The three bottle book club

Dena Gassner, MSW

As an adult (nearly AARP age!) living with Asperger’s, I am finding peace with social issues. A friend would have identified me early on as a “social responder,” or one who intensively seeks social connection. In the past, I inserted myself abruptly into any and every social scenario just to belong; sometimes with tragic consequences. I realize now that the premature loss of my youngest sister (she died when she was 6 and I was just 8) impacted my need for others. I missed her so desperately that I mimicked her for a time. I missed my playmate.

For many years afterward, solitude frightened me. I avoided solitude. It represented a dark place and dysfunction. I didn’t like where my thoughts took me. After my sister’s death, I endured abuse. I was always fighting depression, trying to cope with sensory instability. To escape the constant processing I said “yes” to everything just to stop thinking about internal issues. I did church, band, theater, speech, debate, even powder puff football, just to try to be without thoughts. If I had been simultaneously experiencing the pressure to socialize as some of my peers were, the burden would have been overwhelming.

As a parent, I understand external pressures to “help” children succeed socially. Still, my peers and the kiddos I work with feel they are constantly programmed, redirected, and taught at every turn with little, if any, effort to teach the other students or family members to meet them half way. It is no wonder that they withdraw.

Turning 50, I have discovered a new freedom. I am free from the both the desperation of the “responder” and the more uniquely female, genetically encoded “nurturing” need for constant social contact. In this solitude, I find myself much more productive. I can’t believe how I fought that which I am inherently designed to embrace! Neurotypicals pay serious money to “get away.” I am created to do that, and yet I fought it! Now, when offered a social circumstance, I consciously but freely weigh the sensory and emotional cost of the situation, compare that with the overall value of the investment, and then make a choice whether to accept or not.

Embracing the need for solitude had given me all I ever wanted. I am published nearly monthly as a feature writer. I am teaching, the work I spent my life seeking. I embrace solitude as a gift of my Asperger’s.

So WHAT WAS I THINKING when I joined a neurotypical book club? On a monthly basis, I meet with a small group of insanely intelligent younger women who read a book a month as an excuse to gather, eat, laugh, and drink wine (thus; our name Three-Bottle Book Club). This choice was not easy. It is my preference to hang out with fellow auties/aspies or neurotypicals who find “us” fascinating, as opposed to odd curiosities. Despite being an Honors English major in college, I had left behind my “fluffy” reading. I prefer autism books to the near exclusion of all other materials. Besides, there was the social aspect – after many years of self-imposed social interaction, I am most comfortable in seclusion.

After just two months in the Three-Bottle Book Club I wanted to die. The books they chose were ones often found under the sign “Beach Reads.” They are tedious novels (ugh) of love and romance with few non-fiction elements to consider. There were some rather delicious exceptions, including Water for Elephants: A Novel by Sarah Gruen, historical fiction about the circus in the Depression era; Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth (Deluxe Edition) (Oprah's Book Club) and World Without End about the church of the Middle Ages; and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan: A Novel, set in China and centering around the “art” of foot-binding. See a pattern here? I like historical fiction or the newer genre of creative non-fiction.

Don’t worry; I suggested books on autism when it was my turn. My own heroines – Valerie Paradiz ( Elijah's Cup: A Family's Journey into the Community and Culture of High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's Syndrome) and Lianne Willey ( Pretending to Be Normal: Living With Asperger's Syndrome). It didn’t work very well. The hidden curriculum of book choosing is that young moms are too fearful to face the possibility of life with a disability in their children, so most of them couldn’t finish reading these books.

The choice of reading material was not my only issue. I recognized that it was problematic to deal with restaurant noises and the multi-tasking of several conversations at once. I realized that my directness required constant monitoring. The age differences (most of the other women were in their 30s with kids in kindergarten versus me being 50 and only having one teen left at home) was another barrier. While I loved the phenomenal intelligence of these amazing women, the intensity of their conversations expanded me intellectually, sometimes to the breaking point. The multi-layering of factors began to overwhelm me, and I asked to bow out.

Then it hit me! The Three-Bottle Book Club is my social skills class. Within a month of dropping out, I realized how much I missed my chick friends. I yearned for their insights and wisdom. I loved the enthusiasm and encouragement we shared (like the Pink Party for our friend celebrating 10 years of being cancer free). I recalled what a precious retreat those “fluffy” books had become. Mostly, I realized that this is what a “social skills” group looks like at 50.

So hat in hand, I will ask to come back. I know they will let me back and it will be as if I never left. I know this because friends do that for one another. And I realize that I am doing it not because I want to change, or be “normal,” but because it stretches me. So this afternoon, I will wrap myself in the solitude, like that of a comfy, flannel shirt, and open another fluffy book. And I will smile as I look forward to my next social skills class.

Dena Gassner, MSW, is the director of the Center for Understanding, which provides individual and family coaching support for persons affected by autism spectrum differences. She is the mother of two, one of whom is an adult with autism. Dena is a board member of the Autism Society of Middle Tennessee and an advisory board member of the Autism Society of America. She is a member of the Vanderbilt University Postsecondary Task Force. Many seek her uncanny professional and personal insight into success embracing one’s authentic autistic self.

Courtesy of AAPC

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