Jane texted back and declined my lunch invitation because she would be out of town again. Following other weekend options, she claimed she would be out of town every weekend for the next month.
Funny, considering that she was out of town the last three times, I asked her to meet up with me.
Once I made the connection, it felt as though my organs dropped like an armload of sopping wet towels smacking the floor. Another friendship ended. As usual, I did not know why.
Was I too blunt? Did I come across as rude? Was I too clingy? Did I repeatedly talk about the same things?
Friendships suddenly ending seems to be a trend for me.
It seems to be the trend for a lot of women with Asperger’s Syndrome (Aspies).
Aspies have difficulty creating and maintaining friendships – friendships end suddenly with no warning or understanding of why for the Aspie.
I didn’t know that I have Asperger’s Syndrome, so I could not speak up for myself during my friendship with Jane. I could not prepare her for what a friendship with an Aspie would look like. Would the friendship have continued if she knew? Maybe, but disclosure doesn’t guarantee empathy and understanding.
So, why are friendships so difficult for Aspies?
A lack of social skills can make relationships difficult.
When neurotypical individuals carry on a conversation, they rely on often subtle non-verbal social cues. These can be things like facial expressions, shifts in tone, and body language. Non-verbal social cues are inherently valuable in conveying emotions and regulating the flow of the conversation.
An Aspie may not catch these things, thus disrupting the flow of the conversation.
Verbal processing can complicate matters as well. We need more time to process the conversation and, when we miss non-verbal cues, we can lose the conversation. Many times, I’ve contributed to a conversation, not realizing the group moved on from the original topic.
Other traits of Aspies in a social situation include coming across as blunt, difficulty with small talk, monitoring voice level, picking up on sarcasm, and understanding jokes. It is essential to keep in mind that each Aspie (or any autistic individual) has a social skill level unique to them.
Sensory issues can be an obstacle to building relationships, too.
For Aspie women, sensory issues make it challenging to maintain friendships since group activities are an integral part of socializing. Milestone events such as attending baby showers, weddings, birthdays, and girls’ night out, while revitalizing neurotypical women, these gatherings drain the energy reserves of an autistic woman. But these milestones and events are at the heart of female friendships.
I would prefer to stay home than venture out into a very crowded and loud scene. Aspie brains process the world around us differently than neurotypical brains. Unlike neurotypicals, our brains cannot organize and filter out unimportant environmental stimuli.
For example, let’s talk about baseball. I love baseball. My family and I attend baseball games every year (before COVID, of course). Although I enjoy visiting the ballpark, it is also a source of great anxiety. A neurotypical can watch the game and chat with friends and walk around the ballpark without hesitation. For me, it isn’t so easy. I can’t filter out the roaring crowd and the cheers echoing off the concrete walls while focusing on a conversation. For a temporary escape and relief from the overstimulating environment, I must live in my head and completely ignore my surroundings. I can either completely experience my environment or completely shut it out: there is not an in-between.
With enough advance notice, some Aspies can “emotionally prep” for the experience; but it is emotionally draining. We need time in between social events to recharge. This means friends may not see us for a while, and we stick to good ‘ole text messaging.
But these ‘breaks’ from the relationship can often be difficult for other women to understand.
Aspies have a penchant for routine.
Aspies thrive on routine and repetition. When we know what to expect, we can be prepared. Every weekday and Saturday have their own set-in-stone routine for me. To disrupt my routine is anxiety-inducing. If plans are made several weeks in advance, I have the time to come to terms with the disruption. But one or two days before? Nope. Can’t make it.
“Reality to an autistic person is a confusing, interacting mass of events, people, places, sounds and sights… Set routines, times, particular routes and rituals all help to get order into an unbearably chaotic life. Trying to keep everything the same reduces some of the terrible fear.”Jolliffe (1992) in Howlin (2004), p.137.
Passing for normal has consequences.
Many female Aspies analyze and adopt neurotypical girls/women’s social culture. In this way, we create a “mask” to appear normal. By purposely editing our social performance to align with society’s expectations, we can give the illusion of good social skills while suppressing our autistic characteristics. But, to keep this “mask” on, we spend a lot of mental energy.
To keep up with masking–purposely creating a social persona to appear normal–we sacrifice our health.
Years of negative social experiences can build up and cause social anxiety and depression, which we carry into future social situations. When past friends have responded negatively to our social stumbles, we try even hard to cover them up or adapt to avoid it in the future.
What can we do?
It would be fantastic to experience a world where Aspies can walk into friendships–autistic tendencies and all. The drastic increase in autistic studies, awareness, and education in the past decade proves optimistic. People are interested in understanding us better and what they can do to be an ally to the autistic community.
Maybe soon, more people will be open to meeting us halfway. Perhaps you are one of them. If you are, then welcome!
Please take the time to learn about us, look past our differences, and recognize our strengths. We are loyal, honest, passionate, and don’t rely as much on social expectations.
Here are some things you can do to help us:
- Don’t believe the stereotypes. Do the research, ask us questions, and learn what life is like for us. For example, we do not lack empathy despite the stereotype. The way we experience the world differs from how ‘normal’ people experience the world. This means that both groups have difficulty seeing the world from the view of the other group. Like a relationship–it is a two-way street!
- Listen to and read about Asperger’s from an our perspective. It would not be an accurate representation for a man to discuss a woman’s perspective on life. So, why would you listen to a neurotypical person explain what life is like for an Aspie?
- If our directness offends you, ask for clarification. Give us the benefit of the doubt by allowing us the opportunity to clarify what we say. You find that, in most cases, we don’t intend for our messages to appear rude. ‘Normal’ people rely on social graces and politeness more so than Aspies. We learn them and try to use them. Still, it isn’t easy to maintain because it goes against our need for honest and direct communication.
- Share your expectations and be direct. Aspies don’t always pick up on hints or non-verbal cues.
Most importantly, don’t try to fix us. We aren’t broken. We experience the world a little differently.
I’ll be honest; jealousy hits me each time I watch a TV show or movie with a strong female friendship. Sometimes it moves me to tears.
I’m missing out on this.
It would be nice to have someone to call when I need advice or support or just a friendly laugh.
Because Aspies need friends, too.