Autism and Friendships Part 2: 30 Ways to be a Friend to a Person on the Spectrum8 min read

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. ]

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Text me. Never call. Ever.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. Don’t pity me or feel sorry for me. I love how the world looks to me. I love my brand of normal.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. 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.
  15. 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.
  16. 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.
  17. 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.
  18. 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.
  19. 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.
  20. 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.
  21. 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.
  22. 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.
  23. 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.
  24. 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.
  25. 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.
  26. 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.
  27. 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.
  28. 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.
  29. 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)
  30. 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.

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  1. I have tears in my eyes and I am bending my ear.

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