What It's Like to Go Clubbing When You Have Asperger's
Since being diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder as a teenager, I've felt like I've hit a lot of milestones slower than other people. Those include most things in the realm of "going out"—and now I'm trying to catch up.
Illustration by Rose Wong
I love routines. One of them is going to good restaurants. So I stop for food like always as I walk home on a Wednesday night. I always order the same thing, eaten while staring blankly ahead. I realize I do not look excited. But I am. I've looked forward to this all day.
This particular joint is open all night and next to some bourgie clubs in the Meatpacking District. I've been planning to find someone who could get me into them, but right now I've got on a lime green Fitbit and my cowlicks are sticking straight out. I sit at the bar looking blithely disheveled with my food arranged protectively in front of me.
The guy sitting across from me is hot. I eye him discreetly. (At least I hope it's discreet. During my freshman year of college, someone wrote on my dry erase board in permanent marker, Stop Staring At Me.)
The girl next to me—I've never met her—leans over and purrs, "Do you find him attractive?"
"Why don't you talk to him?"
"I have a boyfriend," I tell her. So she starts talking to him. They sometimes look towards me, indicating that I'm part of the conversation. I feel a giddy little jolt in my chest.
Here's the thing about my social life: It happens to me. It always has. I was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder, as a teenager. People with Asperger's have trouble picking up social cues and being in touch with our emotions; we also process information intellectually rather than intuitively. I feel like I've hit a lot of milestones slower than other people, and those include most things in the realm of "going out."
The girl, Felicity, is headed to the club. In shorts, which means she's a regular. She seems young, but I look at her neck and her hands and I see she's about my age—we're both near the end of our clubbing years. She doesn't want to give it up because she's been doing this forever; I don't want to give it up because I haven't gone out enough.
The first time I went "clubbing" per se was at this grungy local bar in my college town. It was the only game in town. I went with a friend who had autism, and there weren't any lines or anything. During a college summer program I did in New York, I managed to get myself out a lot, but I didn't know enough to know that the sceney clubs weren't the right place for me. I found a hippie dive bar back home, and I was happy. People liked me a lot there. They weren't put off by my spacing out or taking frequent bathroom breaks because I get sensory overload in crowds and need a couple of minutes alone. I made a lot of friends. But I still never quite felt like I could connect to most of them fully. Every so often an overtly charismatic person will befriend me because they think I'm honest, or funny, or just a weird, fascinating anomaly. When I hang out with them life feels heightened somehow. Non-autistic people (or "neurotypicals") seem like they're part of some vast shared consciousness that my friends—most of whom are like me—and I just can't see.
To me, "great" feels like "accepted"—it's like having crossed a barrier.
Felicity says she knows the owners here, but she sounds kind of blank; I smile and nod as I realize I don't believe anything she's said so far. This is a big deal for me—five years ago I couldn't point out when someone was lying. Not consciously anyway. I do get vibes from people, like everyone does, but I can't usually figure out why.
The guy reaches across her and holds his phone in front of my face. It says, "everything this girl is saying smells like bullshit."
I don't know why he's so angry about it though. That's the thing about neurotypicals: They're so proud. For all their pompously wielded social skills they don't seem to understand the nature of flaws.
Underneath that he's typed, "I like your dress."
I do have a boyfriend. He's from my support group.
I type my number into the hot guy's phone.
Felicity keeps talking to me. I can tell she thinks I'm an ingénue. She might like an ingénue around—people like feeling important. I'm going to play this role until I'm too old to pull it off anymore.
"You wanna come out with me?" she asks.
"Are you sure we're gonna get in?" I ask.
"You're beautiful," she assures me as she lights up a Parliament. I'm wearing a Betsey Johnson sundress and sneakers.
"But my shoes," I say.
"What about them?"
Felicity gives me the once-over. Yes, she confirms, I have to do something about these shoes. (I leave my Fitbit on. I know it looks lame and self-conscious, but like many women on the spectrum I have issues with weight and self-image. I don't mind wearing them on my sleeve.) I take off my socks and put them in my backpack. I tuck my shoelaces under my feet.
"See," she says, "you're cool! You knew to do that!" She tells me how retro is taken for granted now.
I like her. The guy who likes my dress is still at the bar, seeming annoyed. I look away as I tell him I don't get out much. (I must be the queen of mixed signals.) Later tonight I'll see his text: "i thought u were one of the good ones. Guess not."
That's another mistake neurotypicals make. People assume that because someone is "awkward," she's a good person. Or not good so much as being the absence of bad—like we don't have the wit to be bad. I resent this. I've never connected with the disabled-person-as-victim narrative.
I'm nervous about these bouncers, though. A lot of people don't notice that my body language is odd, but I imagine anyone working for an Empire of Cool is going to pick up on it immediately. But Felicity knows them, and they look me over and let me in. She takes my arm the way a top-hatted gentleman would have brought me to a big band show.
