Socializing and autism can be very tricky when you aren’t talking to other autistic people. Neurotypicals have additional layers of communication that involve tone of voice, body language, and facial expressions. As an autistic person, it may seem to benefit you to copy and learn as many of these subtle intricacies as possible. This is a common coping mechanism amongst autistic people, and is called ‘masking’. It is particularly common in autistic people who have the skills to succeed in a college setting. However, autism and making friends doesn’t involve pretending to be someone you’re not.
Masking is when an autistic person “acts normal”. Examples of this are forcing eye contact, mimicking social behaviors (overly expressive facial expressions, attempts at sarcasm, copying body language, conscious nodding, etc.), and suppressing comfortable autistic behaviors (hand flapping, rocking, repetitive movements, etc.). This is often done to make friends and establish social connections, obtain jobs or job interviews, and is driven by a desire to be accepted. This might sound like a great idea, but evidence and studies show that masking autistic behaviors produces excess stress, anxiety, feelings of loneliness or isolation, and even depression. These feelings will distract you from your studies. “Acting normal” is not good for an autistic person’s mental health or identity.
So, how do you socialize while being “openly autistic”?
To be “openly autistic” is to be aware of your own needs, behaviors, reactions, and limitations, and being willing to communicate those things. You must also learn how to advocate for your own needs. This is important because there will be times when you’re shutting down or reaching your limit and this information needs to be communicated to the person you’re with, especially someone you’re trying to formulate a long-term friendship or professional relationship with. For example, if your study group knows you’re autistic and have light sensitivity, then they will be more inclined to choose a study location with lower lighting. Another example is understanding your own limitations and not pushing yourself further than you can take. Meltdowns and shutdowns must be taken seriously BY YOU. Your parents may not be around to help you through these, so you need to learn your own triggers and avoid them, even if you’re around others. Stimming can be fun and done for happy reasons, but if you notice your stimming has quickened pace or if you start to feel anxious, self evaluate and pay attention to your own physical responses and your environment. Take steps to reduce excess stimuli and excuse yourself if you’ve had enough. You can also let the people you’re with know that you’re having a difficult time. If you need a moment to gather yourself but aren’t at home or your dorm room, you can always excuse yourself to the bathroom to take a break.
Autistic people socially engage based on environmental and ecological perceptions, not on emotional cues. Because of this, it is better to become friends with people based on shared interests or experiences, as that reduces the need to rely on social cues. In my experience making friends or establishing professional relationships, it’s best to start slow. When I’m explaining aspects of my autism in the beginning of our friendship or professional relationship, neurotypicals (typically) don’t remember everything that I say and can get overwhelmed with the information. Patience is necessary on both sides—they need it to understand you, and you need it to understand them. If you don’t understand a phrase, question it. If something makes you uncomfortable, mention it. Hang around the people that respect your questions and mentions, and stay away from people who intentionally try to confuse you or make you uncomfortable. Pro tip: be wary of, and stay away from, people with bad intentions who want to take advantage of you. How can you recognize people who may have hidden agendas or ulterior motives? They often display a myriad of behaviors including lying, shaming and denial, and won’t act in your best interest.
Due to the innate differences between an autistic brain and a neurotypical brain, there WILL be misunderstandings and miscommunication. There will be times when you don’t even realize a misunderstanding is happening until it’s already happened. It’s important to take these misunderstandings in stride. You have to be willing to explain yourself and be open to correcting yourself if you were in the wrong. Lots of relationships end because there is a breakdown in communication and neither side is willing to take responsibility for their own understanding. Some particularly emotional neurotypicals may demand an apology for misunderstandings that hurt their feelings. If you value their friendship, apologize, even if you aren’t completely sure why they are upset or if you weren’t wrong. One of the most important aspects of maintaining friendships and relationships is that feelings are very important, even if they don’t make any sense or are based on incorrect information.
Establishing long-term friendships and relationships is an important part of the college experience. The people you become friends with may be important in your future: they may help you get a job, be your boss, be a job reference, or even become your emotional support through tough times. They may even be willing to explain neurotypical behaviors to you to help you handle social situations you may not otherwise have been prepared for. Just remember to be yourself and be aware of your own abilities and limitations so you can communicate them to others when necessary. All relationships include ups-and-downs, but keeping these strategies and perspectives in mind can help you forge the friendships and academic or professional relationships that will be an important part of your collegiate experience.
Arianne Garcia is a Hispanic writer, activist, artist, and autism advocate. She was diagnosed at 25 with ADHD and autism. Unsatisfied with just educating herself, Arianne set up her own website to help others navigate the tricky communication bridge between autistic and neurotypical thinking and speaking. Arianne has written on numerous autism topics, such as Hispanics and autism diagnosis rates, hiring autistic people, suicidal ideation in autistic adults, amongst other things. Arianne‘s stress therapy includes sensory aides, music, and playing with Legos. Interested in her work? Visit her website: www.arianneswork.com