Navigating the ‘friendship’ world from an autistic perspective

This may be one of the hardest blogs I will ever write, in many ways, as it is one of the areas I struggle with the most. It has taken the most soul searching to admit this, and I have hidden these struggles far too well and I feel a great deal of pain as I try to navigate this area. As a female, we are expected to be highly social but as a female Aspie, we can have some significant challenges especially around communication and understanding what other people think and feel, but also about being understood and especially our behaviours and intentions towards others.

I first revealed my autism to my family members and my handful of close friends, in a fairly dramatic style, by writing a long and complicated document about autism, the current theories around autism and how they applied to me. I sent this document out by email and invited comments back, which was one of the scariest and anxiety driven things I have ever done. Waiting for the feedback was probably the most excruciating period of my life to date, this coming from someone who experiences anxiety if they send a text or email and don’t get an immediate response — it was worse than waiting for exam results!

The feedback varied immensely, from those who found it fascinating and immediately saw how it applied and discussed it openly (even to the point of sending me new articles to read which I loved and appreciated), to those who commented

“why does it matter now, you are successful, you can know too much, don’t worry about it”.

This was perhaps the comment I struggled with the most, because I have spent my whole life trying to understand why I feel different and suddenly I had found the answer. No I couldn’t know ‘too much’, this was the answer to who I was and I started to establish my true identity.

I also had those, who didn’t really respond at all and I found that extremely difficult, because ambiguity and no information is one of my greatest sources of fear and anxiety — I didn’t know what this meant.

Did they agree? Could they see it? Or were they simply really not interested and didn’t care?

It never really occurred to me they might find it difficult to discuss this with me, because my report (I believed!) was written from a very objective viewpoint with myself as the subject and I believed I showed no emotion. What I didn’t appreciate at the time (and needed a valued friend to point this out to me) that just because I wasn’t feeling emotions, the other person may think I was and this affected how they communicated with me. All I wanted was direct and honest feedback!

Despite all of these close people having known me for long periods of time, the differing responses were so diverse, and these were all social (not professional) relationships. This made me consider things deeply — yes, I have a successful professional career but I have poor self esteem and self worth in some of my most immediate social relationships, a very spiky profile. Does the fact I can excel in one part of my life, mean I am not worthy or need a true autistic diagnosis because I am not disabled enough, as one person pointed out. This led me to the following thoughts…..

When I was at school, I found a strategy that worked. I was a girl who was good at Maths and Science. I also did Accountancy as a subject and this was my real passion and skillset. The teacher of the subject was poor, I got bored so I read ahead and taught myself the syllabus. I found that by offering to help the other girls when they struggled, coaching them in the subjects I was good at, I became more integrated in the social environment, especially if the person/ persons needing help were the popular girls in class. I loved to help, because this gave me a feeling of self worth and the other person gained, so it seemed a true ‘win/win’. I wasn’t popular, but I was accepted, yes as a bit of a ‘geek’ or ‘nerd’ but I appeared to have a good social network and it worked.

The ‘helping’ became a strategy continuing into adulthood. How could I work out what the most popular person needed? Deliver it and hey presto, a ready made social network that made me look popular and as if I was having no problems…..

But what happens when things change?

As people in my life have either left and/or moved away, over the last 30 years the extent of my struggles shows, because almost overnight in these situations my social network has fallen away. Despite appearing to have lots of friends that isn’t really the case, as the other person was acting as a facilitator. In fact in some situations, I have even been mistaken as an extrovert!

In other situations, I stopped having something to offer the other person and at that point I dropped off the ‘useful’ list, I became less important to them and again my social network fell away overnight. It has taken me a long time to realise that this is not really my issue (other than me being able to detect this due to naivety).

On occasions, more than one of these occurences happened at the same time as well as other miscommunications and the wheels well and truly fell off, plummeting me into a cycle of despair as I tried to make sense of everything.

It is very possible to be the same person, or similar persons with the same autistic traits, BUT the current environment, the strength and longevity of social networks and the personalities and integrity of the people in your environment can have a significant impact on how you present and your specific autistic behaviours, even by employing the same strategies. Even the same person, at differing stages of their lives can present completely differently.

Strategies have worked over time, although in some ways they haven’t been the most healthy and they have taken lots of energy. It is easy to see how easy they can break down.

I have pondered this, trying to decide what is right, wrong, healthy, not healthy. In one sense attempting to understand someone and finding a way to create a ‘win/win’ is a responsible approach and in fact would be seen as emotionally intelligent. I would also argue many non autistic people do this instinctively and successfully. The difference, possibly is understanding our own boundaries, which autistic people are notoriously poor at, myself included.

Where and when does a win/win turn into a win/lose? Is it ok when the win/win breaks down and the relationship fails? Surely this isn’t genuine unconditional friendship.

However, practicing gratitude when someone has done you a good turn, is both responsible and healthy, for the giver as well as the receiver. Altruism and philanthropy are immensely rewarding.

I think the conclusion I have come to is that there is no right or wrong and it depends on the circumstances and the integrity of the people in our lives.

Finally, when someone says to me “It doesn’t matter” about whether I know if I’m autistic or not, my answer is “Yes it does, a diagnosis, something that allows you to understand what is happening for you at different stages of your life, will always be important” and just because you may present as high functioning today, a life changing event could have a completely different impact that may lead you spiralling into depression and suicidal thoughts and support being available when needed could make a complete difference.

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