Changing Landscapes and Shifting Friendships by A. J. Sass￼
I remember the moment things started to change between my best friend and me. I was just a couple of years younger than Ellen, the eponymous character in my novel, Ellen Outside the Lines, and my friend and I were at school, eating lunch. Together, we studied a poster advertising the upcoming talent show taped to a nearby wall.
In years past, we’d always performed a piano duet. We both took lessons and often practiced at one another’s homes. Up until this moment, we did almost everything together.
But on that afternoon, when I turned to my friend and asked when she wanted meet up and pick a song to play, she pursed her lips. She studied her hot lunch with unusual interest.
“I was thinking about choreographing a dance this year, actually.”
This took me a beat to process. I knew she had started taking dance lessons recently, but it hadn’t felt like a big deal because I took skating lessons on the same evening. We weren’t missing out on any hang-out time because we were both busy doing something else.
I quickly decided it made sense that she’d want to show off her dance skills. And skating wasn’t all that different from dancing, was it? This could work.
“Can we dance together?” I asked.
She looked up from her tray. “You really want to?”
“Yes.” Of course I did. She was my best friend. Best-and-only, actually.
“Okay, cool.” Her face lit up. “I’ll have to check with Cindy and Hannah first, but I doubt they’ll mind adding a fourth person to our number.”
Just like that, my world started tilting off-axis.
This wasn’t a one-time thing; it wasn’t a group project that had an end date. My friend started inviting Cindy and Hannah and other classmates to hang out with us during lunch more frequently after that. Over to her house after school, too. It was the beginning of an entirely new dynamic for us, something I struggled to adjust to.
This was an experience I wanted to explore when I started brainstorming ideas for Ellen Outside the Lines. When I began drafting, I knew I wanted to delve into shifting friendships, that this would be the heart of my story. I also knew I wanted these changes to be filtered through the perspective of an autistic main character.
I didn’t know I was autistic while I was grappling with changes to my friend group. That knowledge would come later, as I grew up and became an adult. But I couldn’t help feeling I would have been better equipped to understand and adjust to this situation (or at the very least have been able to share what I found overwhelming about it) if I had known I’m autistic when I was Ellen’s age. Fiction writing can be a fantastic way to unpack childhood experiences, and writing Ellen Outside the Lines certainly helped me empathize with what my younger self was going through. Ellen’s story also gives me the opportunity to share this experience with others. I hope readers can relate, whether they are autistic or not.
There was nothing inherently wrong or bad about my friend’s desire to expand her friend group. As I got older, I realized these shifts in relationships are quite common in middle school. Some might say they’re universal. But as an autistic child, I felt overwhelmed by what felt like sudden, drastic changes to my world. I found it hard to keep up. It had always been just my friend and me; then suddenly I had to navigate conversations with multiple kids at once. It was hard to know when it was my turn to talk, and I often missed subtle shifts in topic the other kids seemed to effortlessly pick up on.
A friendship that had once felt familiar, and safe, and comfortable began to fit as poorly as clothes I’d grown out of.
My family’s relocation from Minnesota to Georgia was another big change, one that signaled a more permanent end to our friendship. In reality, our relationship had been changing for a while and it simply took my family’s move to acknowledge, just like it takes a study abroad trip to Spain in Ellen Outside the Lines for Ellen to understand that her relationship with her best-and-only friend, Laurel, may never be the same, as well.
Ellen’s world began been tilting during seventh grade as Laurel begins spending time with other kids. This occurred well before she and Laurel attend their class trip to Spain the following summer. Her world tilts further when their Spanish teacher announces a change to the trip’s format, from lectures and field trips to a scavenger hunt. So, when the team Ellen gets assigned to doesn’t include the kids she expects, it doesn’t just feel like her world’s tilted off-axis, it feels like it’s spun out of the solar system.
The thing that was hard for me to grasp back then, the concept that Ellen also struggled with, is that shifting friendships is natural (as are itinerary changes in general). There are usually no bad guys involved, no major life milestones that set it off. Sometimes people simply outgrow a relationship that felt like it fit perfectly and once brought them comfort. And sometimes, this is what opens the door to fulfilling new friendships. It ended up working that way for me, even if it took longer for me to adjust than it might have taken a neurotypical kid.
As for Ellen? I won’t spoil the ending here, but I will say that often our first impressions of others may only be a surface-level view of the actual truth. And while planning things out in advance might feel safe, there’s something freeing about taking each moment as it comes. About opening yourself up to all the beautiful possibilities of a tomorrow that looks different from what you expected.
A. J. Sass (he/they) is an author whose narrative interests lie at the intersection of identity, neurodiversity, and allyship. His debut novel, Ana on the Edge, was a 2020 Booklist Editors’ Choice, an ALA 2021 Rainbow Book List Top 10 for Young Readers, and a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard selection. His sophomore novel, Ellen Outside the Lines, is also a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard selection. A. J. is the co-author of Camp QUILTBAG* (Algonquin, 2023) and a contributor to the This Is Our Rainbow: 16 Stories of Her, Him, Them, And Us (Knopf Books for Young Readers) and Allies: Real Talk About Showing Up, Screwing Up, And Trying Again (DK/Penguin Random House) anthologies. When he’s not writing, A. J. figure skates and travels as much as possible. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his partner and two cats who act like dogs. Follow him at sassinsf.com or @matokah on Twitter and Instagram.