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The Autistic 10-Step Plan to Making Friends

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Living on the autism spectrum can be wonderful. And a challenge. While we are all unique, one thing that describes almost all of us is that we usually have a harder time making friends then the neuromajority.

That doesn’t mean we don’t want friends. In fact, the number one question I get asked by other autistics is how to make friends.

Although it takes more work for us, we are certainly able to master this magic, and when we do, other people are lucky to have us as friends.

So here’s my plan to making friends when you’re on the autism spectrum, in 10 (not at all easy) steps:

1. Notice where your social anxieties are coming from.

Those of us on the spectrum grew up thinking and acting differently in a society that often rewards sameness and punishes difference. Sometimes this is obvious, like bullying, teasing, and overt exclusion. Sometimes it is more subtle, like ignoring, making little comments, or gossiping.

These little and big moments of social judgment add up over years, and can create anxiety at even the thought of putting yourself back into a situation where that might happen again.

But those incidents weren’t your fault, and they don’t mean that you are broken, or wrong, or deficient. They are indications of other people’s fears and insecurities. Believing that won’t make your anxieties evaporate, but it is a start to healing.

2. Make friends with yourself.

When we are anxious around other people, they may pick up on that and become anxious around us. We end up creating a self-fulfilling prophecy in which we expect to be rejected, and therefore we are.

This is the hardest step, but the most critical. It starts with digging deep inside yourself and letting out all of the anger and hurt from the past, and finding a way to forgive or feel compassion toward yourself and others for what happened.

That frees up an amazing amount of energy and opens new possibilities for liking, and even loving, who you are. When you genuinely love yourself, it shows. People like being around people who like themselves. Even when those people are different.

3. Acknowledge that you’re going to have to do something differently if you want a different result.

What you did before to make friends probably wasn’t a winning method, or you wouldn’t be reading this now. So just repeating that isn’t going to work. But if you actually go through steps one and two, you’ll be ready to try different tactics.

4. Before going into a social situation, set yourself up for success, physically and sensory-wise and in every other way.

Doing those first three steps, the hardest, doesn’t mean that the rest of these are going to be simple. So plan in advance how to make your new forays into the social world a better experience.

What time of day or week are you at your best? Get some good sleep and take care of yourself before going out. Would it help to bring something that calms your sensory sensitivities? Plan your outing well.

5. Go where you are likely to find people who like the same things that you do.

Going to a bar to pick up girls means you will meet girls who like going to bars. If that’s what you want, great. If you want girls who will talk to you about astronomy, try a star party instead. If you want a friend who is into Renaissance reenactments, or anime, or speaking Swedish, find groups — in person or online — where those things happen.

6. Get curious about others. Assume everyone has something fascinating about them, and that your job is to find that. But don’t come on too strong.

When you meet people, ask about them, but be careful not to rattle off a list of questions like you’re interviewing them.

Talk about your common interests, occasionally ask about them, and occasionally intersperse some information about yourself. A mixture of the three is good, but the best way is for a lot of that information to unfold naturally in conversation over time.

7. Build relationships slowly. Build trust slowly.

You don’t need to find out everything about your potential friend(s) the first time you meet. If you’re going to a recurring group, you’ll have opportunities to get to know them more in the future. If it’s a one-time event, you could exchange contact information as a way to keep in touch and get to know them over time.

If the other person doesn’t want to exchange contact info, and you’re not going to see them again, that’s not a failure. Consider it a trial run for the next time. And remember, sometimes you can have a good time with someone for one day and that’s the entire extent of the relationship.

8. Invest in others if you want them to invest in you.

All relationships take time and effort. When you don’t engage with people, relationships wither. This means keeping in touch once in a while. Talking about things besides your common interests. Asking about their family or things that are going on in their lives that they mention. Recognize upfront this is going to take some work, but you don’t have to do all of it right away.

9. When things go awry, learn to repair the relationship.

A misunderstanding, disagreement, or hurt feelings don’t have to be the end of a relationship. Apologizing is the best way to repair a relationship. Even if it isn’t all your fault, you can apologize for the part of it that is your fault. Even if it’s just one percent. That can go a long way towards helping others apologize for their part, repairing the relationship, and moving on.

10. Adjust as necessary.

This 10 step plan is a good general outline, but no plan, no matter how detailed, can account for every situation in every relationship, because every relationship involves two or more unique individuals with different backgrounds and needs. So try to be flexible and adjust as you figure out what works for you and the others involved.

Making friends isn’t usually fast or easy (though sometimes we get lucky) but it is possible, even for the most socially awkward among us. And take heart, I’ve known a lot of autistic people with intense social anxieties who have gone on to have amazing friendships. I am one of them.

Getty image by Shironosov.

Originally published: July 30, 2021
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