Be an Aspy ally this holiday season.
Drinking and coffee culture is exclusive to the Normals.
Let me explain what I mean by that.
When you invite the Aspy in your life to “drinks” or “coffees” and they actually show up, boy… they must really love you.
Do you know someone who appears to have great affection for you but seems reluctant to “hang out”? Do you sometimes feel resentful, even? Why would someone who clearly likes you be so reluctant to go to the pub or cafe with you to “shoot the breeze”?
Alternatively, you may have a mate who does do those things with you, but tends to retreat to the bathroom more times than the human bladder really requires, when you know they don't have a medical condition to explain it. You may have a friend who only ever stays for an hour, mumbles an attempt at a white lie and retreats home.
It may be more subtle; they may appear to change when they are in busy social environments - they may appear to clam up and withdraw, or go the opposite direction…. become strangely loud and obnxious, wild-eyed and a little wacky. They may “act out”, sometimes saying things that are inappropriate or just a little weird… but all seemingly in an attempt to impress others or "pass" as an outgoing person.
The other thing you may see is that the individual seems generally very anxious, and seems to only be able to discuss stressful or negative things that are focused on their own life’s stressors only.
Christmas parties. Family barbeques. Sporting events, restaurants, cafes and play-gyms with seating for the parents. Food courts. Agricultural shows/county fairs. Shopping centres, clubs, pubs, wine bars, busy urban beaches. The way that non-autistics (referred to by autism specialists and advocates as “neurotypicals” or “NTs”) tend to socialise in Western society sounds so normal, doesn’t it?
Why’s it normal? Does “normal” refer to things that most people do?
That really just refers to a “bell-curve” way of thinking, doesn’t it?
I mean, if that’s what “normal” is, we’re talking in pure mathematics and statistics, and not necessarily superiority.
In short, why do we assume that ALL our friends like to do friendship the same way “most” people do? Why are we offended when our friends don’t appear to be “making an effort”? Maybe we just don’t do friendship the same way. Maybe there are different dimensions and manifestations to friendships, and maybe our offence springs from the assumption that our friends behave in certain ways because of choice.
In fact, people on the autism spectrum may appear to have the same freedom to attend social events, and may indeed attempt to exercise that choice by turning up to your event. However, because of the norms our society has established around social interaction, that individual is faced with consequences either way.
For the adult on the spectrum, they may ignore their need for quiet and solitude to attend your social gathering, but feel anxious, out of place or irritable. The social environment for the autistic has a lot of variables, let alone the sensory environment immediately surrounding them. Strong smells, windy days, clanging plates and utensils, sudden eruptions of laughter in a busy restaurant and party lighting can all have the efffect of scrambling an autistic’s brain, making it nearly impossible for them to focus on a conversation with you. All the while, they feel intense pressure to appear as cool as a cucumber.
Your friend may often “mask” for the duration of the event, only to go home feeling drained or even more anxious. The term “masking” is a word that autistics use a lot. If you’ve ever had to “put on a brave face” to get through something, you’ll have a tiny degree of understanding of what masking is. If you can imagine having to do that each and every time you leave your home, or when visitors enter your home, you can get some idea of what we’re referring to. Masking also has a close relationship with gender. Expectations of adults on the spectrum differ slightly depending on their gender, who their friends are and how their gang regularly socialises.
If the adult Aspy should choose to turn down an invitation to socialise in a noisy, overstimulating environment, they face the knowledge that they may have caused their friends or loved ones to feel rejected or hurt. They also often have anxiety to contend with, which may or may not come with its own distortions related to self-worth or their “performance” as a friend. These distortions will ease off as the adult gains more insight into autism and begins to understand that it’s okay to be themselves.
Autistics also often have what we call “special interests”. They are able to focus intensely on single tasks for a much longer period of time than neurotypicals, and unlike the exhaustion others feel when long periods of concentration are required, your friend will feel happy and in the zone when engaged in that activity. This is an extraordinary ability that the world is only just beginning to understand. When it comes to the relationship between special interests and social interaction, we’ve barely begun to scratch the surface in helping the community around us understand what it all means. For you, a person who adores the Aspy in your life, it generally means that a grand shift in perception of “work” and “play” needs to occur. If your friend is currently intensely focused on a task that requires days of dedication, your social activity may have “taken them away” from their special interests and hobbies, they may feel they have fallen behind in their productivity. Their desire to progress and remain in that pleasurable state of mental flow may simply outweigh their desire to be in a room drinking beer with you. That’s not personal. They still love you. It is simply two completely different dimensions to their way of being, when the rest of the world considers those two things to exist on the same plane for direct comparison or prioritisation.
What adults on the spectrum will often say is that they have a small, intimate circle of friends (as opposed to a large herd of looser-knit friends) and that they value and desire friendship, but need to operate in friendships on their own terms.
For the adult on the spectrum, a sense of control over their time and the flexibility to exercise their own social choices is important. This may be something you also see as an important component of your own autonomy, but for adults on the spectrum, the absence of that autonomy and choice has greater consequences than for neurotypicals.
So how can you be a great ally to your friend who happens to be somewhere on the autism spectrum? A few things.
Learn the meanings of terms like “masking”, and understand that adults on the spectrum do not choose the way their brain works any more than you can choose your shoe size.
Understand that adults on the autism spectrum often experience anxiety to some degree, and this is in part due to the incompatible nature of the social world; not because they are deficient, “weird” or inconsiderate.
Understand that for each hour of intense social activity, particularly at parties or events involving a high number of interactions with different people, your friend needs TWO HOURS of recovery time.
If your friend appears to “tune out” while you’re talking, don’t take it personally. Perhaps suggest moving to a quieter area to talk, without pointing directly to their obvious difficulties in maintaining focus on your conversation.
Happy socialising! Next time you want to get together, try setting a “finish time” for your activity and sticking to it. This assists your friend to manage their expectations and anxiety for your time together, and as a result, they can squeeze all possible value of the time they spend with you.