(Content note: two mentions of fake/toxic friendships)
Today’s post is going to be a little different. The situation I am describing in today’s post happened to me a couple of weeks ago. After originally writing out my thoughts I decided to modify them into a blog post in the hope that this might help somebody whom has been in the position being describe understand a possible cause of somebody’s behaviour. I elaborate on the social situation first with possible interpretations before adding my own.
This is the best way I can work out how to phrase it so please bare with me. You work/study at the same university as this other person that you have been talking to for a while. Somebody whom you’ve found you have lots in common with and that has helped you a few times and vise versa. Someone whom you make some kind of connection with and they feel the same towards you. You also find out that they are on the autistic spectrum and/or infer it from their behaviour. This person is someone who you feel you can depend on. Then you feel that you can tell them that you consider them your best friend, and that you are here for them and you want to help them if they need to – in other words, explicitly showing closeness and/or the desire to foster it with them. You may find that if you do, they may not be sure what to say or be hesitant with what they do say. This is what happened between me and my friend (“You” referring to my friend and the other autistic person refers to me).
There is the possibility that this is the first time that the autistic person has heard somebody say this to them having gone through life with little to no friends or no close friends. They may be happy or cry at the thought of finally feeling that their desires to make friends has been seemingly validated by someone else. They may worry that their response may make you lose interest in being her friend so is anxious about how to respond. This is on top of the usual processing time and other communication difficulties that is part of autism.
Of course, there will likely be subconscious doubts as well going through their mind. “What if they turn out to be a fake friend or worse?” and “Are they just saying this so I can let my guard down?” are just two of many possible thoughts in this situation. With autistic people being generally more vulnerable as well as more experienced with fake/toxic friendships many are naturally on guard, and rightfully so. The “fake/toxic friend” checklists that they have drawn up from their own experiences and/or manually learn from lists come into play here. “Am I really making the right decision investing so much into this person?” is a common though with both NTs and autistic people however it is even more important for the latter. Every friendship is essentially a risk and both NTs and autistic people know this. However, some autistic people have been so badly burned in the past they have given up on friendships altogether (or even hate neurotypicals).
For me personally, I wasn’t really sure how to react to this situation when it happened to me and I’m still not. I haven’t really had anybody I would consider a best friend through my whole life, just “good friends” or blood relatives so adjusting to the thought of adjusting to being called a “best friend” is very difficult. I consider the person that said this to me as a “good friend,” but as he knows about me being autistic I felt comfortable explaining that I didn’t really know how to take it. He worked out that it was because I’m not used to it. It saved me a lot of work and that aspect I’m grateful to him. I think I feel this way about other strong bonds too (like being somebody’s significant other or referring to someone else as a family relative “from another mother”) though I don’t fully understand it. From what I can infer there’s a lot of social signifiance to these references which are normally used for close friendships.
However, there is one major takeaway I’d like everyone reading this to take with them – Autistic people make some of the best friends around whether we are your best friends or not. We are faithful to you and the friendship and resist badmouthing you. We usually have a strong sense of right or wrong and we tell it to you like it is. You will know where you stand with us. Just like you want friendships, most of us want friendships too (contrary to a common believe about autistic people). We may not know what to do or show it in a neurotypical or autistic way, but we do care about you. We may not feel the urge to contact you frequently (a common feature of many NT friendships) possibly due to anxiety or other reasons. There may be certain environments we don’t want to go to with you (ie. pubs, bars, theatres) due to sensory issues or because they need to socially recover from the day ahead or adhere to any routine we have. We may feel the urge to return the favour to you and they likely will someday. After all, you are somebody whom is showing to them what often very few people do – genuine friendship. Of course, there are exceptions to what is stated in the above paragraph.
Autism alone does not indicate whether a friendship is good or not as that comes down to other factors. To give a few starting points – how well does this person treat me? Do we have something in common? How often do we contact each other? Am I comfortable with this person? There are some autistic people that do create fake/toxic friendships too but that is not because of autism rather other factors.
If you see someone you know be a bit uncomfortable with the thought of being referred to as your best friend, consider anything brought up in this post as a possible reason. Feelings cannot be predicted of course so these possible situations are just hypothetical examples that differs from person to person. In that sense the best thing to do may be simply to ask them or at least try to infer meanings from their body language/speech if you feel you are good enough at doing that. It is important to hear about perspectives like this however – these perspectives typically don’t appear in the usual NT information sphere and this has led to countless misunderstandings across the world.
Long live authentic friendships.