As an autistic adult who was not diagnosed until she was thirty-seven, it is so often the subtle differences in communication, processing and assumptions that have led to a breakdown in relationships with neurotypical friends.
I feel like I am a good person – I am empathetic, generous, honest. But if I count the number of times I have been cut-off, blacklisted, –cancelled- by people I genuinely loved, it would seem to tell a vastly different story. Until diagnosis, I despaired, mourned even, when I lost these friendships. I could not understand why the same thing always seemed to happen.
I have put together a list of some of the things I have learned and come to realise since then. They do not always make it easier but they have, at least, helped me come to terms with my own communication style and blame myself a little less.
If you are an autistic person, particularly someone new to that discovery, I hope it will help you navigate the world with just a little less heartache.
If you are a neurotypical person, I really, really hope it will make you stop and think about how your assumptions about a person can be wrong, autistic or otherwise.
The ways we relate to one another
One of the most talked-about examples of differences in communication is the autistic tendency to bring up stories about themselves in response to someone else sharing something difficult. I have been accused of being self-centred on more than one occasion because the other person felt I was dismissive of their struggles and constantly turning the conversation back to mine. To them, it feels like a competition about who has the worst circumstances.
The key here is that the two experiences of such a conversation are very much different and so often misinterpreted by one or both parties.
The usual neurotypical script for seeking to comfort someone going through something difficult does not ring true to me. In fact, it feels like parroting meaningless platitudes: “Oh I am so sorry. That must be so hard for you. Is there anything I can do to help? I’m here if you need to talk.”
I KNOW that these phrases are the kind of thing that is expected of me.
But they feel wrong.
If you tell me that you have been struggling with anxiety since the lockdowns began, I might well describe to you how hard it has been for me – how I have been frightened to leave the house, how I wash all my shopping before putting it away, how terrified I was of sending the children to school.
To me, this feels like I am showing you that I understand, that I imagine your fears were similar, that we are going through this together and we are not alone.
All too often though, the other person seems to hear “Oh you think you know anxiety? Listen to all of my anxiety and you will see yours is nothing in comparison!”
I know these things and I try to remember them. I try to alter my reactions and communication style to be more palatable. But it does not come naturally, and, for some reason, I always feel like THIS TIME, the person will know what I mean.
Advice and venting
Another difference I have noted that has made friendships difficult for me is the unusual ways that autistic people seek and implement advice. A useful phrase in this situation may be “Are you looking for practical solutions or do you just want to vent?”
Whichever one I am after, the other person always seems to think it is the other. Likewise, when trying to give advice to others, I guess wrong.
Again, I am accused of being dismissive. I once asked for advice on something that was causing me anxiety from a group of friends. Here, my processing was quite different to my friendship group. Anxiety makes me obsess over details. With every suggestion, piece of advice or opinion, I would counter-argue. By the end, I was told that I don’t listen, that I dismiss everything everyone else says. Why did I even ask them for advice if I am going to pick apart everything they say?
My friends came out of this situation feeling undervalued and exhausted.
My experience and intentions were completely different to this though. It is because I valued their input and respected them that I felt comfortable in asking them and processing with them – through making points and countering them. At the end of the conversation, I felt much better. It had allowed me to work through everything that was worrying to me. That was, until my friends said they could not deal with me anymore because I went on and on about my problems but never took their advice and they had had enough of me…
I am not good at meeting new people. Just like the script for ‘showing you care’, the script for ‘getting to know someone’ feels hollow and rehearsed. “How are you? “What do you do for a living?” “Got any plans for the weekend?”
I just can’t. It makes me highly anxious to have this kind of conversation because it is not natural and I don’t really know how to respond beyond a few stock phrases. It feels like everyone is pretending to care about the answers. As a result, I tend to babble to fill the silence. Yet again, the other person ends up feeling dismissed.
I want to know your deepest fear. I want to discuss stardust and consciousness and whether you think the universe will end in darkness and entropy.
But the steps beforehand about going to the hairdresser or having beef for dinner are really hard.
In my experience, autistics and neurotypicals differ greatly in the way they react to fairness and justice. Everyone feels a burning sense of injustice from time to time, but autistics feel it more frequently and more deeply than most. In addition, our attention to detail, obsessive tendencies and NEED for it to be put right means we cannot let it go.
We will not stop if we feel something is unjust. And the more adamant and persistent we are in seeking to have the mistake/injustice/misinterpretation rectified, in explaining why it is wrong, the more others feel personally attacked. They interpret it as anger directed at them, or even hatred.
In reality, I never have feelings of animosity towards groups or individuals in these cases; I just need them to understand why something is wrong. I have no ill-will towards anyone.
It’s just not right. And it needs to be right.
We differ from neurotypicals in that it does not necessarily need to be a personal injustice or a far-reaching one. We are often just as focused and passionate about what others might perceive to be small, insignificant injustices as we are for the big ones, or ones that personally affect us.
We are not just being difficult. We are just seeking peace.
Sometimes, autistics don’t pick up on certain things. Others assume they must have known and so, in turn, they misinterpret the autistic person. A vicious circle of thinking you know what the other means and finding a meaning where none was intended. We feel this is an injustice and so we seek to explain, at length, what we meant. This leads to more misinterpretation. A sensible, neurotypical person might quit while they are ahead. They might realise they are making it worse and drop it.
We can’t. We explain more. The people we are interacting with become more exasperated, less sympathetic. But if we just keep going – they’ll get it eventually, right?
They may be incredulous that we cannot see how self-obsessed and belligerent we are.
Damn it, they don’t have to deal with this kind of toxicity and drama.
Every time. Always the same. We never learn.
They have had enough.
It is no coincidence that my long-lasting friendships are with those who have a high number of neurodivergent traits, who may even be autistic or have ADHD themselves.
It is hard to try to communicate in a way that is not natural, that must be learned. It is counterintuitive. We try – but we will fail, at least some of the time. And it is exhausting.
It is also easy to assume that someone is arrogant and argumentative if that is the way they seem to you. It is easy to feel self-righteous and hard done by, when someone seems to rage against what you feel is calm and steadfast support.
There is no answer. This will always be the struggle for neurodiverse communication.
If we can trust each other, let go of our assumptions and find a middle ground, it can be done.
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