For someone on the spectrum, navigating relationships with neurotypical (non-autistic) people is the social equivalent of assembling an Ikea shelf with missing parts and directions that are out of order, mirror-image, and written in a different language.
Autistic people are the vast minority of the general population. For every 100 neurotypical (NT) people, there are 1-2 autistics. What this means is that people on the spectrum have to constantly adapt to and accommodate NTs, memorizing thousands of unspoken social rules that are natural for you and not for them. They have to interpret your body language, guess whether you mean what you say literally or if you’re just being nice, know how much information you really want when you ask questions, know what your boundaries are, decipher if you are being passive-aggressive or genuine, and figure out from your non-verbal cues what exactly it is you are expecting from them. You would seem “awkward” if you were in a world full of autistics.
If you are NT, you don’t have to think about any of these things when you’re interacting. They come naturally to you. The consequences of getting these rules wrong or misinterpreting something can be severe, from the loss of employment or friendships, to being arrested or assaulted because our words or actions are read according to neurotypical norms. When we say or do the same things NTs do, it doesn’t always mean the same thing it would mean coming from NTs.
I’ve asked some of my friends on the spectrum how you can be a better friend to them, and here are a few things things that they listed that you can do (or not do) to be a great friend and meet them half-way. Note that we are all different and have different strengths, weaknesses, and needs, and some of these won’t apply to everyone on the spectrum. If you’re in doubt, just ask your friend on the spectrum how you can help:
[ Note: Special thanks to my beautifully aspie friends Jeremy, Jamie, Brittney, Josh, Beth, Saffy, Brandi, David, and Leonardo for their contributions. ]
- Don’t assume I’m not interested because I don’t react or express excitement the way you’d expect. Always ask what I’m thinking or feeling, and don’t assume you can judge by my tone of voice or facial affect.
- I want to make plans and get together with you. If I have to cancel a date or decline an invitation because I’m overwhelmed at the time, please don’t be too upset. Try to understand how I’m feeling, and please don’t stop asking me to do things with you. It means the world to me that you ask.
- Text me. Never call. Ever.
- Don’t dismiss my diagnosis because “you do those things, too,” or say that “we’re all a little bit autistic.” Please don’t conjecture with other acquaintances about how real autism is and how much it affects me.
- If I’m angering you, tell me. If you don’t agree with me, say so. Let’s talk about it. I don’t do well with passive-aggressiveness or silent treatments. Unless I talk to you every day, I probably won’t understand why you’re upset.
- Please respect my need for down time and don’t make me responsible for meeting your need for things like hugs and lots of social interactions.
- Humor me. Listen to the subjects I want to discuss. I find NT subjects to be as boring as you find my obsession du jour. I’m usually good at presenting my interests with enough enthusiasm for you to allow me to talk about my passions for a little while, and I’ll reciprocate the effort with your interests. If you really want to make me happy, do some research about my interests and bring them up in conversation.
- Don’t pity me or feel sorry for me. I love how the world looks to me. I love my brand of normal.
- I’m intense. When I do something, I am all-in. Please see my intensity as a positive thing and don’t be put off by it. This hyperfocus is what drives us to accomplish incredible feats, and the pressure to temper it will keep me from being successful and finding my purpose.
- Please ask me questions about my autism/Asperger’s and how it affects me. The research you will find on the internet will give you a picture that paints everything about me as pathologized and disordered. It’s not.
- Give me time to process what you have said and to respond to your statements. If I feel rushed to answer, what I say might come out offensive or not make a lot of sense.
- Don’t speak to me with subtext, hints, or innuendo. I need you to say exactly and specifically what you mean or what you need so that I don’t miss what you’re trying to tell me. Verbalize your feelings in a specific and literal way. As long as you’re not intentionally being mean, I will probably not be offended by your direct statements or questions.
- I might stim when we are together. This could mean that I rock, tap my hands or feet, stand or pace while you sit, twirl my hair, bend my ear, or fidget with my clothes. Stimming is a neurologically-driven behavior that is necessary for me to self-regulate emotional and sensory input.
- I really love facts, specificity, and accuracy. If you say something that’s not true, I’m going to be compelled to tell you it’s not true and provide you with sources.
- I can only keep up with one conversation at a time, and I might miss a lot of what you say because you are talking faster than I can process, you are using indirect language, or there are distractions in the environment.
- I have a hard time knowing when it’s my turn to talk, so I might accidentally interrupt you. Sometimes, I interrupt you because I’m so excited and interested that I just couldn’t contain myself.
- I live in fear that something I will say will offend you. I often have no idea how what I’ve said has been offensive until you explain it to me. Please look past my word choice and consider what I’m trying to tell you.
- I like big words and I cannot lie. I like big words. Also, I can’t lie. Don’t ask me for my opinion if you don’t want the truth. I’m going to tell you the whole truth.
- Sometimes, my avoidance is for your sake. I’m not being selfish by staying away, I’m sparing you from me when I’m at my worst.
- I’m very forgiving and don’t hold grudges after something has been discussed, but I need to talk through things that I don’t understand or things that bother me.
- I need an NT interpreter. Please volunteer to be a person I can run things by when I don’t understand what just happened that got me banned from a Facebook group or if someone is trying to flirt with me. I also don’t know if I’m being abused or exploited by some people in my life. I don’t always know when something is my fault or why.
- It’s okay to laugh when I make fun of myself or say something edgy. This is me with my guard down. A lot of aspies have very dark, self-deprecating, dry humor.
- We’re not all good at remembering dates. The only thing I can do consistently is forget what I’m supposed to be doing. Many of us struggle with organization. Remind me once or several times about upcoming events, meetings, deadlines, and dates.
- Don’t try to fix me or feel sorry for me because you think that it’s sad that I don’t have more friends or engage in more experiences. Being inside my own mind is thrilling, terrifying, and exciting enough for me.
- Ask me to share articles or information with you that might help you to understand me and how different I am. Autism is way too complex to be described in a few short sentences. We’re also terrible with summarizing.
- I can’t give you what your neurotypical friends give you, but they can’t do everything that I can do. Please just love me for my strengths.
- Give me the benefit of the doubt that I’m not intentionally being rude or hostile if you feel that something I said was off base. I only mean the words that I said and nothing else.
- I don’t attach value to things the same way that you do. If I make a factual observation, it might be completely neutral to me. Please don’t assume that the things that I say are meant to be insulting. If I say, “You aren’t wearing make-up,” that is not me making a negative comment. I don’t care about your appearance. It’s an invitation to tell me about why you’ve broken your routine. My factual statements are just invitations to have conversations because they feel more open-ended than questions.
- Please don’t feel like small talk is necessary with me. I hate it. If you ask me how my morning is going or how I am feeling, please really want the whole truth. I will give you an oddly specific answer, and it’s probably going to have some disturbing information in it about my cat’s digestive issues or excruciating details about my philosophical rumination on the ethics of euthanasia. (see #22)
- I have special skills and talents that are valuable to the world, but I don’t know how to get there or am having trouble taking the steps to get where I need to be. Will you help me?
This is the second piece in a series about autism and friendship. Check back with Unapologetically Aspie to read from the first-person perspectives of autistic people and neurotypical people about how to dissolve communication barriers and find fulfillment in your inter-neurotype relationships.