Posted by: E (The Third Glance) | April 14, 2013

The Birthday Party: An Autism Acceptance Post

In honor of Autism Acceptance Month, I am sharing examples of people who really embody what autism acceptance means. (The first is here.)  Today I want to introduce you to my friend S.

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. 🙂

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Responses

  1. I love the puzzle suggestion or some similar activity that any or all can participate in if they want to, and the quiet space. As we are expecting a dear friend of mine in just a few more hours to arrive; she is staying with us for a few days, these suggestions are particularly timely. ❤

  2. Thank you for your beautifully written words. My son is autistic and it is difficult sometimes to explain to family members and friends how situations need to have adjustments and/or accommodations to help him avoid meltdowns. We have missed out on several events that people “assumed” would not be of interest to my son. All that resulted in was hurt feelings and lack of understanding from my son’s POV. I’m going to show them your post. I’m so glad to have found your blog!

  3. My favorite holiday party: music in the living room for the dancing/singing types. But we 3 aspie-types sat at the dining table making origami out of chocolate wrappers (ranged from classic swans to pyramids at Giza and bags of groceries). Having something to look at and fidget with made the conversation varied, wonderful and stress-free.

  4. Such an excellent post and I’m so glad you have good friends like S. My daughter has found one during high school and I hope this girl will continue to include her as school ends. Love your suggestions too.

    • What I have learned in my OT experience is- I have to take the initiative in finding people who might accept me also. This is the “magic formula” on having friends who will accept us for who we are multiply.

      But, if we did something that’s valued by by the people at the setting we are in (even better if they knew about them), there will be a flock of people who wants to accept us for who we are. I will name one example. The current American Occupational Therapy Association president mentioned my name a lot during my time as an OT student 2.5 years ago. I have since built on that momentum by knowing some big names in my field (and they got to know me too). Because of that, I have some OT students wanted to know me- from where I am studying my OTD now at USC and from other programs, too!

      My message is- we all are capable of doing something great. Having an initial group of people accepting us is great. But, in terms of greater level of acceptance, autistic people may want to aim for doing things that our NT counterparts will respect. It doesn’t have to be extraordinary… but just some things that will help them change their perceptions of autistic people.

  5. This is a nice list. In terms of my list… I would go with this.

    1. If it’s something I might like to go, invite me… even though I might not say yes all the time (not because I don’t like to go… but because I got to watch my wallet sometimes and the fact the environment can be quite overwhelming like you said).

    2. Put the event as a Facebook event. That way I can get an idea on who might be there. Also, it will be good to have a concrete idea of what the event might be about and where the event is.

    3. Instead of a quiet room, I will try to arrive the party early to map out potential escape spots.

    4. If anyone sees me being lonely, invite me to get involved- even though I might say no for the time being or say I will join them later.

  6. What a great article! My son has(d) some friends like yours but lately he has lost touch with them and that makes me sad because he’s happiest when he gets a chance to be around them. You’ve inspired me to encourage him to reach out and be the one to arrange a meetup.

    • This is something I am pretty good at (though I do have my share of blunders), Jodi. Social media can be an excellent way to reach out to the folks- whether it’s building a friendship or continuing a friendship. (I have done that with a good bit of my OT peers.) Unfortunately, neither of my parents were very good at computers- so I had to learn everything about social media on my own. While I am pretty good for the most part, sometimes I have done things that I didn’t realized I was out of line until some people I know pointed that out to me. What I would recommend is to teach him what are appropriate and what aren’t in social media.

  7. Your friend seems AMAZING! It’s wonderful that you were able to find someone who cares so much about you and can find ways to make situations that could otherwise be very uncomfortable more comfortable for you!
    My sensory overloads, fatigue, and issues that revolve around my anxiety disorder are so new that most people have no idea how to deal with them (honestly, I don’t either), so I hope I will be able to find friends like yours, who can take the time and effort to try to figure out ways to cater to my needs without excluding me!

    • Hiro, it is possible for us autistic people/people with autism (depending on which you wanna call it) to do this. Knowing a bunch of occupational therapy students and practitioners has really helped me because they tolerate these differences. They also have ways (not that I need them too much because I know what I needed to do through my own training) to help me deal with these things.

      I will give you an example. I had episodes of sensory overload a couple days ago in an OT conference that I went with a good bit of my peers. This caught me by surprise a little bit because I went to three conferences of similar scale with them before and these episodes never happened. I was little bit upset about the timing of it all because I was going to use part of that day to talk to potential employers. I think I eventually ended up accomplished 60% of my objectives in regards to this department goes. But, my peers then consoled me and said, “You did what you can do, you know. Plus, you are trying to make time for everybody who wants to see you on top of the sessions you wanted to go to. That’s already very good of you in an environment that you may not necessary be too comfortable in.”


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