Sunday, June 7, 2009



I have never appreciated the dynamics of group friendships. I have been able to have satisfying one-on-one interactions sometimes, with some people, in some situations. But until very recently, I had not been able to participate in groups. Sure, I could be there physically, but that is very different from participating. For years, I never said much, and most people assumed that this meant I was shy or had nothing to say. My comments, when I did make them, often came across as odd or “inappropriate.” Of course I understand the reason for this now. To communicate well with one person requires a large expenditure of energy on my part, and a great deal of patience from the other party. Even in these one-on-one conversations, I am often left behind. For each additional person added, the energy drain and frustration increase as I try to keep up.

The time it takes me to process another person’s words and then formulate a response in words of my own is probably about four times as long as for the average person. This means that by the time I am ready to make a comment, it often seems no longer relevant. Far easier to remain quiet than to try to make the comment and also explain that it applies to something said a minute or two back. Then comes the dreaded point where someone realizes I have not said anything in awhile. What do you think about this, Bev? This person is trying very hard to include me. I appreciate that. I do. But I will disappoint her just about every time with a blank stare or a quickly cobbled string of words that has little to do with what she thought was the topic. Alternately, I will interrupt and talk over people, trying too hard to get a thought out. This is considered rude, of course, and I don’t mean to do it. It’s another expression of the same processing issues. I have experienced many conversations in which interrupting was the only way I had a chance to speak. For most of my life, being in groups of people has made me feel very alone.


Squawkers has two brothers now. They are cockatiels, Dylan and Brubeck. Deciding to adopt these birds took me a long time. Did I have the time to devote to a parrot (or two) who would require daily interaction with me? Could I ever know enough about birds to keep them safe and happy? Could I afford the food and toys and other enrichments and veterinary care they would need to be healthy? But these were not the real questions, and I knew it. While I talked about their vulnerability, it was my own I feared. Loving them would open a place in my heart that had never been touched. I wasn’t sure I could stand it.


Years ago there was a flock of people I wanted to join. God knows why, but at the time, it seemed important to prove I could do this. The flock had a leader who liked to claim she was not the leader. She continued to argue that what everyone else saw was not true, and nothing ever changed, and she continued to orchestrate all the group’s activities. To earn one-on-one time with the flock leader, a situation in which I could communicate well, I was required to attend gatherings of the larger flock, a situation where my participation was impossible.

During these gatherings, I had many opportunities to reflect on my issues with people in groups. My struggles with finding a way to be included were not all about speech processing time. One incident that stands out in my memory involved the group watching TV in a restaurant. The TV was showing one of those home video shows where people make mistakes while other people film them so that many more people can be entertained with the mistake-makers’ incompetence. In this episode, people were slipping on ice. It’s a popular theme with these shows, people falling down. Everyone at the table laughed, except for me. This went on for several minutes. The more painful the fall appeared, the louder the laughter at the table. A deep sense of unreality set in. I didn’t see anything funny about it, and I didn’t understand why I was supposed to pretend, or how I had broken the social contract. I didn’t know at the time that I was supposed to lack empathy.


Does he talk? This is the first question people usually ask when someone adopts a parrot. Some cockatiels can learn words and phrases, others never do. There are a lot of variables, including the amount of time you work with them, absence or presence of other birds, variations in natural abilities, motivation to bond with humans. Brubeck knows how to say “Hello,” and seems to be working on a few other words. Dylan speaks in quiet little chirps most of the time. Both of them communicate very well, letting me know when it’s time for us to gather as a flock, when they are happy or angry or nervous, and when they want me to change the TV station (they don’t like Law and Order or CSI or anything else that might include police sirens). Learning their language has not been too difficult. Sure there are things I don’t understand, but I understand enough.

Does he talk? This is the wrong question. The birds enrich my life by teaching me their ways, not by learning mine. Of course they don’t mind if I repeat myself, which is nice. Cockatiels are creatures of habit, too, preferring the same foods and routines over and over. Preferring sameness and repetition. Resistant to change. Somewhat like me.


