I entered kindergarten in Atlanta, GA. 47 years ago. I have a powerful long-term memory but accessing experiences that reflect autistic characteristics in me is difficult. I can say, however, that making my first friend was not done in a traditional way.
I was invited over to play by classmates, but those invitations rarely led to a second invitation. I was still trying to find a sport I in which could excel. I was lousy at both football and baseball, and I could not maintain a social conversation for more than a few seconds. I had no clue why. It simply was not on my parents’ radar to screen me for autism, because I was developing language, could maintain eye contact, and I had interest in connecting with others, but did not know how. I was maintaining excellent grades in school, and I was interacting with other children, and so I appeared normal.
But I was quite lonely, and I spent much of my childhood entertaining myself. I remember having a fascination with match box cars, and I spend hours lining them up all over the house. I can recall making nonsensical sounds that entertained me because it confused others. It was a strange sort of social revenge. Since I was confused by the neurotypical behavior around me, I responded to it by engaging in my own made-up vocabulary of sounds just to confuse my peers. I cannot recall any from early childhood, but I can recall many from middle school. For example, I was taking Spanish in 6th grade, and I really struggled to learn from this strange teacher who tried in vain to convey stories about a sweater she purchased two years earlier in Mexico.
Then, one day in a boring session of conjugating Spanish verbs, I exclaimed,”Beeeeeeeeeeee!!!”
Several classmates looked at me, but not all of them were disgusted. A few of them were quite delighted. It was my unique way of bonding with my peers. I recall one other guy in class, who ended up being a key part of a formidable alliance as a striker on a YMCA soccer team, was absolutely thrilled with it, because it infuriated our teacher.
It became a game with Sean and me. Who could say, “Beeeeeeee!” the loudest without getting caught? I had a clear advantage. I was in the back two rows from the teacher. Sean was right in front of Ms. Cantrell. “beee,” he would say softly. While Ms. Cantrell was hitting him on the head with a pencil, I decided to up the ante.
In the loudest voice imaginable, I bellowed, “W!!!!!!!!!” I figured if we were to scream letters of the alphabet, we might as well work our way all the way through it. Besides, “w” was more irritating to listen to than “b,” because it was three syllables long, rather than just one.
The class erupted with laugher. Ms. Cantrell made me sit right next to her and threated to kiss me if I wasn’t quiet. That kept me subdued for a while. But one look at Sean, and I was off again….
“Beeeee!!!!!!!!” I was crawling on my hands and knees to avoid Ms. Cantrell’s lips.
The art and science of making ridiculous noises to win friends began with my first friend, Mike. Our earliest encounters were the opposite of how someone might make a friend. Since I had no idea how to engage in small talk, but wanted someone to climb the jungle gym with, I ran up to Mike, slapped him on the back, and shouted, “How are ya?! Let’s go climb the jungle gym!!”
Mike was always a very patient man. He writhed in pain every time I slapped him, but it took him weeks to finally ask me to quit. Perhaps the best decision I made was to respect his request. I asked him recently why he tolerated me. His response was that I was persistent, and that he had no innate fear of unusual behavior, which seemed to be what prevented many others from approaching me. Ultimately, he was entertained by my antics and enjoyed the game of confusing others around us.
We soon perfected the nonsense sound ritual as a team. We would run up to the toughest kids on the playground and scream one of those nonsensical sounds. We delighted in running to the top of the jungle gym we knew they could not climb. Over and over, the tough kids tried to climb the jungle gym like rabid dogs trying to get to two cats in a tree. But it was no use. By the time it was time to go in, we smiled as we walked in the safety of our class away from the brutes in the other lines who wanted revenge.
That same year, Mike introduced me to organized soccer, which I had discovered about a year before was my sport. We would play on many teams for years after that, finding other kids who would participate in the strange noises we made just for our amusement, or would at least tolerate it. Along the way, I learned just enough soccer and social skills to make enough friends to have a relatively happy childhood.
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