40: Autistic moments: a long car ride
She was probably thinking “Who is this weirdo?”
In college I didn’t have access to a car and I periodically needed to make the three hour trip to Boston to visit my girlfriend for a long weekend or a holiday break. There were two options - take the bus (which, I recall, was about $80, and took at least five hours) or ask for a ride. I couldn’t imagine asking anyone for a ride, in part because I didn’t know anyone with a car well enough to ask, and in part because it was just too hard to muster the courage to ask someone for such a big favor (even if they were driving to Boston anyway).
I had noticed that other carless students (mostly the international students who didn’t have US driver’s licenses) would post fliers in the mailroom asking for rides. I decided to try this technique, and to my surprise, it worked.
When Layla called me in answer to my flier, she sounded direct and to the point. “You need a ride to Boston?” She asked.
“Yes.” I said.
“OK, I’m leaving on the Friday before break, around 9:00 AM. Could you chip in for gas?”
“Sure.” I said. And we had a deal.
The ride started out nicely. It was a beautiful day in early fall, the leaves just starting to change. I marveled at the views of the countryside as we drove on the back roads. We exchanged basic information about where we were from and what dorm we lived in, and then I was content to just look out the window and enjoy the silence. Layla continued to ask me questions, which I was happy to answer in the most literal sense. Have you been to Boston before? (Yes). Are you visiting someone? (Yes). What part of town do they live in? (Brookline). Who are you visiting (my girlfriend). I didn’t ask Layla many reciprocal questions - I didn’t feel the need to learn about her details.
I didn’t really like to talk much while riding in cars. I had not been around the area much, and it was exciting for me to look out the window and take in the scenery. The beautiful rolling hills, small country roads, old barns with big red silos, cute little towns with small, neat white churches and their tall narrow spires visible from anywhere in town. Taking it all in was enough to keep me busy for the whole ride, and it didn’t really occur to me that Layla wanted to make small talk to pass the time, or perhaps even get to know each other.
We drove for about an hour when Layla said she was hungry. I nodded. I had eaten breakfast in the dining hall and snuck out a couple of apples for later, so I was OK. I didn’t actually explain that to Layla, assuming it didn’t matter to her whether I was hungry. We pulled into the McDonald’s parking lot and, as one would expect, Layla turned off the car and undid her seatbelt and opened her door. I stayed in my seat, seat belt buckled, and made no indication of movement. She looked at me hesitantly.
“You coming?” She asked.
“No thanks.” I said.
“No?” She asked, sounding surprised, and a bit annoyed. I shrugged. “OK,” she said, letting out a bit of a sigh, “I’ll be back in a few.”
When Layla shut her door and walked to the restaurant I just sat in the warm car and enjoyed the stillness. It was early fall in New England and even a McDonald's parking lot had something pretty to look at - trees changing color on the median between the pavement of the parking lot and the pavement of the road. After ten minutes or so, it might have occurred to me that it was perhaps a bit strange for me to just sit in the car rather than accompany Layla into the restaurant and make small talk. But, I wasn’t hungry, and in any case I was a vegetarian, why would I go into a McDonald’s? In retrospect, she was probably thinking “Who is this weirdo?”, but I was completely oblivious to her exasperation at the time.
By the time we were approaching the outskirts of Boston, Layla had long since given up on trying to make small talk. But she did have one last question - she asked me how I was getting back to campus on Monday. At that moment it occurred to me that I didn’t know how I was getting back after the weekend was over. I had assumed she was driving back and would give me a ride, but we hadn’t clarified. “I’m heading to P-town tomorrow and I’ll head back to campus straight from there, so I won’t be leaving from Boston,” she explained. And it made sense, sort of. I’m not sure why she hadn’t mentioned this detail earlier, but I couldn’t complain about getting a free ride. Of course, wasn’t it obvious that if I was asking for a ride to Boston that I would also need a ride back from Boston? I didn’t want to reveal to Layla that I didn’t have a plan, because it was embarrassing to be dependent on strangers for basic things like transportation.
“I was thinking I’d take the bus,” I said, “It’s not bad at all, Vermont Transit leaves right from South Station and stops at the gas station near campus.” I wanted to explain how easy it was to take the bus in an effort to convince myself rather than to make her feel more comfortable about the fact that she wasn’t taking me round trip.
“That’s great,” she said.
Layla dropped me at Alewife, where I knew I’d take the red line to Park Street, then transfer to the green line toward Riverside and get off at the second Brookline stop. A long journey as far as subways go. The Boston T is easy compared to the New York Subway, but still I was anxious about buying the right ticket and finding the right train and making the right transfer. While I sat on the train, it might have occurred to me that if I had been friendlier, if I had made conversation, if I had taken the opportunity of a three hour car ride to get to know Layla, that she might have offered me a ride home. That might have occurred to me, but I don’t think it did. I suspect what I was thinking instead was how I just met another person who didn’t seem to like me, who felt awkward in my presence, and who was all too happy to say goodbye when the time came.
I’ve always been good at sensing when someone does not enjoy being in my presence. Sometimes the hints are subtle (invitations not extended) and sometimes they are overt (please stop calling me). What I didn’t know how to do at the time Layla drove me to Boston, and what I’ve learned how to do since, is to play along so that people who are exposed to me for relatively short periods of time get the impression that I’m a nice, friendly, person who is calm and pleasant to be around. I’ve gotten quite good at this, actually. I have learned what to say, how to react, how to make conversation, what the “right” thing to do is. I have learned which behaviors others consider “weird” and I can suppress them for a time. The challenge is that I can only keep it up for so long. The more exposure people have to me, the less comfortable they are around me, and the more annoyed they seem to be at my behavior, my preferences, and my needs. For that reason, I’m good at having acquaintances, and I’m good at making “work friends” with colleagues whom I never see for more than an hour or two at a time. But when people get the full picture - when they travel with me, for example, or spend the holidays with me, they seem to lose their tolerance for my presence before too long.
I think the root of this challenge is the double empathy problem. Perhaps as awareness of autism continues to grow, and allistic people become more accepting rather than judgmental of autistic differences (and vice versa, to be fair), that when we feel uncomfortable in each other’s presence that we can talk about it instead of simply avoiding interactions altogether.