Why Autistic Friendships Should Not Be Measured By Neurotypical Standards.

By Michelle Baughman

Recently I came across an article entitled “How Friendships Improve Your Mental Health” in which the author, Danielle L'Ecuyer, asserts that there are “two types of friends you can have in your life: a friend who is good or healthy for you, and a friend who is toxic and brings nothing but negativity into your life.” She describes the three benchmarks on which to measure the health of your relationships: Positivity (is there more good than bad); consistency, (are you both making an effort to connect), and vulnerability (is there a balance in how much you are sharing with your friend). Danielle L'Ecuyer encourages her readers to end any friendships that match her description, based on this criteria, of what an unhealthy or toxic relationship looks like. I feel that this alarmingly myopic litmus test fails to take into consideration the different neurological needs which effects the differences in how autistic and neurotypical (non-autistic, abbreviated NT) individuals interact. So I felt compelled to write an article in defense of autistic friendships, which on the surface, and according to L'Ecuyer’s criteria, can look like toxic friendships. The article illuminated for me that the difficulties we autistics have in developing and maintaining friendships with neurotypicals is not necessarily a failing on our part, but rather a misinterpretation on their part.

It dawned on me that the author’s one-sided point of view is probably characteristic of all neurotypicals; they see and evaluate everything through their own lens--completely unaware that their lens doesn’t show them the entire reality. How can anyone make good decisions based on this incomplete perspective, which provides them with incomplete information? Entertain this analogy, if you please: Imagine going through life with red shaded sunglasses on. This, of course, would prevent you from seeing anything colored red…so how could you make sound decisions when you are missing valuable information on which those decisions should be based? For example, a red stop light at an intersection, and the need to decide whether or not to proceed through that intersection? So please allow me to show you, my dear NT readers, what information your perspective has not been allowing you to see:

Firstly, I disagree with L'Ecuyer’s initial premise that there are only two types of friendships, because from the autistic perspective, there is a third type of friendship that falls in between the two mentioned: This is the type of friend who might otherwise be good and healthy for us because they are not actively or purposefully being toxic. However, due to being unenlightened about our neurological differences, interacting with such a friend can be detrimental to our wellbeing. For example, a friend who wears too much perfume or scented products, or a friend who is loquacious can unknowingly and unintentionally cause us to experience sensory overload which could lead to Autistic Shut Down. If these friends understood and appreciated the challenges of our hidden disability and could accommodate for them as easily as they do for a friend whose disability is more visible, then these friends would be good or healthy for us. (I actually have such a friend, but alas, she is too verbose to allow me any opportunity to get a word in edgewise in order to be able to enlighten her and advocate for myself! Her loquaciousness overwhelms me so much that I have to limit my contact with her, despite having great affinity for her. I worry that this distance will damage our friendship).

Situations like this could be resolved by a global undertaking of more and better advocacy around neurodiversity. It is unfortunate that for too many years ignorance, rhetoric and misinformation have been disseminated about autism in the name of “advocacy” by a greedy organization that used scare tactics and guilt as a very effective marketing strategy to solicit donations (of which less than 4% actually went towards helping autistic people) from an uninformed, yet sympathetic public. I feel that a campaign to help the public unlearn all that misinformation is necessary. (It would be wonderful if that aforementioned organization would put as much effort into rectifying the damage as they had expended causing it)! For example, instead of expensive television ads purporting that “autism will destroy your marriage” or “steal your children” they could spend that money on PSAs (Public Service Announcements) that explain about Sensory Overload (what it is, what it feels like from their autistic loved one’s perspective, how it negatively impacts their autistic loved one’s health and wellbeing, and how to be respectful of it).

Now let’s take a look at L'Ecuyer’s first bench mark, “positivity: is there more good than bad” from an autistic perspective: Due to our sensory sensitivities and other neurological vulnerabilities we autistics often end up having more negative experiences when we interact with groups of NTs simply because they don’t understand or appreciate our differences and because the environment supports their neurology, not ours. So from the autistic’s perspective, interactions can often seem negative when we come away from social encounters feeling exhausted and drained. We refer to this as “peopling” and we know that it is draining, so we try to manage our personal bioenergetics resources (or “spoons”) accordingly so that we can manage to socialize on our own terms. Now let’s look at this same scenario from the NT’s perspective: When we are out socializing with our NT friends in their typical social environments which include parties, bars/clubs, concerts, noisy, crowded restaurants or coffee shops, etc., we can begin to go into Autistic Shut Down because of sensory overload. The NTs who are uninitiated about our unique neurological needs can perceive us as disengaged, bored, or “moody” and feel that we are not showing that we care about them because we are not seeming to pay them as much attention or displaying as much energy and enthusiasm as they are expecting.

Now, consider the fact that NTs talk at a much faster rate, employing a more sophisticated form of communication that includes body language, facial expressions, colloquialisms, and fluctuations of the voice. All of these things can elude autistics which causes us to miss much of the conversation. (According to statistics, 70% of all communication is nonverbal, which means that we autistics are only engaging in about 30% of what NTs are saying). Socializing in groups of NTs as opposed to one on one situations increases the percentage of missed communication because there is more stimulation for our nervous systems to integrate, and there is only a finite amount we can take before we reach our saturation point (Autistic Shutdown).

