Making Friends When You Are Autistic

Little progress has been made in making in-person, local friends. As I mentioned the other day, I’m really only able to give an ample amount of attention and energy to be successful with three to four needs in my life at a given time. This does not even involve simultaneous, multitasking juggling; rather, it means in a day, week, or monthly cycle, and can partition focus on just a handful of things. While that can be limiting and allow other important needs to fall through the cracks, at least it almost always ensures high-quality work and resultant progress on my current docket.

For at least the past year, my short list has included my marriage and being a good wife, my job, and therapy/self-improvement/anxiety-reduction. These mainstays have received near unwavering work; the progress has been phenomenal.

The fourth direction of my attention is more changeable. Sometimes, it’s been a re-dedication to looking for answers about my chronic illnesses and physical health problems. Home improvement projects, my podcast, strengthening the relationships with my family members, connecting online with the autism community via support groups, writing, and recently changing my diet have also held that final slot on my roster of team players in the past year. In an honest appraisal of the situation, certain special interests like doing jigsaw puzzles, reading romance books, and spending copious amounts of time online browsing for more of those aforementioned passions has also commandeered that last cherished spot.

What has not been given an opportunity to wear that fourth-player jersey is cultivating in-person friendships. I’ve enumerated the multitude of reasons why I find it difficult to make new local friends (including my inability to drive, the bizarreness and inflexibility of my schedule, the relative remoteness of where I live, the lack of affordable, daytime group activities in my town, sensory and food intolerances, health problems, and, of course, my autism-attributable social avoidance, anxiety, and communication problems). Most influential in the factors contributing to the total lack of progress in this area of my life is an honest lack of interest. Let me be clear: it’s not that I wouldn’t love to have a close girlfriend or two to meet up with for a nice walk, crafting session, board game playing time, or jigsaw puzzle assembling hangout while we chat and watch a Hallmark movie. However, I see the unlikeliness of this happening, both due to the obstacles I’ve listed that work against making friends (of those, I think my schedule/free time hours is by far the hiccup that is the greatest incompatibility with meeting and spending time with others) and because I have come to learn through social skills training that the things I’m interested in doing are, by almost all accounts, rather weird. Most other young women in their early 30’s seem to enjoy different leisure activities with friends. Just as it’s unappealing to me to receive an invitation to grab lunch somewhere together, have a glass of wine or even a tea at a new “cute” place, or shop for new clothes, apparently so too do my interests fail to get people lining up at my door to hang out. And the truth is, I guess I’m just not that interested in compromising on how I spend the very little free time I have.

Clearly, local friendships simply aren’t a major priority for me right now. If I had boundless energy, a much more open schedule, and the ability to divide my time into far more outlets (or at least a few more!), my reality would likely look quite different and I would be looking for ways to meet like-minded people whose company I enjoy enough to possibly even abandon my ideas of “fun” to partake in theirs, just because the value of the friendship was important enough to me that this concession was worth it. I did get to spend time with one local friend last fall for a weekly walk and talk, which I loved, but she’s since gotten very busy and is no longer available for these meet ups together. Her company was gratifying though, and it was a boon that it was spent outside walking together—a cherished activity of mine.

Relationships are undeniably one of the keystones to a meaningful, fulfilling, happy life. Autistic people are stereotyped as being “loners,” which carries some truth because many autistic people are more socially-isolated than their peers and have fewer platonic and romantic relationships. I surmise there are numerous reasons as to why this tends to be the case, including rigidity and inflexibility in both routine and interests (like I’ve admitted to getting in the way of forging friendships in my own life), social anxiety, communication problems (which can alleviate potential friends or partners (for example, by the autistic proclivity to be overly blunt)), issues with empathy and emotional regulation, and other autistic comorbid challenges like the sensory and health problems. Despite these factors—even the ones that seem elective—autistic people still feel lonely. Speaking for myself, I not only see the tremendous importance and life-affirming power of meaningful friendships, but I desire them as well. I hate feeling disconnected from others and like I need to be my own best, and only, friend. With that said, not all friendships have to be with “just friends.” I see Ben as not just a husband and romantic partner, but also a best friend. I see my family members in a similar light; they are also close friends.

As the energy and work has been siphoned into my marriage into the past two years, the rewards have been doled out many times over. Our friendship is so strong and gratifying that I feel so much less lonely, even when he’s away at work, because I have the assurance of our special, unparalleled bond to satisfy that emptiness void. I also have strengthened my friendships with friends I have met in previous places in my life; I have daily and weekly conversations with several close friends who now live in different parts of the country. I care deeply for these people and feel the gift of being cared for in return. Lastly, I’ve also formed special bonds with a select few members of the different online autism support groups I’ve joined in the past two years. With these members, friendships have grown off the message boards, and we share details of our lives, or troubles, our feelings, our fears, our insecurities, and our triumphs via email and online messaging platforms. These special friendships hold a valuable place in my life because they not only point to the fact that I CAN make new friends as an adult, but also in the similarities and mutual understanding we inherently possess by our autism neurology. There’s something soul-satisfying and comforting to have friends that truly “get you,” without the need to put on a front, play a part, or even explain things extensively. The legwork needed to feel close is so much less demanding, allowing for far more connection time and bond-building without the usual inescapable exhaustion, misunderstandings, and the guaranteed bewilderment and embarrassment I’ll feel when I invariably mess something up socially. It’s a treat I’ve never been afforded in earlier stages of my life because I didn’t know of my diagnoses and didn’t seem to naturally match up with other autistic kids and become friends (this is likely because I grew up in a relatively small town and autism is obviously the minority; thus, there weren’t many (if any) autistic kids in my grade anyway). Sometimes I wonder how my life would have been shaped differently had I had a close autistic childhood friend, and certainly how the direction it took might have followed a very different trajectory should I have been diagnosed in elementary school.

Fortunately, I still had some wonderful friends as a child and adolescent who helped shape my life. I wouldn’t trade them for something else; I would only have wanted to add an autistic companion to the mix. Ultimately, my local friend dilemma could be best absolved by finding an autistic friend here to spend time with in person. If the benefits of my online autism support group friends translate to in-person relationships (and I don’t see why they wouldn’t), it would remove some of the steepest barriers that currently stand as barricades on my route to making friends. It’s even plausible they’d want to join me in piecing together a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle with an image of a phylogenetic tree!

My interests and needs change at different seasons of my life, which, in turn, can shift my priorities. It’s certainly reasonable for me to envision feeling of a primal drive to call friendship forging off the bench and budget a place for that focus on my limited four-member team. Right now, as I have been for the past year or two, I’m happy with the players receiving my attention and don’t regularly find myself wanting to reconsider my line-up. Knowing myself, and my ability to really only manage this short list of actionable domains in my life, has cut down on the frustration, scatterbrainedness, and ultimately, failure I always experienced before I started respecting my limits and working within these blinds, however irritating it can seem when I can’t handle more things with success, regardless as to how hard I try.

For now, I’m trying to derive what I need from relationships with those I have; these needs involve nurturing other people and showing them how important they are to me. I love to make people feel special and invaluable, proud of who they are, reliably supported and cherished, and respected and validated to the utmost degree. It’s fun to love people; fortunately for me, the friendships in my life—as unconventional as some may be—each bring me something satisfying and gratifying. The loneliness I’ve long felt is far from rectified, but at least it’s less raw most days, and that’s a good place to start.

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