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Jackie Schuld Art Therapy Blog

The Connection Between Autism and Struggling to Be a Consistent Friend

Sometimes there are hard truths to face. In my life, one of those is that I haven’t always been a consistent friend.


I would meet someone, have a wonderful connection, and then fail to maintain communication.


I would get to know someone in a college class, have a fun time together throughout the course, and then fail to show when they invited me to parties or other group events.


I would enthusiastically tell a friend that we should hang out more, but then weeks later not follow through.


I would experience bursts of energy where I would talk to a friend almost daily, and then go weeks or months without talking to them.


I would throw myself into club meetings and develop close friendships, but seldom show up to anything social outside of our required duties.


I would have a close relationship with someone, and then slowly start to talk to them less.


I would go weeks without talking to someone, and then call to talk for hours.


I would forget to respond to texts or have little energy to call people back… until I suddenly had a free day and would respond to everyone.


I would spend less time with friends when I met someone new and exciting.


When dating someone new, I would invest little to no time in maintaining friendships or making new friends.


I would feel immense guilt when I realized how much I had neglected a friend, then send them a flurry of apologetic texts.


Many times, these cycles would repeat. They’re not pretty. They’re not the kind of friend I want to be, nor the kind of friend people want to have.


Truthfully, I’m not fully out of these behaviors yet.


At least I can now explain why.


I learned in my 30s that I’m autistic. That means I perceive, feel, and think differently than the average person. Due to an increased amount of neural connections that fire more frequently and in conjunction with other neural pathways, I have far more emotions and thoughts than most people. My mind is in a constant state of hyperarousal, meaning I have an enhanced sensory system. I literally notice and take in more sensory information than most people.


While all of these differences have upsides (you can read my essay “The Joys of Being Autistic”) they also mean that I am easily drained. Furthermore, my differences mean that social situations impact me differently. I am constantly thinking and assessing as I am socializing - even if I’m having fun. This means that a wonderful conversation can leave me needing a nap.


Now that I know this about myself, it makes sense why I struggled to be a consistent friend.


Collage of letters, stamps and faces with the words, "These are my friends" by artist Jackie Schuld.
Collage by Jackie Schuld

First, autistics are far more comfortable socializing in clear situations where our roles are understood. This means it’s far easier to socialize at work, school, or clubs where there are clear expectations. It’s why I could show up to all of my school and club activities with predictable roles and environments, but didn’t have the same energy to show up to parties or social events in unpredictable locations.


Second, an autistic’s energetic capacity is incredibly variable depending on their daily schedule, life stressors, and much more. It’s why I would get bursts of energy and connect with all of my friends, but at other times be too tired to follow through. At the time, I didn’t understand why this was. I felt ashamed and worried they would interpret it as me not liking them. I was therefore not direct about how I was feeling, which only made the situation worse.


Third, autistics only have so much capacity for social interaction. Even if it is a positive interaction, the amount of effort and concentration can be draining. This is why my other friendships would fall off if I met a new friend or started dating someone. My limited energy went fully to those new friendships. I had no leftover capacity to maintain old friendships.


There is also another explanation for why this happened: autistics love learning new information. We often fixate on new things until we fully understand everything. This can even apply to people. We meet new people and are fully fascinated and intrigued by them. We spend weeks getting to know them and asking lots of deep, insightful questions. All of our focus goes there, and we neglect our other friendships.


Fifth, many autistics are easily distracted. Our minds are often full of thoughts, and so we can easily forget things - such as that text we intended to reply to.


Sixth, we deeply yearn for friendships. We often tolerate and accept people that are actually not good friends to us. We think the problem is us - not them. We often lack the ability to step back and discern if someone is a quality friend. Our discomfort with the person can show up subconsciously in our inconsistent behavior as we spend less time with them or choose to spend time with someone new.


Seventh, many autistics are filled with shame. We are aware of how our behavior looks and how it impacts others. We can become overly concerned with how we are seen and therefore not address situations head-on. We can feel guilty that we didn't respond to an invite, and then avoid the situation even longer because of our guilt.


All of these explanations are not meant to excuse our behavior or the consequences of them.


I still feel bad about how I have treated some of my friends.


However, now that I understand what is going on underneath, I can own my behavior and approach it differently.


For example, if someone invites me out to a group event that I know I don't want to attend, I explain to them that I am autistic and that group events in new environments are overwhelming to me. I suggest we hang out another time and suggest a place that does feel comfortable to me.


I am now cognizant of my energetic capacity and schedule far fewer events and meetings with people within a given week. This means I’m less likely to cancel. If someone invites me to do something social on Saturday, I tell them that I’m not sure how I’ll feel come Saturday. I ask if it’s okay if we just check in with each other on Saturday and decide then.


I also try to maintain far fewer friendships now. I focus on the ones that feel good to me and make an intentional, consistent effort to check-in. Even if that check-in is a text that reads, “Hey, this week is really overwhelming, but I wanted to say hi.”


I also try to own my mistakes more. I still fall into inconsistent behavior patterns, such as forgetting to reply to a text. When I finally do remember, I’ll text, “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry. I meant to reply earlier and then didn’t circle back.”


In other instances, a far bigger conversation and apology is necessary. For example, when I met my now-husband, I spent a lot of time getting to know him. I called my sister far less than normal. We had to talk about that and how it was impacting our friendship. We also talked about how we could maintain our friendship better.


I don’t know that I will ever be the consistent, fully present friend that my brain wishes I could be, but I at least am not hiding under a rock in shame. I am owning my behaviors and making shifts where I can.

 

Thank you for reading. If you’d like to read more, sign up for my FUNletter or check out my book Grief is a Mess.

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