It’s hard to make friends when you’re a grown up. Plenty of neurotypicals struggle with it, it’s certainly not just autistic people who find building new friendships hard.
The problem with building friendships, is that you have to invest time and energy in people, in the hopes that you will like them, they will like you, and that that investment will translate into a meaningful relationship.
I have problems with building friendships. I cannot see the subtle stages. I don’t know when there is a change in tone and it’s appropriate to suggest moving from a casual acquaintance to a deliberate meeting.
It’s not that I don’t have friends, I do. I have wonderful, warm, brilliant friends. I have male friends and female friends. I have friends who put a lot of time and effort into coming to visit me. Friends who see the true me. Friends who find my occasionally bizarre turns of phrase, stimulating and entertaining. Supportive friends who I support in turn.
The one thing they all have in common is that getting to that level of friendship was not an easy organic process. It was stunted and interrupted by my masking. It leapt forwards in fits and starts as I tried to work out when to accelerate and when to back away.
My mask, the mask I wear to look like everyone else; the mask I wear to hide my autism from the world; the mask I have spent a lifetime perfecting, gets in the way of building friendships.
My mask will tell you that I’m fine, when I’m lonely. My mask will keep you at arm’s length, when I’m seeking intimacy. My mask will show you a bland version of a person, instead of an insight into my sense of humour and my daftness.
My mask protects me, but it also distances me. It’s more than the everyday, “When do I show them my eccentricities?” That most people will have, it’s, “When will I peel away my face and show them that I’m not one of them at all?”, “Will they be someone who understands autism, or will I need to invest more time and energy in educating them?”, “Will they think I’ve been deceptive by not revealing everything about me straight away?”
The ridiculous thing is that I’ve failed to build a truly likeable mask. Of course I have, it’s a misnomer. How can you be a truly likeable fake? I think too hard about the appropriate responses, I rely too much on scripts, it means I can communicate well and quickly, but not authentically. Friendships need authenticity.
There are important social skills to learn. Personal hygiene is one of the most important. Allowing the other person time and space to speak is a good one. Not invading someone’s personal space. Filtering your words through the eyes of kindness where possible.
Ultimately I don’t want friendships with people who love small talk. It won’t work out with people who don’t share my interests or general viewpoints on things that are important to me. I don’t need more confusion in my life. I like a discussion, but if any of your building blocks are based in hatred of anyone or anything, we’re not compatible.
Just because I’m not great at building friendships, doesn’t mean I would accept anyone as a friend. In fact, with less social energy to spend than most people, it’s even more important that my friendships are enriching and worthwhile.
If I say that I’d like to see you, it’s a truth. If I say we should do something sometime, it’s a truth. If you don’t say it back I will assume that that’s a truth too.
It’s been three years since I moved to a new area, and I haven’t succeeded here yet. I haven’t found that holy grail of friendships. The person who understands, who doesn’t need constant contact, but is happy to meet for a coffee every week or two to put the world to rights.
There are many people who I know to chat to who I like but haven’t been able to translate that into more. There are people who I knew long ago who I would love to know again, but fail to communicate that.
There are no set rules. Vague plans to do something at some point may need pushing for, or may be a gentle let down. I don’t know which so I can’t pursue either. What if I push too hard too soon, and something that could have been, dissolves instead?
Friendships need bravery, and it’s my mask that carries that, not me. But she always looks so independent and distant.
Then there are those virtual friends that I’ve made over the years. People I’ve chatted to casually, people I’ve shared secrets with, people who I’ve laughed and cried with. Real people, not just words on a screen. Some of the people I am most emotionally close to, most vulnerable with, I have never met. I don’t see those friendships as less worthy. They are more real and intimate than the small talk thrown at acquaintances.
One day I’ll be able to combine the two. Someone will run up and say, “Let’s be friends” and we’ll run off together to look at beetles and point at clouds and drink wine amongst plant roots. Or sit at a kitchen table and talk about the everyday, I do that too. I’m not completely interesting. Not yet anyway. But I’m working on it.