Autistic people are typically expected to need “social skills training” to make friends, even though the real issue is that autistic and non-autistic communication styles differ enough that both groups need guidance in how to communicate with the other effectively. (Also, autistics are disproportionately victims of bullying and interpersonal abuse by non-autistics, and so might be better served by guidance to identify and set boundaries with unsafe people than by typical “social skills” curricula.)
This means non-autistic people often need help understanding how they can be supportive friends for the autistic people in their lives. We talked with several autistic people about what they need from people who want to be friends with them: Tré Wilson, a Black, autistic, and queer filmmaker; Luce Greenwood, a white British autistic advocate and booknerd; Emily Paige Ballou, a white late-diagnosed autistic editor of the recent anthology Sincerely, Your Autistic Child; Julia Tuttle, a white, queer, trans, Autistic part-time AAC user working in tech; and Anonymous, who is a city-dwelling autistic Latine young adult. They had very specific advice.
When someone tells you they’re autistic, what does that mean?
My basic definition of autism is “a neurodevelopmental condition in which the brain is ‘wired’ to prioritize specific over generalized information, in ways that impact movement, sensory, language, and cognitive development.
And that means that my nervous system processes things in ways that can make my experience of the world very different from other people’s, and harder in ways that you might not expect.
If someone tells you they’re autistic, it means that the collective autistic experience resonates for them. They might have a formal diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, they might have a self-diagnosis instead for one of many reasons, or they may reject the notion entirely that autism is a disorder that needs to be diagnosed. All of these are valid ways to identify as autistic.
It also means that they trust you to know they’re autistic, and you should live up to that trust. Autism is still deeply stigmatized in many situations, and you should keep their autistic identity private, just as you would if a friend disclosed a serious physical health condition or came out as gay or trans to you.
As to what it entails for your relationship with them, ask! If you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person.
It means that there will be different challenges, different ways of communicating and seeing the world and it’s down to the neurotypical to learn, understand and accept those differences so they can support their friend
There are a few reasons why people might tell you they are autistic; here are some of them:
Some reasons why people might tell you they are autistic are to gain work or school accommodations and most importantly some understanding from their non-autistic peers when we do something out of the ordinary. It also helps us to know if we feel safe, and like we can be ourselves around you if you have a positive response. I liken it to coming out as LGBTQ.
Because they trust you to understand the real them, so that you know why they struggle or act differently, to see what kind of friend you are and if you understand/support autistic people.
One reason someone might tell you they are autistic is so they can feel that you’re seeing them for them. Autistics are frequently pressured to hide, or “mask,” their autism, which means they’re never seen for their true self in relationships. Telling you that they’re autistic lets them be their true self with you.
A related reason someone might tell you they are autistic is to make your relationship closer or stronger. Being autistic is an intense, pervasive, and personal experience, and sharing experiences like that can bring people closer together.
Another important reason someone might tell you they are autistic is to make your relationship work better. Autistics have different communication styles and support needs than non-autistics, and talking about those differences can help avoid conflict, increase understanding, and reduce stress.
While being autistic doesn’t necessarily mean I’m not capable of something, it might mean there are certain things I can’t do, can’t do for extended periods of time, find unusually hard or painful, might need to approach differently, or that I’m not going to find a pleasant or helpful experience. Usually it’s when I need someone to understand one of these things that I tell them I’m autistic.
Sometimes it just comes up as a basic fact about my life, though, or what I’ve been doing over the weekend, especially since I’ve been involved in advocacy for a long time now and have a lot of other autistic people in my life. It’s not something you need to make a big deal out of being accepting about if it comes up this way—it’s just a thing about my life.
Please don’t dismiss someone’s autism label or identity, or say you “don’t want to label” them. Here’s why:
Lots of autistic people, especially if we were diagnosed or identified later, have spent a long time looking for any possible language or explanation for why things have been so different and so difficult for us our entire lives. To have worked for that, and having had to be really vulnerable in the process of acquiring that information, and then basically being told by someone that they have no intention of treating that information as real or meaningful feels really dismissive and infantilizing.
It’s also a red flag that someone isn’t going to take me seriously if I need to voice that something is going to be difficult or problematic for me, or that I’m having serious sensory trouble with a situation.
It feels rude to dismiss someone’s autism label because it’s something that plays a major part of our personalities. The way we move, talk, eat, sleep, and think are often shaped by it, so to deny it means you’re denying our existence.
When me being autistic is dismissed I feel like everything I’ve gone through and struggled with doesn’t matter, and also that my differences aren’t celebrated. It makes me feel that I can’t go to those who dismiss me for help as they wouldn’t understand, and that can be really lonely.
Many autistics see autism as an innate and often positive part of themselves (which is why we tend to prefer identity-first language). Their autistic identity brings self-understanding, self-compassion, and community; their autistic experience brings both joy and distress.
