This post is part of a series for Autism Acceptance Month in which I will be exploring various ideas and subjects relating to autism and being autistic.
When I first told my mom that I’m autistic, the first words out of her mouth were “But you can’t be autistic. You have friends!” She’s since come around and has learned a lot about autism, but this reaction highlights a prevalent stereotype of autism that is harmful to autistic people.
Many allistic people believe that autistic people don’t have friends. Some think this is because autistic people have no interest in friendship or relationships. Others think that autistics are simply unable to make friends or sustain relationships. Whatever the reasoning behind it, the idea that autistic people don’t have/want friends is harmful and wrong.
While there are some autistics who do not desire friendship, there are many more who deeply desire connection with others. Though we may face challenges in developing relationships, that does not negate our want of friendship. The idea that we don’t want/have friends can be used as a way to invalidate someone’s autism, much in the way that my mother tried to deny that I am autistic. While hurtful coming from my mother, it can be far more damaging when coming from a professional. There are misguided professionals who believe in this false stereotype who will deny a diagnosis because a person has friends or a partner.
However, friendship can be challenging for autistic people. Many of us have difficulty initiating or maintaining relationships which can feed into the stereotype. Our difficulties with social protocols can make it very difficult to initiate interaction with new people which makes it difficult to make friends. Many of us find ourselves falling into friendships rather than successfully seeking out friendship. It is often the other person who makes the first move, though that is not to say that we are incapable or never make the first move.
Maintaining friendships can also be a challenge. For years I was convinced that I was doomed to lose all my friends every two years as that was the pattern that had played out throughout my life. Some friendships ended in blowouts, others ended quite unexpectedly for me. However they ended, I always found myself alone again and unsure of how to proceed.
So what makes it so difficult for us to maintain relationships? There are a few factors at play here. One of the biggest ones is out tendency towards black and white thinking. Because we tend to see the world so starkly, we often have difficulty seeing other perspectives which can be damaging to a friendship. We may stick to what we think is right at the cost of a relationship. Further, difficulties with reading nonverbal cues can make it hard to know what our friends are feeling without being told. For our allistic friends, this can be irksome or lead to miscommunication. Much in the same vein, our difficulties with social rules can also take a toll on our relationships with allistic people.
However, this doesn’t mean that hope of friendship is lost. It just takes finding the right friends. I, and many other autistic people I’ve spoken with, have found that friendships with other neurodivergent people tend to be more successful. Perhaps this is because neurodivergent people in general tend to be less caught up in social rules or perhaps due to shared experiences with ableism or perhaps because of shared traits or maybe a combination of these factors and more. Regardless, friendship tends to work best for autistic people when our friends are neurodivergent in some way.
The idea that autistic people can’t have friends is harmful and just plain wrong. We may face additional challenges when it comes to relationships, but many of us crave friendship and eventually make great friends.