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Friendships on the spectrum: ‘I managed to mask my way into the popular group, despite never feeling like I fitted there’

The potential for miscommunication is high between neurodivergent people and neurotypical people, but there are ways to address this

There are many ways we navigate the social dynamics of friendships and relationships, but these are not created equal and evolve with the people creating and maintaining these connections.

It is somewhat expected by a social narrative that people should maintain multiple friendships, have large social groups, step outside of their comfort zone and embrace the neurotypical paradigm of relationships. There is a skewed belief that solitude equals loneliness and that the more friendships a person has the happier they are.

But it is worth re-evaluating what friendships and relationships mean on a broader social level for neurodivergent adults.

“Growing up unaware of my autism, I managed to mask my way into the popular group, despite never feeling like I fitted there,” says Robyn Clarke, a neurodivergent and mental health advocate who is autistic with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). “I was always the weird, loud and emotional one of the group. The one who craved to fit in more than anything, but just couldn’t shake the feeling of not belonging.”

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Robyn managed to make friends, but struggled with maintaining them. She says miscommunication and difficulty with nonspoken social cues often caused issues in exploring friendships and relationships. “I’ve also struggled with object permanence,” she says, “so if someone isn’t a constant presence then I can forget to keep in contact or check in.”

As Clarke entered adulthood, the subtleties of friendships and relationships became harder. “When I was younger, my autistic joy beamed bright and I was always laughing and having fun, which made it easy to make friends,” she says. “However, a mixture of masking, unmasking, mental health issues and becoming aware of my neurodiversity has definitely impacted my ability to make friends.”

Clarke always loved “hard and fast” when it came to relationships, which left her unable to comprehend why her deep love was not reciprocated. “Since discovering my autism, I’ve been able to let go of past traumas and forgive myself for certain things as I understand myself and how I function better,” she says. “As a result, I’ve created healthier relationships and found a new independence within those relationships.”

Although she was always a “sensitive and emotional person”, which peaked during her teenage, hormonal years, Clarke also struggled with miscommunication issues, both of which caused issues in her friendships, from small arguments to complete fallings-out and break-ups. “I always craved deep connections and never felt good enough, or that we connected on that level,” she says, adding that she “always worried about not getting my point across, being misunderstood, or accidentally upsetting someone from this.”

By coincidence, the majority of people Clarke has surrounded herself with in recent years are also neurodivergent in some way and this has resulted in her building some of the strongest connections she has known, saying that finding friends that understand her and relate to her lived experience was healing. “It’s allowed me to form beautiful relationships that are understanding, deep and filled with acceptance. I’d definitely say I find these relationships and friendships easier to navigate, maintain and grow.”

Dr Sharon Keane, a chartered clinical psychologist, works with adults offering individual psychological therapy and ADHD and autism assessment and identification. She recognises that there are still negative societal beliefs about autism and autistic people and these assumptions can get in the way of building friendships.

“In the past people would have labelled autistic people as cold and unempathetic, maybe even disinterested in friendships and relationships,” says Keane. “Our understanding of different neurotypes and the way different neurotypes prefer to interact has changed this dramatically.”

Keane says the “double empathy paradox” is a renewed way of understanding people’s differences in communication styles and preferences that can lead to misunderstanding and disconnection in conversations and interactions.

“What this means, generally speaking, is that autistic people can have trouble understanding non-autistic people and vice versa,” she explains. “There are lots of implicit social rules in conversations with nonautistic people, body language to pick up on and interpret, and facial expressions that may or may not match the tone and content of what the person is saying.

“These add a lot of extra information to social encounters that can be more time-consuming and effortful for an autistic person to decode. The autistic person might find this too challenging and disengage from a conversation and might make them more avoidant of social interactions.”

Try to avoid making last-minute changes to plans, and if this has to happen, understand that your friend might not be able to follow through on it

—  Dr Sharon Keane's advice to neurotypical people with neurodivergent friends

Added to the potential confusion and nuance of communication, a nonautistic person might be unsure why their social cues are not being interpreted in the way they are intended and become frustrated by the interaction. As Dr Keane suggests, “none of this is conducive to establishing a friendship or lasting relationship.”

Whereas children are often good at making friends, as an adult it can become harder to make new friends. “The busyness of life can reduce our opportunities to connect with others,” says Dr Keane, who advises that “following your interests would be the best guidance for how to make friendships. Doing something that you love or are excited by, and finding others who are interested or excited by the same thing, will help you to find your tribe.”

Keane recognises that initiating conversations with others can be tricky, but she suggests having a few topics to hand that can work well as ice-breakers. “Letting other people know your interaction preferences can be really helpful also,” she says. “For example, that you don’t use eye contact much or that you prefer to communicate via text or email rather than phone or video calls.”

When navigating friendships with neurodivergent friends, Dr Keane advises finding out more about neurodiversity and autism in general so that you can appreciate and understand more about how an autistic person perceives the world.

“Ask your friend what their communication and interaction preferences are, and avoid making assumptions,” she says. “Nonautistic adults take a lot for granted in social interactions, not even noticing when the environment might be overstimulating due to noise or light levels. Know that your autistic friend might be feeling anxious or overwhelmed, and leave space for them to do whatever they need to feel more comfortable. Try to avoid making last-minute changes to plans, and if this has to happen, understand that your friend might not be able to follow through on it.”

Growing up, Clarke focused on fitting in, people pleasing, and masking through life and friendships. Understanding herself more has led to a shift in building boundaries for what she will and won’t accept in relationships, leading to more respectful and supportive friendships.

“Now I’m true to myself and know that I’m not too much, too loud or too weird for the right people.”

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