Today is the International Day of Friendship, and to mark to occasion I wanted to write about some of the myths surrounding friendship and Autistic people.
If media and outdated medical opinions are to be believed, Autistic people can’t make friends. We’re aloof, bluntly honest to the point of being rude, don’t like the company of others, and only tolerate people if their presence is of benefit to us. Except the media and medical opinions are complete nonsense, and actively damage our community.
One of the most common reasons parents are given by medics who refuse to give their child an autism diagnosis is, “he/she is too sociable,” or, “but they have friends.” Our social communication differences have somehow become equated with an inability or desire for companionship, and despite Autistic adults protesting this theory, it seems to have stuck. A plethora of adults have been refused diagnosis because they’re able to have romantic relationships and are, heaven forbid, even married!
This assumption has caused deeper wounds for those who are more able to mask their differences or become social chameleons, regardless of the damage it does to their wellbeing. As this typically affects females in higher proportions to males (both trans and cis women and girls), understandably a lot of work has been dedicated by advocates and some professionals into establishing a set of ‘female’ Autistic characteristics due to their under-diagnosis. However, this has meant that those who present as male in clinic have missed diagnosis when it’s possible they would have received one if measured against ‘female’ characteristics.
Those Autistics who do get diagnosed while young – possibly because they are happier alone, or because they have had difficulties making and keeping friends in school – are often placed into therapies or social skills classes which have a primary aim of making the Autistic person change the way they interact with people to meet the needs of non-Autistic people. They’re told, “this is the only way to make friends,” and that their methods of interacting, communicating, and (in many cases) playing are wrong. Being made to follow programmes designed by non-Autistics to get Autistics to ‘fit in’ mean that these Autistics either join the huge numbers of us who mask, or continue to feel isolated while also developing self-esteem and mental health difficulties. Wouldn’t you if you were told the reason you don’t have friends is because who you are is inherently wrong? Remove the focus from social skills classes to helping Autistics find their community – friendships will then naturally bloom and flourish.
Why do the non-Autistics get to be who they are? Why is it okay for other children to be lifted up, told to be proud of being different, and that they can be who they want to be, when the Autistics get the addendum: but not like that? Is it any wonder that by the time we reach adulthood, regardless of when we were diagnosed, most of us have at least one co-occurring mental health condition?
However, it’s not all doom and gloom, for the arrival of social media (and the internet in general) has changed the face of friendship for so many of us. I don’t dispute that there are toxic elements to social media, but for Autistic people – especially those diagnosed late – it’s where we finally find our tribe. There are a huge number of Autistic social groups online. From hashtags on Twitter (#AllAutistics #ActuallyAutistic and #ADHDAutism to begin with) to Facebook groups (Neurodiversity UK, Autism Inclusivity, Autism Late Diagnosis Support and Education are all good starting places), these are places which – often for the first time – Autistic people feel supported and find people they can relate to. For so many of us most of our friends are online, so please don’t assume that we’re being antisocial for looking at our phones.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many Autistic people have said that they have been able to socialise and keep up with friends more than they did pre-pandemic. Not having to go into the office and/or commute means there’s more mental energy for time with friends, and its online nature (including online quizzes, virtual pubs, and gaming) means that participation is far easier, so they feel more connected. I know I’ve socialised more with some of my non-Autistic ‘mum friends’ far more regularly than I would if it was in person.
When we branch out of the digital realm and meet fellow Autistics in person, we rarely have the same level of awkwardness, anxiety, and misunderstanding as we do when we try to socialise with non-Autistics. This is seemingly at odds with the assumptions non-Autistics have of us which were discussed at the start of this article, and is why Autistics believe that it’s not completely accurate to state that we have social communication difficulties, rather social communication differences. We can often communicate extremely well with others who share our neurotype, regardless of whether or not we speak. We may not always understand what non-Autistic people are trying to communicate, but actually they also don’t understand us. Communication is a two-way street, and of course we’re going to be exhausted by trying to maintain friendships with non-Autistics who expect us to walk a ‘one-way road’ to communicative harmony: at least meet us half-way!
Don’t assume that Autistic people have no desire to make friends. Educate people when they claim that Autistic people cannot make friends. Understand that online friendship and companionship is valid, and can be just as fulfilling (if not more so) than in-person relationships, particularly for Autistics. On this International Day of Friendship, if you are friends with a neurodivergent person, ask yourself: are you making them do all of the work? Are you expecting them to change their communication style without thinking about adapting your own? Do you make assumptions about their abilities, needs and desires based on their neurotype? If so, please consider whether or not you could help your friend further and make life easier for them. And please, at the very least, meet them half-way.