Also, due to the differences in our processing speed and NTs talking speed, we need more time to formulate our responses. However, the more fluent speaking speed of the other NTs vying for input do not afford us any opportunity to interject into the conversation. Thus, they overwhelm us by dominating the dialogue while we struggle to find our segue into the discussion…risking appearing rude by interrupting, or looking awkward or stupid by saying something that is out of sync or irrelevant because the topic has moved on in the time that it took us to assess the dialogue, formulate our response, and look for our opening. This situation causes us a great deal of anxiety, which also contributes to sensory overload because autistics have very acute interoception (the sense that allows one to feel what is going on inside one’s body). The effect of this onslaught of overwhelming sensory stimulation on the autistic brain is comparable to an overloaded computer that lags and then crashes while trying to stream a video. Thus, we end up appearing aloof, or unintelligent or bored or distracted…the antithesis of the charming conversational partners NTs expect. (This is the “kiss of death” in dating scenarios)! All of these things could cause NTs to come away from our interactions feeling negatively towards us.

Likewise, we autistics could come away from the encounter feeling negatively because the cost (feeling drained because of the overstimulation and energy expenditure) outweighed the gain (the amount of attention we received because we were overshowed by all the faster talking NTs). However, these things don’t mean that the friendships are unhealthy, it just means that we have different needs. Given time, continued contact, and a willingness for understanding on both sides, all these uncomfortable culture clashes between NT and neurodiverse ways of interacting can be ironed out and beautiful, rewarding friendships can be formed.

Considering L'Ecuyer second criterion, “consistency: are you both making an effort to connect,” from a neurodivergent perspective also seems like an unfair benchmark for NTs to measure autistic friendships by for several reasons. For one, our vulnerability to Autistic Shutdown, which causes us to withdraw and avoid connection for periods of time in order to allow our brains to rest and process all the overstimulation. People in the autistic community refer to this phenomenon as a “Social Hangover.” Of course we are not making as much effort to connect when we are experiencing this, but that does not mean that the friendship is not valued or that we are deliberately being inconsiderate or taking our friends for granted. It just means that we are exercising self-care! The amount of drain and exhaustion and autistic feels after an evening of regular socializing is comparable to what an NT feels when they experience jet lag from traveling the wrong way through different time zones.

L'Ecuyer suggests dropping the friendship “if you feel hurt due to a friend canceling plans on you or never initiating to connect with you on a regular basis,” which is a likely possibility when one is friends with an autistic person because our energy levels and wellbeing fluctuate unpredictably, causing us to have to cancel plans at last minute. This strikes me as a very ablest point of view, and I wonder if she would make the same thoughtless, blanket statement if the friend were undergoing chemotherapy or had some other visible disability? There are simply other factors that merit consideration that L'Ecuyer’s myopic litmus test overlooks!

Also, many of our autistic challenges have to do with social learning, so we may not actually know how to connect. After all, if we don’t do it just right, we will be rejected because NTs have an almost elitist preoccupied with “being cool.” So we are waiting for our NT friends to initiate, and we learn how to do it by watching and imitating them!

An autistic’s social anxiety may also be a factor that could inhibit them from reaching out and initiating connection. Despite how long I have known someone, I still feel that initial social anxiety, and I expend a lot of mental energy overcoming it and strategizing what I should say and how to say it when I want to reach out. I even experience it with regards to my own family members! Sometimes the energy expended trying to overcome this results in not having enough energy to actually follow through! This is what we in the autistic community refer to as “autistic inertia.”

Poor executive functioning and prosopagnosia could also be factors that inhibit an autistic person from initiating contact. These things are all realities that we contend with that NTs are completely unaware of; if they don’t experience it, they don’t consider that it actually exists.

The third criterion L'Ecuyer cites as a measure of the health of a friendship, “vulnerability: how much you are sharing with your friend” also overlooks differences in interaction styles between our respective neurologies: While most NTs tend to readily share their energy, enthusiasm, and excitement with almost anyone in the vicinity and share personal information easily, most autistics prefer communicating one to one and need to be made to feel that the relationship is sufficient before sharing personal information with others, thus they tend to share such information only with those whom they feel they know very well. This means that it will take an autistic individual more time for the friendship to develop before they reach the stage where they are comfortable sharing interpersonal information. Also, because NTs often don’t give autistics a chance to speak in conversations (because of the differences in processing speed vs talking speed mentioned earlier) this makes the autistics appear “hard to draw out,” or withholding, which could leave NTs feeling that they are doing more sharing than us. But if they simply slowed down and let us have a chance to speak, allowed us the time we need in order to follow our train of thought, and if they just interacted with us one on one instead of in groups, the amount of interpersonal sharing in the relationship would become more balanced. Interacting with us in quieter settings with less sensory stimulation (for example, taking a hike or visiting an arboretum or a museum together) would also be conducive to developing connection because the less sensory input our brains have to process means the more energy and attention we have to focus on you.

If all our neurotypical friends followed the short-sighted advice in L'Ecuyer article without understanding things from our perspective we would soon find ourselves without any friends! This would put autistics in danger of social isolation and missing out on all the wonderful health benefits friendships have to offer that L'Ecuyer lists in her article:

“Friends benefit your health by increasing your sense of belonging and purpose in life, boost your happiness and reduce your stress, improve your self-confidence and self-worth, and can help you cope with traumas such as a job loss, a separation, critical illness or the death of a loved one. Friends can also encourage you to change or avoid unhealthy lifestyle habits, such as drinking, smoking, or a lack of physical activity, and will encourage you to grow and reach your full potential…Adults with a strong social circle have a reduced risk of many critical health issues, such as depression, high blood pressure, and an unhealthy body mass index (BMI).”

Autistics should not be excluded from being able to enjoy all of these health benefits. We are all human beings, and as such, we all need connection in order to be healthy.

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