out their help or attention.
The other boy on the swings saw his playmate fall and ignored him.
The whole situation feels painfully familiar. The wandering off to play alone. The clumsiness. The embarrassment at getting hurt and the subsequent refusal to seek help. The two boys playing side by side but showing little interest in each other. The invisibility.
As I watched those two boys on the swings, I recognized that they were using the same playground survival strategies I’d used as a kid. By playing side-by-side on the swings, but not really with each other, the boys have found a way to give the impression that they’re friends. That makes them less vulnerable than they would be playing by themselves. They may actually be friends–it’s hard to tell by watching them for a few minutes–but I wouldn’t be surprised if they knew little about each other or rarely talked to each.
Girls seem to be even better at this strategy, hanging around at the edges of a social group to avoid being alone. Some experts have suggested that aspie girls’ ability to appear socially adept while forming few or no close bonds may be one of the reasons that girls are diagnosed less frequently than boys.
As a preteen and teen, I got great mileage out of the hovering-at-the-fringes strategy. I usually had one or two good friends who tended to be nurturing, big sister types. They also tended to be more socially adept. They were my social gateway friends.
I found that as long as I was friends with that type of girl, she would include me in her circle. Suddenly I appeared to have lots of friends. Of course, if my gateway friend wasn’t included in some social activity, I wasn’t either. Sometimes it was because the rest of the group just forgot to include me, but often it was because I was too intimidated by the idea of going to a social event if my gateway friend wasn’t going to be there.
Honestly, if it weren’t for the social pressures (from parents, peers, teachers) to have lots of friends, I would have been content having one friend at a time. With one good friend, I knew who to phone when I wanted to go for a bike ride or have a sleepover. I didn’t have to think about who I’d rather spend time with or how to go about balancing the demands of multiple friends on my time and (limited) social energy.
As I’m wrapping this up, the kids have formed a football game. The boy who fell off the swings is quietly tagging along right behind the adult male chaperone who is organizing the game. The other boy who was on the swings is sitting at one of the picnic tables, playing cards with one of the adult female chaperones.
Again I see myself. I was the teacher’s helper, the kid who learned to play poker at ten because hanging out with the adults on holidays was more fun (yes, holidays in my family meant epic poker games). Adults seemed more interesting to me and more interested in me. They were easier to relate to.
Oddly, now that I’m an adult, you’re more likely to find me entertaining the kids at family gatherings. Their parents are happy for someone to take the kids off their hands for a bit and kids have pretty low expectations when it comes to social interaction.
Create a semblance of socializing is one of my go-to social survival skills. It worked on the playground and it works just as well at PTA meetings, birthday parties and holidays devoid of poker games.