My friend Andy invited me to a Toastmaster's Christmas party last night in the home of one of the members of a Toastmaster's group he belongs to.
Andy is a big teddy bear of a man, 40 years old, never married, who has a form of autism that makes social settings difficult for him.
It's not that he is shy or that he doesn't want to be around people. The difficulty is that his autism leaves him without the social skills to read how other people are responding to him in a conversation or with their body language or through other physical expressions that most of us are able to clearly interpret.
Andy has a brilliant, encyclopedic mind. He loves to share the endless facts in his head, and believe me, he knows something about every single subject you could ever bring up. But since he has a hard time reading people he often does not know when to pause in a conversation, when to listen and respond to their points, when to let others have their say. He is working on that.
He did pretty well last night, though. He was cordial and friendly and even sweet at times. He joined into the political discussion at dinner with about 12 of us around the table. He had no trouble holding his own, fascinating the group with historical facts and his own unique take on things.
He lives alone and his job keeps him basically isolated. He fills his leisure hours with books and computer games and anonymous chat lines. He would like more social settings where he could establish a few long term relationships--have a girlfriend, and male buddies to hang out with.
We have lunch together from time to time and we've had several outings with our friend Clare, a mutual friend we both love and appreciate, someone who listens intently to Andy and offers him unconditional acceptance and warm friendship.
Carl Rogers, the imminent American psychologist who transformed psychology with his humanistic approach to psychotherapy, once said: "People are just as wonderful as sunsets if you let them be. When I look at a sunset, I don't find myself saying, 'Soften the orange a bit on the right hand corner.' I don't try to control a sunset. I watch as it unfolds."
I thought of that last night as I observed Andy in the crowd. "Hello, Mary Jane, you look charming tonight," he said as one of the group entered the room. His smile, which transfigures his large frame into such a warm human presence, is a magnificent part of his real self. His smile makes him immediately huggable and radiates an openheartedness that says, you will like me if you give me a chance.
In those moments Andy is a sunset unfolding, not to be controlled by me or others, but just to be embraced and welcomed and appreciated for his courage to find his place in the crowd, to be genuinely acknowledged, and to experience what all of us want and need so often, the love of others.
© 2011 Timothy Moody