I was hanging with one of my autistic meetup groups when the title question popped into my mind.
Someone in the group was expressing frustration in the form of a rant about how no one wanted to be their friend. They had created the idea in their mind that because people weren’t replying to individual messages from them, no one liked them.
We didn’t know this person.
It was the first time they had attended the group, or it had been so long since they attended that none of the current members remembered them, and they weren’t contributing to the conversation.
The topic of the day had turned to work challenges. There were many opportunities for this person to connect about similar struggles, sympathy over a situation they had never had to deal with, or focusing on a hobby someone mentioned.
Instead, they talked about how frustrating it was no one ever wants to be their friend.
I’ve been this person, so I felt sympathy. I thought about this desperate need I used to feel to belong somewhere, ANYWHERE, and it brought to mind that question I often asked myself- Why do you want people to hang out with you?
We are a social species
Most of the time I just wanted someone around to assure me I was someone people wanted to be around. This is not a bad thing to want, being a part of a social species.
The thing about being autistic is, you go through a lot of life wondering if people do want you around. Or at least, in my case, I wondered if people wanted me around because I had skills they could exploit, or did they actually like me as a person.
Over the course of a relationship, I found my personality shift from people thinking of me as useful and fun, to become too “prickly”, unable to easily get along with others – blamed for not trying hard enough to fit in (or trying too hard). Doubts would start to creep into minds – did anyone really know me, or was I just an elaborate screen hiding a manipulative narcissist.
And without me really understanding what just happened, that was the end of that friendship, job, relationship.
Reciprocated Efforts for Communication
When I recognized myself as autistic and realized why I was experiencing so many communication disconnections, I had an overwhelming desire to reach out to all the people who I thought wanted to be my friend in the past, to let them know why we struggled so much to connect.
I started to draft letters. I tried to craft the words that would express my hope- they would want to learn about this new understanding of my brain as much as I did.
The more I worked on a message, the more I thought about why I wanted to put all this effort into reconnecting with these people. They were a comfort zone. I had conflated familiarity with intimacy.
I couldn’t help but think that those who called me a friend would want to help me through this transition of helping me figure out this new understanding of my autistic brain. The more time I spent writing and explaining my thoughts, though, the more I realized that was what I wanted, not what they would necessarily do.
Transitioning My Mindset
I realized I wanted to hang out with people who were excited to learn about this new understanding of my brain, not with people who would be annoyed they had to do some work and adjust to my letting down the masks I didn’t even know I was holding.
I wanted to hang out with people that were happy to adjust their behavior so my brain could understand they liked me, with people who accepted that my brain did process reality differently than them and would reciprocate my efforts to understand their perspective by working at understanding my perspective.
I have adjusted from putting effort into connecting with people who don’t make an effort to understand me or what being a friend means to me. I have become less reluctant to move on to look for people who are excited to reciprocate my version of friendship and build a relationship where we can be happy and comfortable with each other.
The most challenging part of this transition was having to face the reality that I might not have many, or any, people left from before my recognition because I had to accept not everyone is capable of being in a relationship with me, even if they say they want to on the surface.
This is especially common with neurotypicals because they have a belief that being nice on the surface is better than being blunt, because the other person should understand the subtext of their tone or words, so as not to ‘cause a scene’. (I have a theory this is especially strong in societies that descend from English colonialism, because that is the majority culture of that island. It’s better to shut down strong emotions so people can get through the bleak days of winter, trapped in a cabin with only a few people, than let out emotions that can cause violence in the worst moment.) Ironically, this attitude actually creates the conditions that it is trying to avoid, but no one ever said humans were logical.
There are cultures, throughout time and around the world, that valued likely autistic people for their original thinking. If being blunt isn’t considered rude, you’re not likely to get shunned for being blunt, and other parts of your personality can be the defining aspect of “you”.
It’s the traits we don’t share with the dominant society that determines how others define your personality. This goes for neuros of every type.
Goal of Socializing
Once the feelings that I didn’t belong in society started to fade, because I knew why socializing had been so challenging, I had to determine why really I wanted friends. Which brings me back to the original question- Why did I want people to hang out with me?
I did want friends to feel wanted, to feel like I belonged in society, but there wasn’t the tinge of desperation that every person needed to like me to feel like I belonged. Instead, the goal became finding people I felt comfortable sharing my personality with, which comes out primarily through the interests I’m passionate about, while the other person feels comfortable and excited to share themself with me.
This comfort takes time to develop. At one point during this journey of self-discovery, that comfort extended to just one person. As my understanding of myself became more clear, I realized I had a few other people like this in my life.
Most of the people I feel comfortable with now have been in my life for about 10 years. None of those friendships started with instant, intimate knowledge of our life and traumas. That comfort came over time, sharing stories to discover we like sharing stories with each other. I realized all the people who lived in my comfortable category were people I was always able to stim and flap and be strange around, without feeling like they were rolling their eyes at my ‘dramatics’.
It was like I had discovered the codebook I had always imagined existed, that I had somehow missed getting at school: How To Communicate With Others. I knew I could build relationships in a way I wasn’t able to before and let go of the ones that didn’t work.
A simple process isn’t necessarily easy. This is not an easy process, though it may sound simple.
We don’t currently have a lot of support systems in our society for people who don’t have strong family connections (or money), so there were days and nights I wondered if I would be successful at this transition.
And it’s an ongoing process. Just like it is for neurotypicals as well.
That’s what helps me get through the lonely moments, which I still have my share of. I know I’m fortunate to be going through this process of self-discovery in the first place. So many people hide from themselves and go through life with a general sense of dissatisfaction. That helps me project empathy rather than feel hurt when a connection isn’t successful.
If someone is attempting to connect with me, that means they’re looking for something similar to what I am, but I don’t have to feel the burden of responsibility to connect; and I must extend that to others.
Doesn’t mean I’m not gonna have awkward moments or feel bad that someone doesn’t want to connect, but that doesn’t make anyone a bad person for it not working out.