Seven times seven is forty-nine. This has been a favorite bit of echolalia for quite awhile. I’m not sure why, other than that it is a square number. Seven times seven is forty-nine has a strong and confident rhythm, and states a fact that will never change. Cannot be argued with. It is. It is. At the age of forty nine, I have small groups of friends I am comfortable with. It has taken me a long time to learn to do this, but that is okay. The course of development in autism can be unpredictable. I worry when I hear people say He will never do this, or She will always need this same type of support. There are many things I could not do at 6 or 16 or 36 that I can do now. Ten years ago, I would have sworn that my degree of comfort with groups now would never happen. That my current way of being was impossible.

I learned things I needed to know from the laughing flock. While my ways remained foreign to them, I learned about theirs. Part of what I know now is to choose friends more carefully. The friends I have now take time to listen to me. They notice the signals that I am ready to speak. They leave a space for me without making a big deal of it. There are no leaders in these groups, and that helps. The things we do together are somewhat structured, including predetermined activities and/or a clear time frame. I laugh a lot with my friends. Usually, nobody cares if I laugh too loud or too long or at the wrong time, or fail to laugh at a joke I don’t understand. No one seems to think it is funny when someone gets hurt. I can wander off to be alone for a few minutes. When I come back into the room, I know that any incidental laughter is not at my expense.


Parrots in the wild are trapped by unscrupulous traders who first take one parrot as a decoy to attract others. Parrots are fiercely loyal to their flock mates, and will nearly always come to the rescue of the decoy, who is nailed to a branch or entangled in a net and crying for help. They are easy marks for the trappers. Many wild parrots are injured and many die before ever being exported into the pet trade. Those who live are sold to breeders who keep them in tiny, filthy cages, or pet stores who pass them on to buyers who think they might look nice in the corner by the sofa. When the bird turns out to be noisy, demanding and messy, she is often abandoned, passed from home to home, finally euthanized or released into a world she is unable to navigate safely. Meanwhile some species are on the verge of extinction. The story of the parrot trade is terribly sad.


One of my human flock is terribly sad. Her beloved cockatiel, a treasured companion for nearly eleven years now, is dying. I don’t know how to help her. I have never been good at comforting. People like me have been said to lack empathy because we don’t say the right words or offer the right hugs at the right times. I have learned to do some of that stuff too, but I don’t do it naturally or consistently. People like me have been said to break the hearts of our family members because we are “cold.” Destructive groups like FAAAS claim that getting too close to an autistic person can cause mental and physical illnesses. Easier to blame, I guess, than to learn how to listen to the language of autistic empathy. The pain I feel for the impending loss of this little bird, Sugar Franklin, although I have never met her, is deep. I have known her mom less than a year.

Yesterday, our flock gathered around her. We talked about Sugar, but not a lot. We ate lunch and talked about our lives, even laughed a bit. Squawkers McCaw was there. “I love you,” he said. We were on our way back to the car, his face was turned away from the group. Though nobody heard, it was part of the conversation.
Updated 9/30/2009: Rest In Peace, Sugar Franklin. I am glad you had a few more happy months here with us. You will always be remembered. Fly Free.


  1. Thank you, Bev. You help more than you know just by being, you know, you. ;-)

  2. I am having similar thoughts to your post as well as going through a similar grief experience with a dear friend. I'm sorry that your friend is dealing with this as well.

    Why is it that *we* lack empathy when we see someone getting hurt? I watch things like that and I feel embarrassed for them and it makes me uncomfortable. What they are experiencing is painful.

  3. What a beautiful post. It's clear to me that you don't lack anything of importance. I'm glad to know you.

  4. I've felt the same way at times.
    It's odd how folks who are said to HAVE empathy say terrible things when someone loses someone they love, things that are unhelpful, but I don't like to say such things because I don't think it will comfort a person at all. So usually I say nothing and feel sympathetic instead.
    And I do know what it's like to be in a crowd of people and not know what to say. A friend of mine would get annoyed with me because her friends would be talking about people I don't know or things I don't care about so I wouldn't say anything.
    Plus I'm just quiet

  5. Bev, I love this post. Thanks so much for sharing.

    And I love your beautiful new birds! I'm so glad they are part of your flock now.


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