Autistic people, more often than not, have to learn the hard about social skills like navigating interpersonal boundaries, even though our non-autistic/neurotypical counterparts may pick up these skills easily. This is because we are usually left to our own devices when it comes to navigating a social world that is defined by non-autistic rules. And when we make errors communicating with others and figuring out boundaries, it’s very common that we may feel humiliated and wish to retreat further.
We might hide from dangers such as being misunderstood, which can often occur as part of the double empathy problem (this is when autistic and non-autistic people have communication clashes because of their different communication styles, not necessarily because of what anyone is saying). Often our conditioned fear of messing up makes us feel like it’s just not worth trying to communicate.
But this fear doesn’t help us. What might help are some guidelines for figuring out social situations, or kickstarting a conversation with people you feel comfortable with. Some of these ideas could also act as talking points.
Autistic people may find themselves to be too trusting of people. We may end up spilling our guts to people we aren’t close with, which can have repercussions such as those words being used against us.
If you were to suddenly open up about your deepest darkest thoughts with someone you don’t know very well, such as a work colleague, it will likely leave both of you feeling quite uncomfortable. You won’t really get the support you need from this person, and that doesn’t mean they’re a bad person. It just means that it’s not the right dynamic for both of you. This may cause you to feel uncomfortable about opening up, even if you were to make friends—meaning those who are the right people to open to.
There may well be embarrassment when it comes to being vulnerable, but knowing (through open communication) whether or not you are in a judgment-free zone can help. It can be difficult to know if someone is being fully honest with you, especially if you find it difficult to read people. However, pattern recognition is something we autistics tend to be quite good at, so drawing on patterns from previous interactions can help.
Not being honest with yourself will likely make it harder for you to be honest with others. If you’re not being honest about how vulnerable you are, you may find yourself struggling with that. If you find yourself struggling to identify and assert your needs (and any accommodations), even though deep down you feel that something isn’t right, it might be a good time to look at yourself and think about how honest you’re really being with yourself.
Knowing Your Limits
Knowing your own limits follows on from being honest with yourself. What are you comfortable with? It’s not always easy to really listen to ourselves, especially if we have been held to non-autistic standards about how we should interact with other people. Trusting ourselves, listening to ourselves can be something we completely lose sight of.
It’s important, in your own time and when you’re somewhat grounded, to give yourself a bit of time to think about your limits and values. It can be difficult to listen to ourselves when we’re under pressure. But if we can get to a place where we understand where we draw our own boundaries, we’re more likely to avoid getting into situations we later realise aren’t right for us.
It helps to communicate with others as to what they’re comfortable with, what their boundaries are, as well. Also, perhaps most importantly: don’t push it. No means no, etc.
We aren’t entitled to another person’s friendship, regardless of how much we feel like they would be suitable for us. There’s no guarantee that the two of you will actually gel, and we are at risk of seeming entitled because we believed someone was a suitable friend—but they didn’t feel the same way. Similarly, even if the other person may have felt that the friendship could have worked for them, if we became overeager and pushed too hard, the subsequent friendship-forcing could make them change their mind.
It can often be difficult to understand the fact that the online and the offline are two different entities. What might be a huge matter online may not necessarily be the case offline, and vice versa. Engaging with someone comfortably online doesn’t guarantee compatibility offline.
We may feel more prone to being a perfectionist online, even if we are less so in real life. We might want to present a version of ourselves that may not necessarily be the real us. It can often be harder to read people and their intentions from just a text message, as opposed to being able to view their body language and listen to their tone of voice.
It’s easy to be drawn into online arguments and get wound up by hateful comments (regardless of who they are directed at), as well as having the urge to correct something that is factually incorrect or to challenge something which directs hate towards other people.
This can, however, escalate. You may find yourself becoming irate when you ordinarily wouldn’t. It’s important to choose your battles; if someone else is already taking care of educating someone, there’s no real need for you to also jump in.
When you come across a heated conversation on the internet, it’s really important to step back and assess the situation. Remove yourself from the situation. Even if you’re not involved, it can have a negative impact on you; bear in mind that saying anything in the heat of the moment could come back to bite you, later on.
The likes of Twitter have become infamous for the “pile-on” which involves a large number of people rather angrily refuting something someone has expressed. What this doesn’t consider is the potential impact on the person’s mental health, irrespective of whether or not they deserve it.
Those who pile on can often get piled on themselves, which is an important thing to bear in mind. It can happen to anyone, and it can often be instigated by someone with a decent amount of influence. For example, in 2019, Lizzo tweeted that a delivery person had stolen her food order. She posted a photo of the alleged thief to her followers, instigating a pile-on. The tweet was later deleted.
When you have over a million people tweeting at you, with everything from nasty comments to death threats, it can have a profound effect on your mental health. Especially if it goes on for several days or longer, it can feel like the entire world hates you. It feels overwhelming and isolating.
People will try to justify pile-ons as accountability and holding the person to account; this is a valid argument, but it can also get out of control, and turn into public shaming. Loads of people screaming at you about your mistake is not going to help you learn from it, instead you may become more resentful and defensive.
People grow and change. Before engaging in (or instigating) a pile-on, try asking yourself, “how would I feel if this was me?”
Being Kind to Yourself
It’s very easy for we autistics to give ourselves a hard time for things that our neurotypical counterparts may find much easier to let go. Part of this is autistic neurology (we tend to focus, also known as being “monotropic“), and part of this can be a lifetime of non-autistic people treating us badly for being autistic.
Holding ourselves accountable for missing social cues, saying the wrong thing, or responding in a way we later regret is no bad thing, but when it evolves from merely acknowledging an error to tearing ourselves apart, then it will have more of a negative impact.
It might feel like you deserve to feel bad, especially if other people are saying the same thing to you that you are saying to yourself, but you don’t. The very fact that you’re holding yourself accountable is a clear sign that you’re working on not being a bad person.
Having said that, even a “good” person must consider their words and actions. Holding yourself accountable by admitting to actions you regret is the first step, but a follow-up action is extremely important. Possibly even more so.
Admitting to ourselves (and others) that we’ve messed up is not enough on its own. It needs to be followed up by actions to prevent the situation happening again, and rectify what happened if possible (unless it’s likely to make it worse). Otherwise, we aren’t being truly accountable.
What is it that makes you happy? This follows on from knowing your limits. Take some time out in a calm environment to really think about what you really consider important, and what brings you the most joy. It’s easier to do this kind of thinking once you’re not under so much pressure.
Your life may well be crowded by a lot of things you’re not happy with. Not identifying and coming to terms with the hurdles in your life may well contribute to autistic burnout, especially if you have the additional cognitive and emotional load of having to mask or camouflage your autism all the time, in order to function in school, work, or social arenas. I recommend Dr. Devon Price’s book Unmasking Autism to shed some light on, and learn more about, the concept of autistic masking.
I hope these guidelines offer some comfort to you, and you are able to use them in a positive way.