“She can’t be autistic, she has friends”…. (anon)
I must have heard this a hundred times! The truth is autistic people do have friends, want friendship and really value their friends. It’s also true that some of what makes up being a good friend and enjoying & understanding a friendship doesn’t come easily – in a sense that’s not different than it is for anyone, but the things that are difficult if you are autistic are there in every element of friendship everyday so it can get a bit complicated, exhausting and overwhelming at times it seems to me.
‘Once you have made friends, you have to work on your friendship. This is because you’re only going to benefit from a friendship .. if you continue to be friends with that person. Therefore, you need to use some friendship maintenance skills to keep the friendship going.
An analogy that might be helpful for this is learning to play a musical instrument … once you have mastered a skill such as playing a particular piece of music, you have to practice regularly to keep being able to play that piece of music so that you maintain the skill in your memory’ (The independent woman’s handbook for super safe living on the autistic spectrum, Robyn Steward. p69)
A lot of the basic maintenance skills are things most people take for granted, most of us don’t remember having to consciously learn them, we are sometimes not even aware of them – they just happen when we are around our friends. Things like reading body language, hearing tone of voice changes, keeping up with the conversation, turn taking in conversation, noticing and understanding other people’s boundaries, likes and dislikes. These are all things that most autistic people have to consciously learn, and because most people aren’t aware how they learnt these skills it can be a very tough job to find someone to teach them!
Ongoing, ordinary friendship relies on these skills. For example, friends respond to each other’s feelings to be quick to comfort, say sorry or to share in their excitement, but people don’t express their feelings clearly and directly very often – more often through tone of voice, and body language alongside behaviour, and of course a reliance on a common understanding of how feelings are expressed in our culture, so there are a lot of different skills needed to be able to ‘see and hear’ a friends feelings in order to be able to be a good friend in response. If these skills have to be consciously learnt (and they’re not an exact science!) then this process takes more time, and is something that can go wrong quite quickly – and then be difficult to unravel and mend.
Conversation is another ordinary part of friendship. But it is made more difficult if most people in a conversation seem to just know when it’s their turn to join in but to you it seems impossible to work out. The average way of learning turn taking in conversation is by noticing those raised eyebrow moments from parents or aunties when we were very small and just starting out; hearing the clearing of the throat of a grandparent and noticing the intent of it towards you, inferring it’s meaning as a reprimand or warning to wait. If you are autistic your brain just doesn’t learn by inference, and of course we’re also back to the not hearing tone of voice changes, not looking at people’s faces in the same way, not reading body language instinctively. These differences in learning mean that sometimes autistic people can dominate conversations unaware of other’s lack of interest or annoyance which can appear unfeeling or selfish, other autistic people sometimes never join in conversations in a group but wait to speak to just one person at a time which can appear very shy, withdrawn or uninterested.
‘Many people struggle to pick up on subtle social cues such as someone not sounding interested.For people on the autistic spectrum, this could be because you are monotropic (able to concentrate on only one thing at a time). Also, your sensory system may be mono-channel (concentrating on one sense at a time).’
(The independent woman’s handbook for super safe living on the autistic spectrum, Robyn Steward. p71)
It’s also very true that the context of any conversation makes a huge difference to how well these skills can be used even when they have been thought about and learnt. Many people who are autistic also have SPD (sensory processing disorder – or difference) which can mean they are vulnerable to being more quickly overwhelmed and so distracted by the environment around them – hearing all sounds equally rather than filtering out the ones not needed right now for example, or being in pain from the light that doesn’t seem too bright for anyone but you. Dealing with sensory overload (literally an overload of neuro-pathways) is not at all easy to do and still navigate a conversation well.
One of the other different thing I’m noticing is just how difficult it can be in friendships when you are a very focused thinker. Many autistic people have very specific areas of intense interest which can hold their attention for an age, and at times can dominate their conversations, their choices in play, their imaginary world – at times pretty much everything. This can sometimes be difficult to bring into a friendship group, where other people have other interests and it is cultural for good friends to spend time enjoying and taking an interest in each other’s hobbies or interests. Again, a skill to learn. Sometimes it is even that the friendship itself is the intense interest and then it can get difficult when things change, or when new friends are also included, or when the friend’s boundaries over how often they feel comfortable about getting together don’t match. It can also be difficult in these moment to accept and understand that some people want lots of close friends.
Friendship is something I assume every parent worries over, and prays about for their children. For me it is also something I am constantly trying to dissect and understand better so I can anticipate hazards ahead and get teaching, showing and supporting the use of friendship maintenance skills. Because friends really matter, and we really value them.