Friendship and AutismJul 27, 2022
Autistic people are loyal, truthful, and direct with their communication, we make awesome friends but often struggle to fit in with our peers and are chalked up as being weird. We may be different but different isn’t a bad thing, imagine if we were all the same, how boring would that be, and how different could things be if being different was encouraged and nurtured from a young age?
I count myself lucky, I’ve known my best friend since nursery school, and that my friend was a long time ago. Our relationship is amazing and it’s very easy, neither of us demands anything from the other and each of us knows that if the phone isn’t answered there’s a good reason for that and we don’t get funny with one another, we know that we’ll catch up and talk when we’re both feeling able to and that’s worked just fine for us over the years. But this friendship is somewhat an anomaly. In general, I see my friendships as fluid, people tend to come into my life and leave pretty fast, I’m not afraid to cut people out if they’re not aligned with me anymore, if they’re meant to be in my life they’ll stick around, but they rarely stay for long and that I have come to realise isn’t about me, it’s about them and I’m OK with that, plus if they’re meant to be in my life they’ll gravitate back.
Having coached hundreds of autistic people (and their families) and being autistic myself has led me to realise a few things about friendships. People have expectations that they place upon you, for autistics we don’t get given this mysterious guidebook that NT’s (neurotypical people – non-autistic people) seem to get, so those expectations are silent to us and we have no idea that they’re there, and to make it even more confusing those expectations and rules change from person to person, so they’re never the same set of rules. There often feels like there’s an invisible veil between us, it’s like we’re there with these people but we’re not really seen, we can’t break through this veil and engage fully, we’re never truly accepted and that’s painful, it’s also really damaging to have continuous knockbacks with no constructive feedback on either part.
The autistic operating system is very different to non-autistics it takes us much longer to filter information so that we can use it effectively, this means that there’s a delay in accessing verbal communication, an NT will hear the words and be able to respond straight away, but an autistic person needs time to filter the words and process them which takes longer, by which point the conversation has moved along and we’re not able to keep up with the flow of the conversation, sometimes this gives people the impression that we are below average intelligence and that’s not true.
Most autistic people are very direct in their communication, we can also be brutally honest, some people see this as a negative and others value these skill sets, personally, I’d much prefer to have a friend who is open and honest with me than one who will tell little white lies because that’s what they think I want to hear, or they don’t want to upset me, I value honesty and see it as an integral part of any healthy balanced relationship. Confrontation is something most people prefer to avoid, as a result, we can end up avoiding difficult conversations as we don’t want to rock the boat, we don’t want to upset the apple cart and we don’t want to hurt anyone, but when these little truths are left unsaid the rot starts to set in and the mistrust builds, contrary to the stereotypes autistic people are highly aware of subtle changes, we may not be able to label them or understand what’s happening in the moment, but we feel them, we feel that shift in energy and it’s not pleasant, it’s this sensitivity that can leave us open to being gaslit and manipulated.
It is well known that autistic people have special interests, the difference between a hobby and a special interest is a hobby can be picked up as and when the person has time to engage, a special interest is all-consuming it comes with a sense of urgency and if that need isn’t met it leaves the person feeling empty and sometimes bordering on depressed. This level of interest in a topic can mean that we appear to be narrow in our interests, our interests can become something we hide for fear of standing out, and it can cause us to feel different because of the way that we are being perceived. One of my favourite things to do is to ask an autistic person what their special interest is and then to be quiet and listen, if their interest happens to be something you want or need to learn more about this can be the fastest way for you to obtain information, as you can guarantee this person has done thorough research on their topic and will give you far more details than google can in a short amount of time.
Autistic people can be brilliant listeners, just make sure you get our attention before you start talking to us, even if we’re looking at you or in your direction it may not register that you’re talking to us, the number of times I have to say to my partner “I’m sorry, could you repeat that, I heard you talking but I didn’t hear the words”. Fortunately for me she just smiles and repeats herself, she doesn’t take offence and doesn’t think any less of me because I wasn’t paying attention, the world is full of sensory input and the autistic system takes in all the input, whereas an NT system does not, it automatically filters what it doesn’t deem necessary and disregards it, whereas autistic people need to do that manually, so we inevitably miss things.
Friendship is a two-way street; it’s about taking the time to learn about the other person and how they authentically communicate, it’s having patience and asking questions when you’re not sure you’re understanding the other person. I’ve found a great question to ask when you’re not sure is “what was your intention behind that?” or “what do you mean by that?” It’s non-confrontational and if it is a misunderstanding, you’ll soon clear it up. I’ll always remember asking someone this question and getting the answer of “passive-aggressiveness”, there was no more to be said after hearing that and I walked away, but in the past, I’d have wasted my energy and tried to work out what was going on. Give it a go and see how effective it is for you.
About the author Nicky Collins, The Autism Coach, is a champion for autistic women and girls. Through her life-changing programmes, she ensures that her clients can be proud of who they are and not frightened or fearful. Nicky is a bestselling author and winner of the Crea Global awards, an award given in recognition of her contributions to the autistic community. Nicky is a globally recognised motivational speaker, coach and transformation leader, whose work has touched the lives of many families across the world. Nicky has lived across the UK and currently lives with her teenage son, and furry friends in beautiful Derbyshire, she can often be found swimming in cold bodies of water and walking in the beautiful Derbyshire countryside.