Dismissing someone’s autistic identity or saying you “don’t want to label them” is harmful. It implies autism is separable from autistics, and that it is something bad to have. It denies their right to describe and define their experiences. It dismisses the self-understanding they (and their supporters) worked for. It risks the self-compassion and community their autistic identity has brought them. It denies the uniquely autistic joy they experience, and pathologizes the distress.
Further, some autistics are repeatedly told they “don’t look autistic”. This usually happens to autistics who can “pass” as neurotypical and who don’t have obvious support needs. These autistics still benefit from being seen as their authentic autistic selves and from having their support needs met! It’s especially harmful to dismiss their autistic identity or refuse to ‘label’ them, since they already struggle so much to be seen as autistic.
Here are some things that may be hard for an autistic person, even if you might not be aware of the effort:
One thing that is hard for lots of autistics is navigating social situations and making small talk. Many of us learn how to mask our autism by following social scripts, mirroring others’ facial expressions and body language, or even watching TV shows and movies to study social interactions. Doing this is exhausting! Sometimes we’ve been doing it so long that we don’t notice it, but it’s still hard.
Auditory processing, especially in noisy or chaotic environments. Working really hard to hear and understand what we’re hearing and respond usefully. Hearing unusually well means we hear everything and that can make it hard to carry on a conversation even if we know how to carry on a conversation. It is so much work to pull conversational speech out of a lot of background noise, and it can get very tiring, very quickly.
Also responding to somebody’s attempts to have a conversation if the topic just isn’t something I have much of a frame of reference for, or don’t have anywhere near the same frame of reference. I’ve been in situations in which someone is working really hard to include me in conversation or talk about relatable things, and we’re just never going to be on the same wavelength because I don’t have those experiences, and they don’t have the frame of reference to relate to mine.
Facial recognition, particularly if I’m seeing multiple people I barely know or have met once or twice before. Trying to match names to faces to where I’ve met someone before while still carrying on what’s going to pass for a socially acceptable conversation.
Having a conversation and navigating at the same time. This is partly why I tend to prefer to meet people in places that either I’m familiar with or they are, or that both of us are, because I can’t focus on having a good conversation while also finding my way in unfamiliar circumstances and also having polite interactions with people like salespeople or guides or servers, ticket-takers, etc. without winding up feeling like my brain’s been fragmented. At best it becomes an exercise in multi-tasking that just isn’t an enjoyable or relaxing experience for me.
I rarely agree to social outings involving more than three people for the same reasons. Almost inevitably, it turns into me needing to organize and shepherd the entire thing, and that means I never get to just relax and enjoy the experience.
Sensitivity to sound, smell, light, taste, texture. Struggling to keep up with a conversation and know when it’s their turn to talk. Not picking up on banter or jokes and then feeling guilty for that. Getting burnout because communicating verbally can be difficult and tiring.
A thing that might be hard for an autistic person is big or sudden life changes, even the one’s that you or society think are “good changes” like a new job. If you can do anything to ease an autistic person’s uncertainty or struggle with a big change if you’re in a position to do so please let them know. Also, if an autistic person puts in the work to find a way to make change more accessible for them, try your best to just accept that instead of trying to get them to do it your way if it has no effect on your life at all.
Autistic people often have been told things about being autistic or how they interact with other people that are really harmful, which might make them particularly sensitive about certain social issues. Here is how you can be more understanding about that.
Listen to autistic people when they tell you how they are discriminated against, and ask how you can help. There are many things to be done such as speaking out against certain practices, supporting autistic creators and boosting autistic voices. If you get educated then you’ll be able to understand what is affecting your autistic friend and how you can support them without directly mentioning what is triggering to them. Just doing acts of kindness is also a good thing, as life can be so draining without all the negativity in society, so doing something special for your friend would cheer them up.
One harmful thing that many autistics are told is that autistics don’t have empathy. This isn’t true! Autistics vary in how and how much they experience empathy; some may not feel empathy when non-autistics would expect them to, and some may empathize with people (or inanimate objects!) that non-autistics wouldn’t empathize with.
Specific things you can do to help autistic people include: Don’t assume certain things are easy, don’t assume certain behavior like stimming is deliberate or controllable, don’t touch them without consent, respect their communication accommodation needs, and don’t talk to their support person instead of them, and don’t speak to them in a baby voice. What are some other ways non-autistic people can be more respectful?
I think literally just treat us like people. Be genuine. Be yourself. Like, there aren’t any cheat codes to get to have good relationships with autistic people. We have individual personalities and temperaments just like any other people. We’re going to feel compatible with some people and not others for many of the same reasons that non-autistic people do with each other, and we get to like or not like people for reasons that may have nothing whatsoever to do with whether or not someone is being respectful of our needs as autistic people.
Don’t call them rude for interrupting, be mindful of the surroundings such as harsh lights or noisy environments, give them movement and quiet breaks, dont go with neurotypical [non-autistic] advice against autistic advice.
