One of the things I find most difficult in life is making and keeping friends. There are two reasons why:
Reason 1: Cognitive empathy
I hope you know that ‘autistic people have no empathy’ is a silly myth.
There are actually two types of empathy:
- affective empathy: the ability to understand how someone else is feeling
- cognitive empathy; the ability to understand what someone else is thinking
Autistic people feel affective empathy just as neurotypical people do, but we tend to have more extreme sensitivities to this. Some autistic people are undersensitive and can’t feel it much, and some are oversensitive and can feel it much more than most people. Personally, I am oversensitive, which means that I tend to get emotionally over invested in things and people. But cognitive empathy is where most of my difficulties lie in terms of friendship.
Neurotypical people have what I call an ‘instinctive brain’. This means that knowing what to say in social situations and understanding others comes naturally. Their brain has the magical ability to just tell them what to say or to understand the social aspects of life, from what I’ve been told.
However, autistic people have ‘systematic brains’. I learn by experience. This applies to most things: understanding internal bodily sensations and what emotions they mean I am feeling, how to talk to people; and since we are on the topic of friendships: cognitive empathy.
To put it simply, if I meet someone new I immensely struggle to understand them and their point of view. As a result, I am easily tricked and scammed by people on the street.
Recently, someone told me they needed £20 to buy petrol to go and see their mum who was in hospital after having a heart attack and they said they would pay me back later if I gave them my phone number. So I gave them my last £20 that had to last me 2 days. An hour later, I realised that I didn’t have their number so couldn’t contact them, and that the hospital was only a 20 minute walk away, so of course he just wanted to steal my money. Thanks brain.
On the plus side, like I said I learn by experience. The more I see, talk to and get to know an individual, the more I understand them. If I have known someone for long enough, I eventually get up to the point where it seems like I instinctively understand that person, when really it’s just lots of practice, analysing and reflecting.
To have positive experiences with and develop friendships with people, you need to have a good level of understanding of them. You need to work out whether the person actually likes you and wants to spend time with you, whether they just say they are your friend so they can use you or they aren’t really your friend and spend time with you because they have sympathy for you, amongst a plethora of other reasons. This is without even trying to work out likes and dislikes, their personality, what it is appropriate to talk to them about, their sense of humour, what makes them angry and more. There is a lot to work out and meeting new people takes a toll.
This is before taking into account the silly things neurotypical people do too. Like not being honest and genuine so you are misinformed about how they are really feeling and ‘fluffing things up’, or when they don’t give you enough information to come to a proper judgement. Just as there are things to learn about an individual, there are just as many strange ways of using language that are incompatible with an autistic brain.
And of course people change all the time, so knowing someone also dooms you to an endless process of analysing and reflecting. All of this makes meeting new people absolutely exhausting.
Some days, I just sit in my room and avoid people all day to have a break from all of this. Other days, I come home and I am too mentally exhausted to relax, so I sit and do nothing instead of reading a book or playing some games.
By the way, the above is the process for getting to know one individual. Group situations make this process even more tiresome and difficult.
Reason 2: Reciprocity
The key to a positive friendship is reciprocity. That is making sure there is a similar amount of give and take in the friendship.
I didn’t realise until recently that in most of my friendships I was giving but not getting anything in return. People used to be friends with me because I helped them with their homework, with studying and other things like that. If I didn’t help with education, most of these people wouldn’t have even spoken to me. When I decided to stop masking so much and stop hiding the fact that I’m autistic, I realised I had to stop associating with these people. Even though I could call them ‘friends’, I was using all of my energy pleasing them without anything in return, and it isn’t fair. So now I have a lot less friends, but people I still enjoy spending time with are real friends, and I am a real friend for them too, as far as I am aware
The problem here is calculating the value of the reciprocity.
How do you put a value on the amount of positivity someone has received from the time you have spent with them? If I have had a more positive time than them, what and how much do I give to balance things out? Have they lost out by being with me because they could have spent the time doing other things? What about time itself, how much value does that have? Is the other person’s time more valuable than mine? As you can see, this gets complicated, that’s before even thinking about the smaller things, like buying things for each other, doing each other favours and even smaller things than that:
If I’m invited somewhere with someone and they’re driving, how much do I offer them for parking? If they insist they’re paying, do I still need to pay anyway so that I’m not taking too much? This sort of thing literally takes over my mind. A few weeks ago I went to Leeds with someone to watch a film premiere. Unfortunately, the parking couldn’t be paid for until we were ready to leave. This meant that I spent most of the time worrying about how much I need to pay, whether or not the there person would let me pay some money towards it and the implications of different scenarios. In the end, I got money out to pay half the cost and he refused and paid it all, and this still comes to my mind because it feels like I have taken something but didn’t give anything in return, meaning that our relationship is unbalanced.
Being autistic and anxious about most things, I try my best to make sure I get the least amount from other people and give as much to other people as possible. I refuse to let anyone spend any money on me or do too much for me, because I am so anxious about the implications this will have on the reciprocity and don’t want to comprise a positive friendship with someone by doing so. Though I am more than happy to spend most of my money on other people (as long as they don’t do it in return). The more important I feel someone is in my life, the more I hate it when they give me things. The downside of this way of thinking is that I can easily overwhelm people by offering too much, which actually happens a lot more than you may think.
I spend the majority of my spare time thinking about reciprocity. One thing that has been on my mind recently is that one of my autistic traits is being a perfectionist and as a result I am a very sore loser. The problem with this is that if I beat people in games I feel like I’m taking a lot without giving and as a result ruining a friendship, but if I lose a game I get annoyed and react negatively, which again has negative implications. I really wish I could be happy about losing as gaming can create a huge imbalance, and I’m sure it has several times. Surely if I lose on purpose for the benefit of the other person it shouldn’t really matter? But according to my brain, that’s not the case. I haven’t managed to last more than 5 minutes after letting someone beat me, before telling them I lost on purpose as my brain doesn’t deal with it very well.
I would list other things that I factor in and things I think about, but the list is endless, so I’ll move on.
Now combine reason 1 and reason 2.
When I meet new people, I don’t just not understand them, but I don’t understand their understanding of the reciprocity of our relationship, meaning I am absolutely clueless as to knowing where I stand with them and whether or not I am being a good friend to them, or they are being a good one to me.
When I first meet people who I feel are important to me or who I am developing a friendship with, they are all I can think about. I say a lot that my brain needs certainty. I need to know where I stand with people and everything needs to be in depth and clear. If not, it feels my brain is trying to complete an unsolvable puzzle. Therefore, new friends take up a tremendous amount of time and energy, not just when I’m with them, but when I’m alone. I get literally obsessed with the person with pretty much no escape. I’ve realised over the years that the only way to stop this is by seeing them lots and lots until the overthinking stops as I know them so well that my brain doesn’t have to analyse as much. This is why I’m reluctant to meet new people and it is very difficult to make friends. If I meet too many people, it stops me from being able to focus on anything, whether it is work, or just having fun. For me, the difficulty isn’t just finding people who I share interests with and who have a mutual enjoyment with me like how friendships work for neurotypical, but also all of the above.
I hope I have written this clearly enough for you to understand. Please let me know if not and I will try and make some changes.