It took me 25 years to make friends – and I couldn't be happier
‘Are we cool?’
My friends have a tendency to be direct. It’s either a ‘Yes, I like you and I don’t have any issues with our relationship’, or often, ‘I don’t feel like this friendship is working for me’, which is also fine.
I appreciate directness so there’s no confusion.
Finally – after so many years of feeling on the outside looking in – at 25, I have a group of friends. They’re like-minded people I feel comfortable to be myself with, who have straightforward communication from the off and no ambiguity with regards to where we both stand.
This may not sound like anything unusual or special, but as someone who is autistic, I have spent a long time struggling to form these types of platonic relationships. For years, I did not know what I looked for in a friendship, or whether the people in my life were just acquaintances.
I was diagnosed with autism at eight years old. Even at that young age, I was aware I was different from my classmates and struggled at school, preferring aeroplanes over football.
In fact, I remember making a concerted effort to show an interest in the latter when I was 13 to try to fit in and just not being able to sustain it. This just made me feel even more as though I could never do anything right, at least socially.
Around the same time, I was being bullied because I was different. There were certain things I’d do and say that were just used as a point of mocking me – like infantilising me on the basis of me being extremely quiet – and that continued for most of my school life. This just made my mood consistently low.
There weren’t any knowingly autistic pupils in my year group too, although there were some who were neurodivergent.
What I knew of friendships at this point was non-existent. I would look at other people who all seemed pally with each other and wish I had the same – a feeling that continued into adulthood.
When I was 20, by the time I was studying at college, I felt completely rejected by my peers, socially. I hadn’t made any friends at the top of the year so as the months went on, I had almost no one to talk to.
For example, when we were asked to work in groups on a task, absolutely no one wanted to work with me. The teacher had to assign me a group. I had never felt as alienated as I did at this point in my life. I didn’t feel like anyone understood me or cared; I felt that if I left the next day, it would have absolutely no impact on anyone.
I had not told the college that I’m autistic because I worried that they would feel the need to hold my hand all day.
I didn’t attribute this hardship in socialising to my autism because I didn’t really accept it in myself at the time. Rather, I thought my struggles were all linked to social anxiety and depression.
That all changed when, later that year, in the 2018 series of Britain’s Got Talent, a comedian with autism called Robert White placed second. While it was not the first bit of autism representation I had seen on television, it was the first to make a positive impact on me – aided by the fact I am a big comedy fan.
Seeing how loved he was by the viewers also gave me some degree of faith that I could have peers one day who would actually like me – and who would show me that.
From this point onwards, I began speaking more about my autism, but my early instances of being open were somewhat clumsy. At college, I would throw it into conversation irrespective of what the topic was about. It’d either be ignored or I’d get told that they ‘couldn’t tell’.
It wasn’t until I was 23 that I discovered the autistic community that exists on Twitter. When ITV1 were showing the terrestrial premiere of Mamma Mia 2: Here We Go Again in August 2020, I was scrolling through the Twitter trend and came across someone tweeting about how it made them happy as an ‘autistic gal’. It was the first time I saw autistic people on Twitter, and it encouraged me to reach out to more people.
Over time, I began learning a lot more about autism from this community – including an awful lot of terms I had never come across before, such as masking (suppressing your autistic traits in a bid to appear ‘normal’).
I realised I had masked quite a lot throughout my life – I would copy other people’s speech patterns to behave in a way that was considered more ‘socially acceptable’. At that point, I started looking actively online for people who were also autistic that I could become friends with.
I was keen to connect with people on a deeper level because I still felt something was missing in my life.
I found myself randomly reaching out to people – politely asking if they were OK with me reaching out and mentioning that I’m also autistic – who I felt I had a positive connection with.
Not every message progressed into a friendship, which was a struggle to accept at first, but with others it went more positively. We were both comfortable enough to continue the conversation and we had clear boundaries in place, as well as understanding each other. I have met most of my friends through this approach.
For example, in the summer of 2021, I met a friend in Manchester and we went plane spotting at Manchester Airport. We had spoken quite a lot (plus did video calls) over the course of two months, and we enjoyed each other’s company even if it took me a while to warm up. In June last year, I went to Legoland with another. It was enjoyable spending time with them, and it felt very easy. I remain very close with both of them.
I spent so long believing my struggles were a problem with me, but I realised it was just a matter of finding people I align and gel with.
With some of my pals, we will have a ‘continuous conversation’ where we reply as and when we’re in the headspace – this removes the pressure to respond immediately.
But because it’s a community through social media, we can live quite far away from each other. So we’ll also do voice or video calls, where we just have a long and open chat about anything – be it life events, our special interests, or autistic experiences.
A few of us have even played a game of Mario Kart while calling at the same time. The conversation may not be related to the game and it’s often interrupted by one of us being hit by a shell or slipping on a banana peel in the game.
What I like about talking to my neurodivergent friends is the deeper conversations – our discussions are not surface level, and we really get to know each other properly.
A common aspect of our chats is things going off on tangents. We’ll start talking about how life has been for us, but then we might switch to a very specific other topic – like planes or games.
The advice I would give to neurodivergent people seeking out platonic relationships is that it’s really important to know if you are aligned with someone else – and you don’t necessarily have to have the same special interests.
I’d also advise not to rush into anything. I have sometimes given far too much too soon, which subsequently overwhelms the other person. The best companionships are often formed over time.
For me, friends should be people who will communicate clearly with you and will understand your needs. It needs to feel right for you, and not as though you’re having to force something or you can’t be yourself.
I am hoping that the future for me and my friends is that we will get to connect on a deeper level and have more experiences in real-life.
In the meantime, my mental health has improved because I feel less isolated and I’m able to make positive memories.
I’m part of a community and I don’t have to do everything on my own anymore. By forming these companionships, I feel like I finally belong somewhere.
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