Every autistic person is different, and what one autistic person finds helpful, another might find unhelpful, infantilizing, or distressing. I’m sharing some things here that are helpful to me, and may be helpful to some other autistics:
Don’t assume that an autistic meltdown is a tantrum, is voluntary or intentional. Meltdowns are involuntary and unintentional responses to being overwhelmed; tantrums are voluntary and intentional attempts to get needs or wants met.
Don’t assume that an autistic shutdown is ‘the silent treatment’, or is voluntary or intentional. Shutdowns are the quiet sibling of meltdowns; they are likewise involuntary and unintentional responses to being overwhelmed.
Don’t assume that last-minute changes in plans are okay. Many autistics need to internalize a plan before running errands or doing projects, and last-minute changes can cause quite a bit of distress. For me, this means my girlfriend and I put together an ordered list of stops when we’re running errands, and we make shopping lists for each, even when we only need one or two things.
Accommodate rapidly shifting sensory, environmental, and social capacity. An autistic person’s world can get too loud, too bright, too warm, too crowded, or otherwise too overwhelming with little notice. They may need to do things like put on headphones or sunglasses, move to a less busy space, step outside, or leave an event, and it’s quite likely other non-autistics have ignored or ridiculed those needs in the past. For me, I often need to play music on my hearing aids, turn the thermostat colder, or take a moment in the bathroom to calm down.
Accommodate divergent and changing communication needs and wants. Many autistics find face-to-face, spoken conversations stressful and tiring. They may use forms of assistive and augmentative communication (AAC) instead, like body language, gestures, writing, drawing, typing, signing, pointing to a printed board with letters or symbols, using a text-to-speech app, or using a symbol-based AAC app. They may also need or want you to communicate by text, or to reduce background noise and avoid talking over other people when speaking out loud. It is, coincidentally, not uncommon for two or more autistics in the same room to converse by text chat instead of speech..
Here are some support needs autistic people may have, and why it is helpful to ask people about support needs directly:
Every autistic person is different, every autistic person has different support needs, and every autistic person meets their support needs in different ways. Asking an autistic person about their support needs can help you understand their experience and what kind of support they would or wouldn’t like from you.
Some autistics need help transitioning between activities. Even with a plan or routine, switching gears (for example, from writing part of an article to getting ready for bed) may require time and energy. If an autistic person struggles with this, you might be able to help by reminding them some time before it’s time to leave for an event.
Some autistics need help navigating ambiguous, formal, or stressful social situations. If an autistic person struggles with this, you might be able to help by attending a social event with them, accompanying them to a doctor’s appointment, or talking through a confusing situation with them.
Some autistics need help remembering to tend to biological needs like eating, drinking, and using the toilet. If an autistic person struggles with this, you might be able to help by sharing regular meals and snacks with them or reminding them to check in with their body.
It’s important to understand that some autistics can meet some of their own support needs—just not all of them at once! Some autistics always need help with grocery shopping and cooking, cleaning and organizing their house, and managing their school or work tasks. Some may be able to manage one or two of those, but need help with the others. Some may even get to choose which one or two they manage! But all of those are support needs, and it is valid for them to seek help with any or all of them.
I think it’s helpful to ask people about specific support needs directly, because appearances can be very deceiving as to the kinds and level of support we might need. I think there can still be an illusion if we appear capable in certain ways that we don’t really need supports or accommodations, when the truth is that operating in those ways can take a lot out of us.
Quiet and calm atmospheres, stim toys, weighted blankets, places to move freely, time to rest, reminders to eat/hydrate, pressure hugs (with consent), hang out in places suitable for autistic needs, going to places that have lifts/escalators instead of lots of stairs, needing a quiet room, having the option to use a communication device/texting instead of talking, being made aware of plans and changes to plan in advance
Some final thoughts o non-autistic people being better friends to autistic people:
If you want to be a better friend to autistic people please listen to and research neurodiversity and disability movement resources from actually autistic people and disability advocates who actually know what it’s like to be those things every day.
Hello non-autistic people,
Maybe I’ve told you I’m autistic. Maybe not. If this is your first time hearing about my autism, please have a seat. I need to tell you about some of the things I do because of it.
For instance, taking a walk along a city street can be distracting and draining for me because of all the overstimulating sounds, sights, and feelings going on. I don’t know if my discomfort is ever visible to you, but on the inside, I am trying to adjust to my surroundings.
Another habit I do that is caused by my autism is stimming. The best way I can describe stimming is that it is bodily motions and vocal tics that I make routinely with the purpose of releasing any emotional tension that has built up inside of me over the day. Usually I reserve this ritual for when I am home alone, but sometimes when I’m deep in thought, I might begin stimming without realizing that the world is watching me do it. For example, one time I was tapping my fist against my leg at a diner. This unnerved a man sitting behind me, so he asked if I was okay. If you’re confused or curious, I’ll explain autism and stimming to you.
This is the information I wanted you to know about my autism. Thank you for wanting to learn!