Friendship, in the context of undiagnosed autism

I have had three good friends in my life. At least, they were good friends to me but I’m not sure I was a good friend to them. I thought I was, but I now realise that’s because my perception of friendship was skewed by my autism. For the purposes of this post, I will call my friends A, B & C. And describe our friendship, starting with the one that lasted the least amount of time. 

I met A on my first day of university. We were both looking at the map (me because I love studying maps, I actually knew the campus quite well),  and I thought she might be from out-of-town and maybe lost, so asked what department she was looking for. Turned out we were both going to the same place. She was indeed from the country, and didn’t know a soul. I spotted some people I knew from school and we tagged along with them. Soon, it was me tagging along, while A flitted from one set of friends to another, seemingly at ease everywhere. We both joined the karate club and bonded over that. Not much chat needed while punching each other! We went clubbing together, we hung out, I even stayed over at her parents house once or twice. But we never really chatted too much. I never really knew what was going on in her life. I never really asked. We drifted apart after we graduated. I bumped into her years later. I was married and pregnant. She was on day release from the locked psychiatric ward of the local hospital. I didn’t know what to say. I regret not at least getting her number. I think of her often. 

B was a new student at my secondary school. Before she came along, I had hung out with two other oddballs, one a Jehovah’s Witness, and the other a chronically ill girl (turns out she has EDS. What are the odds of that?). We were the three ‘rejects’. The kids nobody else really spoke to. So we sat together at breaks and bitched about life. B was different though. She was inclusive. She invited me to her birthday party (my first in ten years, after a few disastrous invites when I was 6), set me on a date with her brother (my first boyfriend! Lasted all of two awkward weeks) and let me tag along with her. I quickly absorbed her likes and dislikes, read the books she read, obsessed on the same bands and tv shows. We used to go to concerts together, of an Irish choral group who performed in old churches and sang ancient songs. Not much chat needed there either. When I lived in Boston for a year, we became old-fashioned ‘pen-pals’ and wrote each other long letters. How I used to wait for the mailman! For years I would have considered her my ‘best friend’. We each got pregnant around the same time, her first child being five months older than mine. And when I lived nearer her, we would often meet for coffee and our kids would play in parallel. After a few years though, I moved away.  I talked about her constantly, even to my mother-in-law. But I didn’t actually talk to her all that much. And then she finally emigrated. I didn’t realise there was a need for talk. That I should have asked how she was, how she was getting on. I never occurred to me to. I thought thinking about her was enough! And so, I never knew that herself and her family were homeless for a while. I’ve now learnt that I am way down on her friends list. Yup, she made it clear that I’m not a good friend at all. 

C is the friend I’ve known the longest. Our moms are best friends. (In fact, her mom is my moms only friend. Familiar?!) We grew up down the road from each other. We went to primary school together. I used to call round to her quite often. We played this game I liked, where we’d write out questions and quizzes for each other (what’s your favourite colour, what actor do you fancy, what job do you want when you grow up) and then swap to read each other’s answers. No talking needed! Or we’d bring her dog for long walks and chat side-by-side (no eye contact needed!). Or her family would take me to their place in the mountains and we’d go exploring the streams and bogs. And again, her likes influenced mine. The fist tape I ever bought was ‘Kylie’, because that’s what she listened to. And I developed an interest in baking Devil’s Food Cake with her, though I never really ate it.  We kind of kept in touch, via dog walking, through secondary school and university, though we went to different ones, and had occasional nights out together. Eventually she got a job in London and that was that. Again, I never really initiated contact, nor really asked how she was doing. She got married, moved countries a few more times, had kids, and has now returned to London. Our mothers are still best friends. And it’s through the ‘mommy grapevine’ ( we coined it that when my mom told her mom who told her, that I was pregnant, before I could tell her.) that I learnt that she is going through her second bout of breast cancer. And, this time, I’m really trying to ask her how she is. I still don’t know what to say. But I’m going to try to learn. 

Through thinking of these three friendships, and the themes that run through them, I am learning so much, and seeing how so much can be explained once explored through an autistic lens. How I used imitation and being a chameleon to try to form bonds. How I developed ways to connect without having to chat too much (and never on the phone!) or make eye contact too often. How I genuinely care, but don’t know how to express that in words or deeds. How I’m not too clued in on the give-and-take of friendships ( I feel guilty I take too often). How those friends meant the world to me, I had so few, but I was only one of their many many friends. And how much maintaining friendships takes so much out of me. But I’m going to keep trying, and maybe I’ll still have one when I’m old and grey. Because everybody needs at least one friend. 

  

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2 thoughts on “Friendship, in the context of undiagnosed autism

  1. My husband is undiagnosed aspergers (be cause he is terrified of having to go and talk with a psychiatrist). He has had very few friends growing up and most he keeps in very little contact with. His best friend lives in another state and they keep in touch, but not that much. The few friends he hasade near us he wishes he could hang out with but he is two anxious to reach out and usually cancels at the last moment. He has told me he wants friends while at the same time the idea of going out or having someone over makes him physically ill. But he has me, and I love him so much. We have been together 15 years, married for 12. He only recently, in the last year or so, has finally excepted that he has aspergers. I think that had made a huge difference in him understanding himself and me understanding him. Baby steps in the direction you want to go. Good luck.

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  2. I think that I have undiagnosed ADD, and seem to have been haemmorhaging friends recently. I think that I’ve been doing the kind of thing you’ve been doing – being too self-absorbed, and not asking them enough about how they are doing, and what they are up to. It would have been very nice if they had told me what the problem was, though! I’m apparently not good at noticing things like that.

    It is sad to lose friends you care about immensely, and to do so because you haven’t picked up on social cues that neurotypicals seem to manage so easily feels unjust. I am now a bit scared of making new friends, because it feels as though that’s just setting myself up for more rejection.

    I am very lucky that I do still have a few faithful old friends, though. Not the kind I see very often (it can get quite lonely on a day-to-day basis, particularly when I don’t have the mental energy to pick up the phone or reply to an e-mail), but the kind who are lovely, and whom I enjoy when I see them.

    I’m trying to work towards asking some of my friends to tell me about what’s going on with them without my prompting, so that conversations are more equal. I, too, feel as though I take too much from my friends, and give so little.

    Good luck. I’m rooting for you.

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