Monday, August 15, 2016

Why making friends is hard when you have autism

For most neurotypical people, the nature of friendships is a rewarding experience.  Friends are usually the main people that fulfill the social need of humans.  Most people take the skill of making and keeping friends for granted.  However, imagine living a life in which making and keeping friends doesn’t come easy.  This is what my life is like every day. Since I was really little I always had a hard time making and keeping friends.  Although I went to various social skills groups and classes as well as being taught social skills in behavioral therapy to address these concerns, this will be a continuous challenge for me.    The social complexities and cues of friendship are hard to decode.  For example,  I sometimes don’t know if someone genuinely wants to hang with me or not is the hardest part of meeting new people and establishing potential friendships.  Another hurdle of why establishing friendships are hard is the fact that I have no control over the behaviors of other people.  I can only control my behaviors and what I put into the friendship, but I have no control over the actions and thoughts of others.    In the past, friends would flake out on me or change plans at the last minute which would cause me stress.   As an autistic person, any sudden changes puts me on edge and when my friends cancel out on me it throws me off.  A third challenge that making and keeping friends has for me is the concept of group outings or get-togethers.  Most young adults in their 20’s enjoy group outings such as parties and going to the bar etc.  For me, I don’t enjoy such things because of the sensory overload that accompanies me whenever I am in a room full of people.    The last challenge of making friends when you are on the spectrum is difficulty finding quality friends that meet my emotional and companionate needs as well as being sensitive to my needs as an autistic person.   I am not looking for a play companion who only does fun stuff and sticks by me for only the good times, but want friends who I can talk about my problems and challenges and is also reliable and sympathetic to my challenges.  For this reason I prefer to hang out with older and more mature people since they are more likely to meet the above criteria.   Unfortunately more often than not, it is very hard to find my ideal friend especially when living in a big and spread out metropolis like Los Angeles.   All these factors combined and the amount of effort it takes for me to maintain friendships makes this fundamental social interaction increasingly tough for me.  This is why I don’t have too many friends in my life because of the amount of maintenance and energy it takes out of me.

It can be a frustrating thing for both the autistic person and their parents and other support people for the lack of friends because of missed social opportunities.   Over the years I have developed two beliefs that have helped me feel better about my difficulties.  I will now give you these two pieces of advice.  The first piece of advice I would offer is to not stress so much about not having a lot of friends.  Instead, you should focus on having quality friends who will meet your needs and respect you for who you are.  I am grateful to find at least two good friends who accept me for who I am and are okay with my autism and its unique characteristics and limitations.  One of them is also on the spectrum herself and shares the same desire to spread autism acceptance as well as advocate for better services and accommodations for people on the spectrum in the greater society.  It is long term friendships in which one can share vulnerabilities and intimate thoughts that will matter in the long run .  Another piece of advice that I learned to adopt is focusing on having a support network or finding other people in your life besides your friends to provide emotional support if you are having trouble finding the right type of friends or your friends are not emotionally available.  For instance, I am very fortunate to have a loving family, a behavior therapist and a mentor to provide emotional support when I am going through a hard time.   The point of this blog post is to share my experience of making friendships as someone living on the spectrum and hopefully this might help others on the spectrum that are in the same boat.

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