Sunday, May 4, 2008

Major Stereotype Violation (Party Variety)

Seven years ago, in a moment of confusion, I decided to throw a Derby party. The food was elaborate and perfect, all prepared fresh just hours before the guests arrived. The people invited knew and liked one another. There was sunshine, music and of course the Kentucky Derby to discuss, place bets on, watch and then discuss some more. Among the guests were one of the best storytellers I have ever known, several people who had led interesting and adventurous lives, and one of those people sometimes described as “never [having] met a stranger.” The party was a social disaster, including possibly the longest “awkward silence” ever to occur in a group of twelve people. Following that pause, each and every guest found that suddenly it was time to go; they exited en masse, leaving me puzzled at how such a grand effort at “being social” could have failed despite every precaution.

At the time, I didn’t have a name for what separated me from them. For the most part I didn’t mind it—the seat next to me, usually remaining empty wherever I went, provided a welcome visible marker for my personal space. In truth, I never wanted a large group of friends around me, just a couple of people (one at a time, please!) with whom to engage in philosophical discussions or compare observations of the many incomprehensible aspects of human behavior. Groups of people, even those made up of perfectly fine individuals, have never appealed to me. With groups come the dynamics of “othering,” and the insipid jockeying to be the first or the best, at least at one thing. And this is only a small piece of why parties are not “my thing.”

The true purpose of that 2001 Derby party was to prove…well, I’m not sure what, but something… to certain people around me who were sure that I could overcome my brokenness (whether this was called being “shy,” “distant,” “hostile,” “superior," "mentally ill" or “afraid of life” varied by time and by critic and the mood of the speaker) if only I would make the effort. These were people who claimed to like me, while simultaneously asserting that my entire being was little more than a collection of attention-grabbing, fear-pandering character defects. They may have thought that they liked something they thought of as me, but this was a myth. That something, a me without substance or personality, didn’t exist. And for my part, for buying into this, I ended up proving only that I was destined to fail at socializing no matter how hard I might try.

The party was based on a lie—that I wanted to be somehow different. What I really wanted, ever, was permission to be me. When I didn’t get it, I rebelled. And people saw the anger, but few ever understood its cause or true nature. Some saw a person who was “trapped” within herself, unable to reach out to others. Some saw a person who disliked or even hated people. Pretty much everyone agreed that I needed some sort of treatment—therapy, medication, maybe religion—to make me whole, to make me really human. The party was in part an experiment. It took a few more years for me to fully analyze the data.

Yesterday, there was another party. There were some simple foods, a few I made, some others purchased from a deli. There were burnt hamburgers, problems with the sound system, rain clouds, and a robotic bird who squawked at several people. Many of the guests had not met one another before. All they had in common was that they are people who have shown acceptance for the person I really am. I had a great time. The guests seemed to enjoy themselves, too. I think this one was a success.

These are some of the things that helped me, that made this one different. First, a couple of generous friends who allowed me to host the event at their home made this possible. Having people in my own living space has always been difficult to intolerable for me. I feel exposed, as if someone flipping through my CD collection or noticing the pattern in a dish towel might as well be rummaging through my underwear drawer. So having the party someplace else is a prerequisite for relaxing. Second, I made sure to include children under 10. These are the best guests you can have at an outdoor party; there is so much to be learned from them about how easy it is, really, to have fun. Content for hours with some sidewalk chalk, a ball and a small trampoline, they set the tone for the rest of us to relax and enjoy ourselves freely.

Another thing that helped was allowing people to help me. My friend’s daughter, a young adult I’ve had the pleasure of knowing for most of her life, cut vegetables, arranged the table, greeted guests and took photographs. All without being asked. She’s the kind of person who sees what needs to be done, and then does it. Things would not have gone as smoothly without her. Thank you, Dawn! Others pitched in too, bringing ice, cake, appetizers, a beautiful arrangement of fruit. Everyone assisted with the introductions, and a couple of folks volunteered to help out with the grill.

Most important, though, was the guest list. When I thought about whom to invite, I realized just how much my life has changed over these last few years. I have people around me now who accept me as an autistic person, as myself, whether they use the word autistic to describe me or not. They know that I will sometimes make bird sounds or say things that don’t make sense to them, or say nothing when something is clearly expected. Two people I had never met in person drove 400 miles to attend. As a result, a friendship already deeply important to me took on additional dimension and meaning. Another friend drove 70 miles, despite having other obligations for the day; he gave me a card with a parrot on it. Another friend brought a beautiful parrot piƱata, knowing I would never allow it to be broken.

Some of my friends are autistic, but most are not. Most of them are just people who don’t mind discussing soda can collections, floor tile photography or the populations of major U.S. cities. People who speak to Squawkers McCaw, and look out for him when the wind kicks up and threatens to knock him from his perch. All of them strong enough to withstand some moments of silence, some expression of difference. People who were possibly surprised, yet not overly alarmed, that a few minutes after the ending time clearly stated on the party invitation, and without a word of warning to the few remaining, the host of the party had already left the building.


  1. I wish I could have been there, Bev. I'm glad you had a nice time, and that others have gained the opportunity to befriend you as I have. Oh, and say 'Hi' to SMcC for me :)

  2. I once was planning a big dinner party---sent out invitations and everything---and had to cancel a few days before the event. Something all the effort put into planning was too much---it's the less formal, more casual, sorts of get-togethers that I've often most remembered, and most fondly.

  3. You're still annoyed at me for having left #8 off the recent list, aren't you?



  4. Man, Squawkers is a ham. Just look at 'im -- always got on his "photogenic face"!

  5. That sounds like a great party. What fun to have online friends come from afar! I love those meetings.

  6. Okay, you have to tell me about Floor Tile Photography. It sounds very intersting.

    I am glad the party went well. Inviting kids under 10 is great. I agree. Kids keep us playing and not so stuffy.

  7. Wish I could have been there! Sounds like so much fun. Glad you felt good about it.

  8. Wow...there's hope for me...

  9. Nice. Friendly in a true and pure sense of friendliness. ^_^


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