1) People with autism DO socialise
Fictional characters with autism are generally depicted as having little or no interest in socialising, preferring to immerse themselves in their special interest and avoid all contact with humanity. In real life, it’s rarely that black and white. Autism is defined as a social awareness and communications disability, so people on the spectrum are bound to struggle with socialising at some point… but that doesn’t mean we never do it. About 50% of my friends have high functioning autism or Asperger’s Syndrome, and they’ve all got pretty active social lives. I was shocked a couple of years ago when I had an adult assessment for autism and the psychiatrist was convinced there was an error in my paper work when I ticked the box that said ‘played with other children as a child’. Of course I played with other children…. Just as having asthma doesn’t completely prevent me from breathing, having autism doesn’t completely prevent me from socialising.
2) Although we enjoy it, socialising can be exhausting for us
So people with autism do socialise, and we do enjoy it… but it doesn’t come naturally to us. During autism awareness training sessions my boss uses the metaphor of driving a car. When you’ve been driving for a couple of years the process feels easy, you don’t really have to think about it consciously. But during your first few lessons you think about everything at once: the breaks, the steering, the ignition, other cars on the road… imagine how exhausting and stressful driving would be if you had to think like that every time you did it. That’s what socialising is like for someone with autism- constantly having to be hyper aware, analysing every word, every gesture… and it’s exhausting. This problem was summed up perfectly well by the six year old child of one of my readers: ‘You’re disabled by other people… friends. It seems like they’re such a challenge for you and they’re hard for you. They make you tired.’ Autistic people can enjoy socialising, but we need lots of time to wind down afterwards. If a person with autism say’s they’re too tired to hang out with you, don’t make them feel guilty or selfish, just remind yourself they can be disabled by the company of others.
3) Lots of people with autism avoid clubs and parties for sensory reasons
Parties and clubs can be hell for people with autism, not because of the social aspects, but because it’s just too noisy. While most neurotypical people can filter out background noise and just focus on the conversation they’re having, people with autism tend to hear everything at the same volume. Think about all the different sounds at a party or night club: there’s the music, people ordering drinks, doors opening and shutting, about 50 drunk conversations happening simultaneously, the air conditioning, the hand dryers in the toilets…. Now imagine you could hear all those sounds at an intensely high volume, while engaging in small talk with your friends. It would be pretty unpleasant, wouldn’t it? If you invite someone with autism to a crowded birthday party or a busy night club, don’t be offended if they say no. It’s not because they don’t like you, it’s because parties and clubs can be a very unpleasant environment for us to be in, often resulting in meltdowns and panic attacks.
4) It takes us a LONG time to feel comfortable around someone new
Most people take a while to get used to someone new entering their life, but for people with autism, this process can last longer and be more debilitating. For me, it takes about three years of getting to know someone before I’m truly relaxed and comfortable around them. I can still talk to people I’ve not known for that long and enjoy our conversations, I just find them draining. I work with a teenage boy with autism who struggles a great deal with meeting new people. He appears quite angry and hostile when around people he perceives as ‘strangers’, but this hostility is simply masking his anxiety and fear. The best thing you can do for a person with autism is give us time to get used to your presence before engaging in direct communication.
5) Sometimes we need to be told to shut up
Most people with autism have a specific interest: something we’re really passionate about and could discuss for hours… and sometimes that’s actually what happens. Although people with high functioning autism have good verbal skills, we often forget that communication should be a back and forth exchange and our difficulty reading facial expressions means we can’t always tell when the person we’re talking to is bored. This results in monologuing: when an autistic person corners someone and talks nonstop about a specific interest for several minutes, not letting the other person get a word in edge ways. It may seem cruel, but in this situation the best thing you can do is simply tell the person whose monologuing to shut up. Most autistic people cannot interpret someone’s feelings through their facial expression, vocal tone or any other form of nonverbal communication. We’ll only understand that you want us to be quiet if you say so explicitly.
6) We can’t always tell what you’re feeling
Many well-meaning friends have dismissed me as lazy or selfish because they’ve come to me upset, but they’ve not said so explicitly, meaning I didn’t pick up on what they were feeling and offer them comfort. Autistic people really struggle to interpret nonverbal communication. When I look at my best friend I have no idea whether she’s tired, happy, sad etcetera unless she say’s so in plain English. I can understand why you might dismiss someone with autism as selfish because they’ve failed to notice your distress and comfort you accordingly, but really you might as well dismiss a deaf person as selfish because they haven’t complimented your singing voice.
7) We might never understand why you’re upset, but we still feel terrible for upsetting you
When I’ve upset my friends and family I often end up feeling hurt and confused myself because I honestly don’t know what I did to upset them. This doesn’t mean I’m selfish or don’t care about the feelings of others. I just don’t know what I did wrong, which means I don’t know how to make it right. High functioning autistic people find it very difficult to see things from the perspective of others and predict the consequences of our actions. But we’re still flooded with guilt and remorse when we realise we’ve made someone cry. If a person with autism upsets you, make sure you tell them in plain English what’s made you feel that way and why. We can’t apologise until we know what we’re apologising for.
8) A lot of autistic people are gender blind when it comes to friendships
Growing up, I probably had more male friends than female friends (at the moment it’s fifty fifty). This wasn’t a conscious decision… I just spent time with people I liked and was comfortable around. To be honest I don’t think I even realised that they were boys until somebody asked if we were dating. Most of the autistic people I know seem to be gender blind when it comes to friendships, befriending people who they have a shared interest with regardless of their gender. But things get complicated when others assume you’re dating your best friend, the endless stream of questions and innuendo putting additional strain on what (thanks to your autism) might already be a difficult friendship to maintain. If someone with autism introduces you to a friend of the opposite sex, don’t start probing them with questions about their love life. A friend is just that… a friend.
9) Some of us hate hugs, and some of us love them
A popular autism myth is that people on the spectrum can’t stand physical contact. While that’s true of some autistic people, many of us have no problem with touching. In fact, one of the biggest problems I encounter is the autistic kids I work with are very affectionate, but find it hard to differentiate between who they can and cannot hug. If I can hug mummy then why can’t I hug my head teacher at school, or the strange man on the street? What we need in these kinds of situations is clear boundaries. If you feel uncomfortable with the level of physical contact someone with autism is giving you, then explain that you don’t want to be touched in plain English. On the other hand, if you want to hug someone with autism but you’re worried they won’t like it, just ask them first. It’s that simple.
10) Although we can’t always express it, we’re incredibly grateful for our friends
I don’t say it enough… but I am incredibly grateful for every single one of my friends, and I know that others like me feel the same. It’s not easy to be friends with someone with autism, and sometimes you’re bound to lose your patience… but you’re still there for me, you make me laugh, respect my interests and above all, you treat me like an equal. Thank you.