I’d like to preface today’s post by introducing you to an in-real-life friend of mine named Chris. I’ve known Chris for quite a long time; we first met in first grade when we were just six years old. We were alright friends in early elementary school. I remember going to a few of his birthdays and I have an oddly specific memory of being “reading buddies” in second grade. I changed schools in fourth grade and fell out of touch with him for a long time, which was a mistake. About two years ago I was looking to find a friend that lived closer to me, found Chris again via Facebook, and now via the wonders of the internet we’re really good friends again. You can see in the images below what ten years of difference looks like. (I’m the redhead, by the way).
Christopher is autistic too. There’s some stuff I’ve read recently about autistic friendship, a subject of this blog post, and I thought this was a good way to introduce this topic (now that I’ve gotten Chris’ permission to mention him!)
I’ve actually had a good handful of autistic friends in my life. Depending on what you count as a friend (because I’m still not sure what defines a friend versus a friendly acquaintance) most of my half dozen or so true friends over the years have been autistic. Many times they’ve been my only friends, typically because I tend to only have a friend or two at a time because that’s about the maximum I can handle in terms of social investment. From what I’ve heard, autistic people tend to have autistic friends, even if not on purpose. Autistic people tend to attract each other (like we’re magnets or something I guess). Autistic people tend to get along better with other autistic people.
I actually think I understand why this is. When Chris and I get together, it’s always straight to the point, no need for draining unnecessary small talk. Conversation is more meaningful that way I think. When I’m with non-autistic people, I often feel like I can’t keep pace with the discussion, as true meaning is couched within metaphor, hidden messages, speculations, and body language. It’s exhausting and confusing. I can’t process what’s going on fast enough. But with my autistic friends everything is direct, literal, logical, and to the point, just how I like it. My autistic friends have never cared about what I looked like or what fancy things I owned or how “popular” I was, whilst non-autistic people seem to have this tendency to put everyone on a hierarchy by some definition of status. Non-autistic people will often prefer to go and “hang out” in some nebulous fashion, often in an environmental sensory hell like a mall or coffee shop. With autistic people we can bond over special interests. We know the value of simply being in someone’s presence even if the outside observer wouldn’t call it “interacting. It’s a phenomenon often called “parallel play,” and one that is often given as an example of “social deficits” or “non-functional interactions.” They’re wrong on this point, of course, because this is certainly the opposite of non-functional. It’s simply that non-autistic people don’t understand it, so they assume it’s not valuable or is a “deficit.”
With all this, I feel like I can “keep up with” autistic people better than I can non-autistic people. I feel like I can relate to and understand them better, on a fundamental level. I’ve felt this way even before I made that connection to autism. This isn’t to say that I don’t value my relationships with any of my non-autistic friends, it’s just harder. I have a harder time communicating with non-autistic people and I have a harder time starting friendships with them and them with me, I think mostly because my autistic body language doesn’t give off the signals they expect and so I seem “closed off” a lot of the time.
This is why I find it funny when people write about autism as a primarily social disability. For one, that’s a tiny part of autism and one that often overshadows other more pressing concerns. But it also to me doesn’t even seem to be entirely true. Autistic people get along great with other autistic people. I don’t perceive other autistic people as “lacking in social skills,” whatever that’s supposed to mean. (Seriously, what counts as a social skill? I really don’t know.)
The funnier thing though, is that the feeling is mutual. Autistic people seem perceive non-autistic people as “lacking in social skills” even if we don’t express it that way. Go to any autistic-only group on Facebook and you’ll see discussion about the weird or confusing ways non-autistic people communicate. For this reason, I am proposing a paradigm shift in the way we, society as a whole, think about autism:
Autistic people don’t lack social skills. Autistic people have different social skills.
Oh sure, autistic people may not recognize neurotypical body language or pick up all the social rituals, but we’re pretty damn good at communicating with other autistic people.
I hope the above bolded statement doesn’t need any more explanation, I feel as though it’s pretty self-explanatory and honestly I used nearly all of my language processing resources on making the last several paragraphs articulate enough to convey in words what I’m thinking, so I can’t do much more explaining in this post. All I wish is that my readers today think a little bit about what’s being proposed here and apply it.
For example, when there’s communication challenges between an autistic person and an allistic (non-autistic) person, whether those challenges are incredibly severe or a minor communication slip, it is always the autistic person that’s blamed. “They’re the one with the disability after all,” they say, “maybe with some more therapy they can learn to communicate like a ‘normal’ person.” Why is it that autistic people are said to have “deficits” in communicating with non-autistic people but non-autistic people are never said to have “deficits” in communicating with autistic people? Why are autistic people the one’s that people seem to think need to learn to communicate? Why are non-autistic people rarely expected to learn how to communicate with autistic people?
I know this post has been pretty abstract and open ended. I like writing this blog because it gives me a place to organize the chaotic sometimes unmanageable dimension of my mind on these topics, and also hopefully I can help educate and grow acceptance in the process. I’m glad you’ve stuck with me. I hope that you’ll take this idea and think about it. Perhaps it’s just another item on the list of things we need to change in the way we think about autism.