Autism & College Friendships: A Conversation

Alex Shankland is a close friend of mine from Tufts University. We met in freshman year. I told him I was autistic a few weeks later. We’ve been friends ever since.

Justin Robbins: Can you describe how we first met?

Alex Shankland: We were in a writing class at Tufts. It was incredibly bad. We both dropped the course right after the first lecture, but we had similar interests and hit it off. I remember a lot of conversations about Magic: The Gathering and board games.

JR: Do you have any special interests?

AS: I would be hesitant to use that phrase because it plays out at a different level, but absolutely. I have a unique affinity with the trading card game Magic: The Gathering, to the point where my parents wondered whether I might be on the spectrum. I can talk to varying degrees about my interest in politics, but maybe not public like this. Magic: The Gathering is honestly kind of the big one.

JR: What did you know and think about autism prior to meeting me?

AS: Well there was two different baselines. In gamer culture, there was a lot of use of the word autism as an insult, but you knew that wasn’t accurate. The main other image of it was what you find in films, on the less functional end of the spectrum, people who were non verbal and/or mostly the same kind of tropes like in Sheldon Cooper or Sherlock (from the BBC series), that sort of personality.

JR: Did you think I was autistic at the time?

AS: No, but I could pretty much immediately tell, for lack of a better word, that there was something not normal about your brain and how it was working. But without a whole lot of prior knowledge about neurodiversity, I just chalked it up to the ADD/ADHD that I’ve been dealing with my whole life, so I didn’t think much of it.

JR: Do you remember your reaction when I told you? Were you surprised?

AS: Um… not really. I don’t remember my reaction perfectly, but I wasn’t surprised and thought it made sense. My understanding at the time was completely shaped by media which was usually people who aren’t particularly functional and I thought this guy seems really put together. But within a few minutes of talking with you that was pretty much cleared up.

JR: One of the most conspicuous aspects of autism are special interests. How have mine influenced our relationship?

AS: It’s practically all we talk about. That’s an exaggeration, but I think one of the reasons this friendship has endured is your interests are things to varying degrees I’m interested in. We can converse about those things, Magic, board games, history, with regularity and for me that doesn’t come across as off-putting because they’re things I would talk about anyways. And that has been a huge boon. To an extent, your interests have been a defining aspect of our friendship in general.

JR: Since meeting me, have you had any encounters with people who have, shall we say, a less-informed view on autism? What happened and what did you do?

AS: No major incidents in part because frankly your autism doesn’t come up that often in conversation. I also have a policy of not mentioning you’re autistic, unless it’s someone either you or I trust implicitly. It’s not my place to share that information; it’s up to you.

I’ve definitely come across people who have expressed surprise, who will say things about autism or a cure and I’ll mention I have several friends who are autistic and who find the idea of a cure for autism terrifying (for lack of a better word). Frequently those people express surprise that those people can survive and thrive at Tufts. I don’t have any particular detailed or funny stories that come to mind.

JR: Have you had encounters with other autistic people? Has knowing me influenced you in those situations (for good or ill)?

AS: There are other people you’ve introduced me to. While I haven’t met other people who explicitly said they’re autistic, I have found out about several people i’ve already known, and recognized signs of several people I know. I don’t know what my reaction would have been before.

It’s also helped me, being friends with you… While autism isn’t something to be ashamed of or a net negative, it’s certainly limiting in certain social situations. Being close to you has helped me understand those limitations and how that actually manifests. It’s all well and good to know autistic people have different levels of comfort with other people; it’s a different thing to understand an autistic person wouldn’t be comfortable with a friendly hug. You can adjust your behavior to make autistic people more comfortable. Every autistic person is different, but [knowing] the ways those limitations can manifest have helped me navigate those situations.

It’s made it easier to handle situations where for most people implicit things about invitations can be fine, but for someone who’s autistic you might say “By the way, people X, Y, and Z are overly loud, so if you’re overstimulated you might want to move into a different room than them.” It’s helped defuse situations. Before I knew you I had no idea how sensory overload and autism interacted. Now that I do, I can avoid those situations with other autistic people.

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Justin Robbins is currently interning with the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation in Florida, where he works in the Wildlife and Habitat Management Program. He is a recent graduate of Tufts University, having double majored in biology and history. In addition to being an advocate for other autistic people, he enjoys modern board games, great worldbuilding, and truly awful puns.

1 Comment

  1. Great interview, Justin. I would say most of my longterm friendships start around special interests and eventually, I get to know the person as chat about things other than the shared topic of interest. I also think (as I’ve examined a bit in my Ph.D. dissertation theoretically) that I tend to be more likely to befriend immigrants or indigenous people over the “dominant” culture of my city and our friendships become cultural exchanges. My two upcoming podcasts feature interviews with a friend from the Bavarian Alps and a Metis First Nation woman who have both become good friends. Although these two went to university/college in the 1990s, we were able to compare and contrast our experiences in two different cultural exchanges.

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