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How to Respond When a Friend Tells You They’re Autistic

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I have disclosed my diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to friends, family, colleagues, and acquaintances, and each time I’ve been met with a different reaction. Some have been supportive and have put me at ease, others… not so much. Below are three things you ought not to say, and three things you could say instead when someone tells you they’re autistic.

Don’t say this:

1. You don’t look autistic, you seem so normal!

How do autistic people look? The same as you and I. What physical characteristics indicate that someone is autistic? None. Autism doesn’t have a “look.” Even if you don’t say this with malicious intent, you run the risk of invalidating someone’s identity as an autistic person because they don’t fit your preconceived notions of how an autistic person should appear or act.

Another thing to consider is that for people who were assigned female at birth and have been socialized as women, they will more likely than not have practiced “masking,” which is to learn to behave and present like neurotypical peers in an attempt to fit in. The “normalcy” that you are perceiving might be an intentional choice of theirs to behave in a way you’re comfortable or familiar with. Although this camouflaging process may cater to your preferred way of socializing, it can be at the expense of your autistic friend’s wellbeing, which is not something you want to readily praise.

2. Everyone’s a little bit autistic. I hate (large groups, fireworks, strong smells…) too.

You are either autistic or you are not. Yes, we may share an aversion to socializing in large groups, but you are not accounting for the differences in frequency, intensity, and duration of said aversion. As an allistic introvert, your social battery may drain quicker in a social group of six than it would in a group of three, but as an autistic person, the group social setting may lead to sensory overload, dissociation, shutdowns, and meltdowns, all uncomfortable and beyond our control. This is not to mention that just because you can vaguely relate to one, cherry-picked aspect of one autistic person’s perspective, it doesn’t mean you have lived experience of being an autistic person in a neurotypical society, with all of the challenges that that presents.

3. What’s your special skill?

Whilst some autistic people have co-occurring savant syndrome, savantism occurs in the minority of people with ASD (studies suggest that it’s prevalent in only 10% of ASD occurrences). So, if you’re hoping your friend possesses an extraordinary skill, you’ll likely be disappointed, but not as disappointed as your friend whose identity you have just distilled into a sensationalized TV trope.

Say this instead:

1. Thank you for sharing that with me.

Telling someone that you are autistic can be daunting. By thanking someone for disclosing to you, you are recognizing the emotional vulnerability and confidence it can take to confide. The subtext also says “I believe you,” which, for many late-diagnosed autistic people (myself included), is so important, as many have struggled with imposter syndrome pre-diagnosis. Diagnosis is validating, and the same is to be said when you are believed by a friend.

2. I don’t know much about autism. Can you explain what it is to me?

This offers your friend an opportunity to explain what ASD is and what it means to them, based on their lived experience. It allows your friend to establish an accurate framework from which you can build understanding further, over time. For bonus points: say you’ll do a bit of reading up on autism, or ask for signposting to educational resources (and actually follow-through, of course!).

3. How do you experience ASD?

You may have heard that the autism spectrum isn’t a line but a circle, i.e. there isn’t “more autistic” and “less autistic” but rather myriad traits that can be more or less pronounced depending on the person. On that basis, by allowing your friend to talk about their unique characteristics, you can understand how best you can meet their specific needs. I, for example, get overwhelmed with loud noises. My friend accommodates this by encouraging me to wear my noise-canceling headphones when things get loud, amongst other things. Small gestures like this can make an autistic person feel cared for, and will ensure that they’re in the best position they can be to enjoy their time with you.

There are plenty of other ways that you can be an ally to anyone who has just told you they’re autistic, but it ultimately boils down to listening, learning, and avoiding knee-jerk reactions based on what you think you know about autism. Trust me when I say that there is no better source of information than your autistic friend to build your understanding of what autism means to them, so hear them out, and bite your tongue before you mention Rain Man.

Getty image by herbazon.

Originally published: January 17, 2022
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