The first thing I do is get a drink—she wants to buy. Then we start dancing.
I dance exuberantly, and not always on rhythm, either. At gay clubs they thought this was hip. My friends took me to some great ones in college; I made friends with a lot of gay guys because they thought I was outrageous. I didn't realize at the time that wearing a bright green leather pencil skirt was inappropriate for class in rural Pennsylvania, but they loved me for it.
This isn't the place for that. Some guy with the obligatory striped button-down shirt comes up and chest-butts me. I rub up on him for a minute until I realize he's mocking my dancing.
Non-autistic people seem like they're part of some vast shared consciousness that my friends—most of whom are like me—and I just can't see.
Defeated, I go back to our table.
"People don't dance here," I tell Felicity.
"I really like you," she says. "You just are who you are, you know?"
People say this all the time. She probably thinks I'm a veterinary assistant or something. We talk for a while, and then she offers me coke. I've been curious about coke, but I've never done it. Cold feet. I imagine what the headline would be:
Autistic Woman, 28, Overdoses in Meatpacking District
Felicity brings me to a table with some semi-important men. I follow the conversation, interjecting when necessary ("Wow! You do that? What's that like?"), but I'm always a few steps behind. She puts her hand on one guy's bicep, and I keep pulling glasses of champagne from their table.
I'm an emotional drunk. I start waxing poetic about when I came to these clubs years ago. My friend and I got pulled in from the line at Marquee. We got on a guest list and hung out in a VIP room full of guys in their mid-30s who said they'd buy us anything we wanted.
I did have a fling with a Wall Street lawyer for a week. I met him at Avenue years ago; I guess he was my whale. (I should have pushed myself to get a banker.) "Let me show you how I live," he declared, truly, as he brought me to his roof and then down to his room, where he implied that I held back less than a proper New York girl does. Then he told me I lacked inner confidence.
I've lived here for two years. Sometimes I feel like I'm not trying as hard as I could to manipulate my way into an important crowd. I came here for fashion school. It seems like being in an in-crowd is a requirement, but I also don't want to be a failed social climber—that's the lamest thing in the world.
"I'm glad you came out tonight," Felicity tells me. And she's 100 percent honest. She's introduced me to everyone she knows here. Not just anyone would take me out like this and show me a night on the town.
"Even if you never come here again," she says, reading my mind, "I just want you to know that you're beautiful, and this is your night."
We exchange numbers before she leaves. I'm staying to dance more. She introduces me to the bouncers by name and tells me to let them know if I need anything.
The second she goes, an awkward guy comes up to me. Like clockwork. I'm used to this, and cool with it. There are always those few people at every club who just don't quite seem like they belong there. But it took me a while to learn that there are two kinds of misfit guys: malignant and benign.
The malignant ones ooze up to me. Some affect a simplified slickness that a more seasoned girl would laugh at; others (the truly evil ones) will put pools of dire concern in their eyes. I can smell these guys coming from a mile away.
This guy's nice, though. He's quiet: He stands to the side of the room unless his friend is introducing him to people. He doesn't have shifty eyes like he's on the make. He says he goes to West Point. I have no doubt that's true. I'd have brought him home, and then one of two things would have happened:
- He'd be less awkward than I suspected. The sex would be between a 4 to a 7 out of 10. Things would peter out on an even playing field until one of us, probably him, stopped returning calls.
- He'd be just as awkward as he looks. In which case he'd get attached to me. If he was an angry awkward guy, then the sex would be fucking fantastic. If he was more on the sad side, it wouldn't.
He chats me up, trying to be smooth, and it's cute, but I leave alone. When I get home, flop on my bed, and look at my phone, I feel like I've gotten what I was actually looking for: Felicity texted me. She wants to see if I got home safe, and I smile through my screwdriver haze.
Every so often an overtly charismatic person will befriend me because they think I'm honest, or funny, or just a weird, fascinating anomaly.
"I'm great!" I text back. "I had a great night!"
Although to me, "great" feels like "accepted"—it's like having crossed a barrier. It's not always objectively fun. Objective fun is playing Dr. Mario with my friend from support group as he lays out the sexual intrigues of Star Wars.
I make plans to see Felicity again. But then I picture all the weird shit I've said in my life and imagine it all coming out at her full-throttle. Eventually she's going to see me for the weirdo I am, and she won't want to deal with it. I know I have no reason to be paranoid. I'm pretty patient with people, and a lot of popular people especially have liked me for that. But the idea that she'd want me around is still pretty much incomprehensible.
I want to text her again. So I head to a bar. I sit down and order a pear cider. I stall, playing with my apps before I pull up her number on the message screen, but I don't know what to say.
I feel like this is how I'm supposed to be a young person: by going out and getting in trouble with people who can teach me things about how the world works. I read stuff online about what other people my age are doing. But it doesn't reflect my experience at all, and
I just really want to know what I've been missing.