Over these past few months, one particular issue that has been heavy on my mind is friendship. Can Asperger people manage it? Why does it look so easy for neurotypical (non-autistic) people? Above all, how does it work?
Previously I spent years watching other people at school or college, wondering how people had such close-knit friendship groups, while I just didn’t feel close to anyone. Even now, I will spend the best part of a social situation staying with someone I know, or on my own like a hermit. Sound familiar?
To complicate things further, true friendship is more than just making small talk. It may start off that way if you see someone a lot, but it requires more than simply being with them regularly. Keep finding things to talk about with them. If you are in a society, you probably have an interest in common, so ask them about it. How long have they been playing that instrument or that sport? Is this just a hobby or an ambition? Give your opinions too, but don’t forget to take in in turns to talk. Just remember: make them feel interesting and assess how many things you have in common.
This, by the way, is how I made friends with Katy. On her first orchestra rehearsal, she was given the honour of sitting next to the shy person at the back who barely knew anyone (me). Tired as I was of awkward silences with other members, I actually talked to her. Several times. Seems like all it took was a similar sense of humour, a few mutual complaints about the music and our shared (we discovered), insane violin teacher, and we never looked back.
Anyway. Maintaining existing friendships is a whole different kettle of fish. I think it is important for neurotypicals to understand how much mental effort it can take for autistic people to achieve this. You might get from the sharing-interests stage to the sharing-feelings stage, but for those who struggle to read people, it takes a lot of careful thought to work out how to initiate, and respond to, openness. There is also a balance – particularly when you live together – between not spending so much time together you get sick of each other, but not neglecting bonding time either.
Then there is empathy. It is a widely accepted myth that Asperger people lack empathy. I have gone through my whole life having to deal with the exact opposite. I feel other people’s emotions so acutely they can make me cry. The problem is, I don’t always know how to deal with them. Sometimes you just have to keep calm and ask: “what would be helpful to you right now?” Make it clear that they don’t have to talk to you, but if they want to, you will listen. Often listening can go further than any advice or cheering up.
So in summary: the better an AS person is at being a friend and “fitting in”, the more effort they may have put into learning how. And, neurotypical friends, if they do something wrong – just ask yourself: is this a crucial mistake that needs correcting? If so, be gentle and clear. If not, live and let live. AS people: if you have at least one friend who completely accepts you, autism and all, be grateful for them. Put that mental effort into your friendship. Tell them they are a good friend. Above all, be there when they need you, and show them the same acceptance they show you. Ignore stereotypes: you can manage friendships.
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