An Open Letter to Autistic High Schoolers

Dear Autistic High Schoolers,

Two black friends with curly hair take a selfie on a mobile smartphone

If your first year in high school is anything like mine was, I’m guessing it’s rough. I’m guessing you eat lunch alone in the band practice room. But maybe by the second year, you’ve figured out enough neurotypical (non-autistic) rules to get by.

People don’t make fun of you as much or tell you to leave. Maybe you have one or two people you hang out with in person or talk to online. You’re just excited to finally have a friendship.

Whenever you hang out, you see/stream movies the other person wants to see. If you’re honest, the movie isn’t really your taste, and you’re either bored by it or overstimulated.

You start going to concerts and you attend a show the other person wants to see. You don’t really like the music— which makes the crowd far less bearable— but at least you’re there with someone else.

When you have conversations, you learn about the things the other person likes. You become knowledgeable in fashion or sports cars or their favorite television show.

When you’re alone, you finally exhale. You watch your movies, listen to your music, and indulge in your interests.

People ask you if you had fun, and you don’t have an answer. Everyone else seems to be having so much fun. They seem to genuinely be enjoying themselves. And they want to hang out again. This is what you thought you wanted. Friendship.

So why aren’t you ‘having fun?’

I would ask myself this question as I got ‘good’ enough to make acquaintances but not ‘good’ enough to keep them. It was a cycle of acquiring a friend, hanging out, going home with a feeling of dissatisfaction, continuing to hang out at their request but resenting it more each time we had to hang out– until suddenly I would stop talking to them.

I just couldn’t take having another conversation about things I didn’t care about. I’d move on to the next “friendship,” and each time I felt badly because I knew I would move on from this person, too.

I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I thought maybe I was a selfish person or that I didn’t like human beings in general. Perhaps I was physiologically incapable of having fun.

I’m not sure when it clicked or why it clicked. But I came to realize that I wasn’t selfish. In fact, I was not being my “self” at all. I was accepting whoever came along regardless of how compatible we were and mirroring their interests.

I was masking.

That’s why I resented going to cold, loud places with intense smells. It’s why I resented having to go to restaurants where the food was too salty, and I could hear 10 nearby conversations at once. It’s why I wondered if a person was even on the same planet as me when they enjoyed a conversation that I found very surface-level and not existential or spiritual enough for my taste.

How did they consider us close friends if we’d never had a real conversation? If we hadn’t people watched? If we hadn’t gone on a walk in the green, secluded forest that I believe belongs to me (it’s actually a public park)?

Despite the fact that I consider myself a confident person, I had agreed to everything everyone else wanted. I never pushed for what I wanted. I knew others wouldn’t have enjoyed it— so I decided to be the “bigger person” and use my “strength” of tolerating things I don’t like. As a result, I became very small and not strong at all. And I wrongly resented the other person for this.

It’s hard having interests that not everyone shares.

It’s hard having sensory differences that not everyone can see. It’s challenging to be yourself when you don’t know a lot of others like you. Everyone says be yourself, but what does that even mean? I thought I was.

Here’s a simple guide I wish I had when I was younger:

  1. If you are going to hang out with a friend, take turns doing what you want to do. If they don’t want to alternate or if they’re a downer during your turn, you don’t have enough in common. Lunch in the bathroom with a good book.
  2. If you have listened to your friend talk about their crush when it was kind of annoying, it’s because you respected their interests. Explain to your friend that you have interests, too, and you would like to talk about them sometimes. If they won’t listen to your fun facts, they don’t respect your interests. You deserve respect. Find an afterschool activity with like-minded people or make Tik Toks about your special interest.
  3. If you commonly feel dissatisfied in a friendship where the other person is considerate and nice, there is a chance that you require deep emotional connections where the other person doesn’t. If they’re already having fun with surface level conversations, they’re not going to wake up one day and decide to go deeper. They will probably stay on the surface. Don’t invest with the expectation of deeper communication. Accept that they are wired differently. You don’t have to cut them off, but do find someone who is able to meet you on a deeper level.
  4. Engage with your favorite thing for a few minutes on your own, then pause. How do you feel? What is your face doing? What is your body doing? What are your stims (if any)? If the friendship you have doesn’t feel like this at some point, you’re not having fun. You’re tolerating the person. Stop tolerating – you deserve to have fun.

I hope this helps!

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8 Responses

  1. I’m in my late 40s but totally relate and I need more people like me, those who share my interests, those who want in-depth knowledgeable discussions and hate small talk!

  2. This helped me! I’m 62, still haven’t figured out friendship, and have way more fun with my own special interests than I ever do with socializing. I’m lucky that one of my special interests is an MMORPG so I can collaborate and team up with others online, but I find when those interactions get to social, I just want to check out and play the game. I read once that autistics get the same dopamine release from our special interests that others get from socializing, and that information helped me so much to realize that the standard advice that “everyone needs to socialize” might not actually apply to everyone.

  3. I feel as though too many people have this narrow idea that socialising is about big groups and small talk. Neither of these suit me at all.

    Big groups of people all talking at the same time… how on earth is that friendly or sociable? It’s rude and bad-mannered to me!

    Also, small talk is so superficial and not satisfying. Even if it’s about a subject I do like, it would be like being handed a bag of crisps (potato chips) when what you really need is a full 3 course meal!

  4. I’m another person decades past high school who is helped by your clear description of this pattern—one that I’ve played out my whole life. Reading this strengthens my resolve to no longer passively go along with it. It’s very humanizing to learn about these things, so thanks.

    Something else I’ve found humanizing has been learning about other cultures and seeing that modern western-style civilization might be unique and extreme in how alienated it makes so many of us feel for being different in one way or another. If we’d been born in a different time or place, we might’ve found much more genuine acceptance—even appreciation—for our varying neurotypes and much less interest in superficial small-talk.

  5. “Whenever you hang out, you see/stream movies the other person wants to see. If you’re honest, the movie isn’t really your taste, and you’re either bored by it or overstimulated.” & “Perhaps I was physiologically incapable of having fun.”

    Oof, this was my high school and college life. I used to tell people that fun was something that wasn’t important to me or that I couldn’t access. Now, I see all the masking I endured for others’ comfort and joy.

    Thanks, Troi!

  6. Loved this piece and it’s come at a really important time for me. Thanks for writing. Been thinking about it almost daily for the last few weeks.

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