S is a friend of mine from undergrad. She’s a super wonderful person, and despite several members of the “group” of friends we both were part of freshman year deciding that I was “too weird to belong”, she stood by me, and became a staunch friend. For her, acceptance really was learning to take “the third glance”, but she did, and she did willingly, even with people all around her telling her to stop. She has sat by me and helped me navigate social situations. She has gone out of her way to read books and articles about autism and girls, just to better understand me. And for that, my friend S is one of the most amazing people I know.
A little background: S studied abroad in Vietnam several years ago, and has been saying since she got back, that she wanted to cook us all Vietnamese food. She and her partner R enjoy throwing dinner “parties”, and they always include me. They even go out of their way to make sure that I can come over and have fun and still feel safe and comfortable in a situation which would otherwise be very difficult – lots of people, lots of food, late at night, etc. They have always had a quiet space for me, and they often have a puzzle or similar game out on the table for us to all work on if we want – this is especially awesome, because it gives us a built in thing to socialize around. And they always make sure there is food I can eat.
The most recent of these gatherings happened last month, around S’s birthday. She and R had recently moved into an apartment of their own, and wanted to finally have that Vietnamese food dinner, so they decided that S’s birthday was as good an excuse as any, and invited several of us over, giving us several weeks of advance notice before the actual event. This is great, because it gives me time to prepare for a change in my routine, and get ready for something. They also shared the menu beforehand, and then S even reached out to me privately and asked if I could eat what she was going to cook. On the menu, she included “plain white rice (for picky eaters)” – telling me she was thinking about me, and wanted to be sure that I did have something I could eat. S knows all about my limitations with foods, about how I have difficulty with strange textures and mixed textures. And instead of ignoring it, she happily made sure that there was at least something that I could eat. The day of the birthday dinner, she even called me from the store and asked if she could pick up something else to make for me, “just in case you don’t like what I’ve made”. (I declined, but thanked her very much for thinking about it.)
The actual dinner party is always somewhat stressful for me, and this one I went into somewhat overloaded. Even though there were only eight people, it was still loud, and there were lots of conversations going on at once. Add that to the strange foods and a “plus one” of one of our friends who couldn’t seem to keep his hands off of me*, and you get a very stimmy, rather overloaded E. After dinner, we went to the living room, and S provided a spinning chair that I could spin around in to calm down while still being part of the group. She and R also made a “quiet spot” for me that I could go wander off to if necessary, to calm down and get out of the loud for a while.
Later that evening, S needed to take the dog for a walk, and invited me along. I readily agreed, and we headed out. She remarked after we’d gotten out the door “you looked like you could use a break”. Yes. Exactly. We enjoyed a nice leisurely walk around the block, and actually got caught up with each other’s lives in a situation where we both could give the other our full attention. When we got back to the apartment, the walk had served several purposes – one, the dog was much happier, and I had been able to calm down and get out of the spiral that was leading towards sensory meltdown. We were also able to interact and communicate with each other, something that we hadn’t had a chance to do for a while.
One of the misconceptions of autistic people is that they never want to be part of a group, because they don’t actually want friends. This is, of course, completely bogus. There are probably autistic people who have no interest in having friends, but most of us don’t feel that way. Because of S, I have a group of friends who enjoy my company and will go out of their way to make sure that I am included in their gatherings, but also don’t make a production of it. Small accommodations are easy to make, but they mean so much more. Thank you, S, for looking beyond my weirdness and accepting me for who I am.
A few tips for including your autistic friends in your social gatherings (or, stuff I’ve learned from S):
1. Always ask your friend to come along on group outings. But don’t take it personally if they say “no”. Please do not assume that just because you’re doing something you know they won’t want to do (in my case, for example, going out to a club/bar), that you just shouldn’t invite them, and just because they said “no” once, doesn’t mean they’ll say “no” again next time.
Knowing that my friends did something all together and didn’t even invite me hurts. You can always say something like “I know this probably isn’t your thing, but we’re planning to go to xx bar next weekend, if you would like to join us let me know. I totally understand if you don’t, though”. I always smile when someone says that to me, because it means that they aren’t deliberately excluding me. I know that my NT friends enjoy stuff I can’t stand. And I don’t hold that against them at all – they’re not me, and I certainly don’t have to be included in everything. But it’s always nice to be invited. Along with this, though, please do not take a declined invitation personally. The response “thank you for inviting me, but I think that’s not really my thing” really does mean “thank you for inviting me. That is really not something I would enjoy, but I really appreciate your offering to include me”. It isn’t a veiled “I don’t want to hang out with you anymore”. Learning to understand “autistic” can sometimes take a while, but I promise, it’s worth it.
2. Have a neutral group activity, such as a puzzle. Puzzles are great, because they can sit on the coffee table, and if you want to work on it, you do, and if you don’t, you don’t. It’s something that can be worked on while conversation is going on, and is something that can be fiddled with as a stim. Puzzles are also just really fun.
3. Provide a “quiet space” – I know this isn’t really possible in all apartments/homes. But even a corner of your bedroom so that one can shut the door for a little while, is better than nothing.
4. Always ask about food, and if possible, include the autistic person in menu-planning (if you are providing food).
5. Be aware of your autistic friend’s challenges, but don’t let that define how you treat them. And don’t be afraid to ask questions about how you can better interact with and include them.
This list is not exhaustive, and it is geared towards, well, me, because I can draw only from my own experiences. This does not apply to all autistic people, but it is a good starting point. Feel free to add (respectful) suggestions in the comments. 🙂