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How to be a True Friend: A Reflection on Belonging and Relationships

May 13, 2022

An autistic advocate draws from her personal experiences to offer advice on remaining true as a friend and building lasting relationships.

How to be a True Friend: A Reflection on Belonging and Relationships 

“Once, at the ANCA World Autism Festival in Vancouver, B.C., Canada, a very sweet and gentle Japanese lady—no older than her early-twenties—sat next to me during the screening of a documentary film. We sat together for the stretch of an hour, as complete strangers, shoulder to shoulder, her leaning down every so often to rest her head gently near mine. As if I was a long-lost aunt whom she was trying to remember. 

She’d lift her head up, look at me, run her fingers through her shoulder-length hair and smile sweetly, before turning her eyes back to the film. Minutes would pass. And then again, she’d grin, and repeat. She spoke without a single sound. Never a word. Not one. And it was one of the few times in my life that I felt entirely seen and heard.

Social scientists teach that a sense of belonging—the act of being a part of something outside of self—allows for the capacity to feel safe, valued, accepted, and supported—is an intrinsic part of one’s psychological and emotional well-being… A sense of belonging enables us to be part of something greater than self. Belonging signifies accessibility and invitation and the ability to find cultural references that confirm your value.”

The above prose is an excerpt from my new manuscript and soon-to-be book: Autism in a Briefcase: Straight talk about belonging in a neurodiverse world. The six-year writing project is based on my years of advocacy work for the autism community and on my role as a Senior Manager of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) at Ultranauts Inc. In my international teachings, I joke that I use the “B” word a lot: Belonging. Why? Because belonging is essential to feeling included—essential to feeling valued as a human being.

The desire to belong

Autistic individuals often struggle with multiple aspects of belonging. Throughout modern history, a disproportionate amount of blame has been pointed in the direction of autistic people. They are criticized for their “abnormal” presentation style and their general way of being. 

Agony Auntie, an autism advocate, shares the following about our communication: “…[it] comes across as abnormal (fixated, obsessed, rigid thinking, oppositional, manic)…The next stage is for people to really understand what the medical pathology narrative has done to this community. In that it has doctored your viewpoints of us. We have been looked at, down a microscope, for the last 60-70 years, and when you look at a community, as if they are mice, and study them, as if they are mice, you will make mice out of them.” 

Research is citing the sociology theory of “double empathy problem” to counter social misconceptions and myths surrounding autism. Double empathy draws meaning from sociological theories. 

Senior Lecturer in Psychology Brett Heasman presents a strong case in favor of the autistic experience through the lens of double empathy. Heasman successfully demonstrates that non-autistic people have challenges putting themselves in the shoes of autistic individuals and in understanding their perspectives, just as autistics have trouble putting themselves in the mindset of neurotypicals. 

This information supports the thousandss of anecdotal reports I have heard from those on the autism spectrum: non-autistics having trouble interpreting the autistic perspective. Both parties, the autistic and the non-autistic, have difficulty adequately interpreting what the other is thinking. 

Heasman’s research also points out that autistic people have psychological awareness of themselves in conversation and that any “social impairment” is the result of others’ expectations and assumptions about their behavior.

Autistic people, like most humans, long to be included and part of relationships. There are numerous ways to engage in a relationship. For example: intimate relationships (romantic partner, confidant), work relationships (colleagues, schoolmates), community relationships (neighbor, church), supportive relationships (coach, doctor), activity-based relationships (gaming, hobby club), and service relationships (barber, book store clerk). 

Each type of relationship involves unspoken rules and communication norms; and, for those on the autism spectrum (who are by nature not wired to instinctively tap into the social norms of Western society), each type involves social challenges.

For a person with autism spectrum condition (ASC), layers upon layers of complexities might arrive in simply approaching the idea of a relationship, let alone engaging in a relationship! For instance, when approaching a potential friend, there are complexities like small talk, past rejection and the reality of potential hurt, prioritizing and identifying a relationship, and bullying. Then there are matters of misunderstanding and assumptions, sensory overload and recovery time, anticipatory anxiety and self-doubt, acceptable topics, and finally, moving a relationship too fast or too slow.

Ideas for building relationships

  1. Open dialogue

An effective way of building relationship knowledge involves opening up dialogue about unspoken rules and norms. Looking at other cultures, like the American Indigenous People, is a great place to start—notice that within some Native American nations eye contact is avoided, and no such word as disorder or disability is a part of their language. 

In conversation, consider asking: When have unspoken rules caused you trouble in trying to make a friend? What is difficult for you about unspoken rules at the park or school playground? Share your personal story of navigating unspoken rules. Other great questions to open dialogue are: What do you think is important in nurturing a friendship? Where do you struggle getting along with or understanding me?

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  1. Ensure safety

Another important aspect of relationships is ensuring safety. Reflect on the ways all individuals are vulnerable to predators and dishonest people. Most autistics have great difficulties understanding boundaries. 

I wrote a piece on boundaries on my Everyday Autistic WordPress Blog. Seeing it as an essential well-being issue, a university in Canada has published my boundary tips in their mental health handbook for college students. Boundaries can be confusing for anyone. Share what you’ve learned about boundaries and how they help with personal safety. Present scenarios of inappropriate friendship requests.

  1. Understand yourself

Essential to nurturing a relationship is understanding yourself. To participate in healthy relationships, we need to self-reflect. We need to understand our own interests, passions, and dislikes. Building criteria for what makes a good friend is oftentimes a foreign concept to autistics. I didn’t realize I had the right to have criteria for friends until I was in my forties! I tend to think everyone could be a potential friend. 

A part of understanding yourself is becoming aware of how you process emotions and present to others. To avoid misunderstandings and judgment, it’s wise to explore aspects of how those on the spectrum present differently in behavior than the majority of society. Discuss ways your child can feel seen and still be their true self. Talk about masking (suppressing autistic traits) and how that makes your child feel.

  1. Some friendships can break down—and that’s okay

Other topics for conversation might include the transient nature of relationships. While some of us carry our childhood friends over into our adult lives, that’s not always the case. It’s a smart idea to talk about the stages of friendship grief or loss and to express it’s okay to feel sadness and regret over the loss of a potential or long-standing relationship. Distinguishing between emotions of sadness, guilt, and shame is advisable. 

Pointing to autistic role models is a way to empower autistic youth to know life does oftentimes get easier. Remind your child that we all gain life skills through life experience.

Above all, continue to treat your child with dignity and respect. Be the advocate who understands the complexities of life on the spectrum. Let autistic children know their way of being is valued. Connect them with like-minded individuals who reinforce the validity of their personhood. Teach them by example to state their personal needs. Take your own self-inventory. Show them, through your behaviors, how to be a true friend.

This article was featured in Issue 126 – Romantic Relationships and Autism

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