Regardless of which category you fell under, chances are, you knew which circles you belonged in and which ones you didn't. These so called social circles start as early as grade school and last well into adulthood. I'd imagine even in the nursing home there is a coveted circle that the elderly desperately want to get in. I think the hardest time to find your circle though, has to be the early teen years when you are trying to figure out exactly who you are, and if a circle is even the shape you are looking for, which one fits you best.
As a teenager, there are many circles, each one having their own size, their own walls and their own people occupying the circle. Some circles are easier to get into and some are not. There is the athlete's circle and unless you can catch, throw, run, jump, skate, or dance, chances are good they won't let you in. There is the geek circle that only allows kids with a certain GPA and a specific number of Honors courses on their transcript to break through these walls. There is the rich kids circle and entrance to this circle is based on the clothes you wear, the car that drops you off in car line and the neighborhood where you hang those clothes and park that car. There are endless circles each with specific entrance criteria. Sometimes the circle fill up quickly and chances are if you weren't in the circle before the circle closed, you may not ever get in.
What if, as a parent, you had a child that you thought didn't even know the circles existed? A child whom you believed didn't see the circles at all, therefore, never really felt bad that virtually every circle was closed to him and he was left standing alone outside the circle. That because of an autism diagnosis, and his diminished social awareness, you hoped and prayed he wasn't aware that the people standing within the various circles didn't believe he quite fit into any one. What if the circle's inhabitants saw your child as a square whose different edges would not allow him to fit within the confines of any circles, but, because you believe he didn't see these differences, you thought it was no big deal?
Then one day, you realize he has seen the circles...across the cafeteria, standing around the lockers, hanging out at the high school football game and he has wondered what it would be like to be in, but, recognizes he is out. He is older and wiser now and understands what he has been missing being alone on the outside of the circle. He recognizes that his differences make it hard to even know where to begin to try and break through any one of circles to find one that fits. Then everything you believed, everything you held onto crumbles and you begin to wonder if you were in fact blind to the circles, not him. You may even begin to wonder if you were blind to him and the circle he has spent years building around himself.
When Ryan was little, I use to worry that he wanted friends, that he wanted in the circle, any circle. Then one day, he told me, he didn't have any friends and that it didn't make him "sad at all". So, I stopped putting my wants for him in check and started seeing the circle the way he did, a nondescripts shape that he had no desire to enter.
I spent years trying to help Ryan make friends, then I spent years believing he didn't really "want" friends. Until two weeks ago when someone opened a circle and Ryan clearly wanted "in". He just needed to know how to step through the open circle and somehow make it feel like he fit. We practiced what to talk about, what to say, how trying to "fit in" might feel and all the things about him that made him worth being a part of any circle. It took an invite to a party and the conversations that followed to make me finally see the circle that mattered the most. The circle that Ryan created. A circle big enough for only one.
Ryan spends every weekend alone. I'm not telling you that to garner sympathy for me as his mom or to make you feel sad for him, it's just a fact. It's hard to know if Ryan prefers to be alone or if being alone is just easier. I think it is a mix of both. Over the years, I have tried to intervene. Sometimes with success (short periods of time with a specific plan and a "safe" friend) and sometimes with less success ("When is he going to leave?").
Ever since we first heard The A Word, I have lived with the fear that Ryan will spend his life alone, no circle ever opening for him and never letting anyone in the circle he created for himself. Ryan is protective of his circle because when he lets others in, it gets confusing for him. There are social nuances, slang, facial expressions and body language he doesn't quite pick up on and that makes him feel like the circle is closing in on him thus making his circle feel unsafe. However, in recent months, I have watched him take risks and step outside his circle. I see him looking in to other circles and wondering if there is one that will make room for him. I also see him considering making room for others in his circle.
I understand now that Ryan has always seen the circles, but, until he was ready, the circles didn't hold much shape for him. From things we have discussed and changes in his behavior, I believe now more than ever, Ryan longs to break through a circle and find one that fits. The desire to be included is there.
It's easy to point the fingers at others and say, "they won't let him in", but, Ryan and I have discussed that maybe the first thing he needs to do to find a circle, is to let someone into his. To open his self-enclosed circle long enough to let someone in so they can see all that is amazing and unique inside his circle. It is only then, when he finally lets others in, that they may reciprocate.
I know that Ryan is considering opening his circle. I believe he will open it, if and when, he is ready. And I know that as his mom, the one person he occasionally allows to enter his circle, that no matter how hard it is, I need to step away from his circle and let him decide who is worthy to enter. Not too far away though. Never, ever too far away.