Making friends doesn’t come easy for everyone, especially when you’re neurodiverse. Often individuals with autism struggle to make friends because they’re fearful of being vulnerable, experiencing social anxiety, and struggle with the social skills necessary to make new friends. However, there are some simple things you can do to open your heart to new friendships that will enrich your life for years to come. In this blog, I will discuss some of the struggles you may experience making friends. Then, I will offer you tips for making friends on the autism spectrum.
Being vulnerable, especially when you’re on the autism spectrum is frightening.
Many of my clients with autism share that they’re fearful of putting themselves out there in the hopes of making new friends. They’ve experienced rejection, conflict, and bullying. Because of these fears, they mask their autism in an attempt to fit into traditional neurotypical norms. Often the pressure they put on themselves to conform leads to exhaustion and even autistic burnout.
That is totally understandable and a very valid feeling. Being vulnerable is hard. It requires extreme courage to risk your heart and face the uncertainty of exposure. In fact, Brene Brown, a world-renowned researcher who studies vulnerability defines it as being composed of three factors: “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.”
Some terms that may help you better understand vulnerability through a neurodiverse lens include:
Uncertainty: When you put yourself in a new social situation, or any situation for that matter, there’s always the worry that things will not go the way you want them to. In this case, it’s the uncertainty of not knowing how other’s will respond if you show up as your authentic self.
Risk: When you meet open up to people, there’s always a risk that they will not accept you or like you. For individuals with autism, this risk can be very anxiety-producing. And, they are painfully aware of the risk of opening their hearts to others.
Emotional exposure: Emotional exposure is the act of expressing your emotions through words and behaviors. For individuals with autism, emotional exposure and expressing themselves may be very challenging. It is also equally challenging for them to interpret the subtle nuances and behaviors of neurotypical individuals.
Courage: Being vulnerable and opening yourself up to potential rejection takes courage. Especially since you may be worried about the outcome.
Intimacy: This is the result of being vulnerable. True intimacy requires vulnerability.
Can you relate to these thoughts and feelings? The act of being vulnerable can be very hard for individuals with autism, it requires extreme courage and strength. But, being vulnerable and authentic with others is actually very powerful. Pause for a second, think about how freeing it would be to take off your mask and reveal yourself to others. Although this does come with stress, uncertainty, risk, and the fear of being emotionally exposed, it can be worth it.
Tips for Making Friends When You’re Autistic:
I want to give you some tips for making friends on the autism spectrum. It may not be easy, but building a support system of friends and loved ones is a powerful antidote to loneliness and positive mental health.
1. Manage Your Anxiety
A big step in making friends when you’re on the autism spectrum is learning how to reduce the anxiety, specifically the social anxiety you may feel about making new friends. Perhaps, you’re concerned that you don’t know what to say in social situations, or maybe you’re concerned that others will misinterpret your lack of eye contact or discomfort engaging in chit-chat as being rude. However, taking some deep breathes and reminding assuming positive intent from the people you speak to is important. This means, don’t automatically assume that they won’t like you or will misinterpret your autistic traits. They may, but they may not. Give other’s a chance, and be vulnerable with them, just like you may hope they would be with you.
2. Set Realistic Expectations
A very important part of dealing with your anxiety is appropriately managing your expectations. Initiating a conversation in the hopes of making a friend may go well, and it may not. Whatever the result, it’s okay to feel disappointed. That’s normal. But, remind yourself that if this initial conversation did not go well there are two places to go from here: 1. You could try again, maybe that person was having an off day or busy and was unable to reciprocate your efforts, or 2. You could let it go and assure yourself that a friendship with this person was not meant to be and move on. Success in this conversation does not dictate success in future conversations.
3. Learn How to Initiate Conversations
The next step is learning how to initiate conversations. Oftentimes, small talk is very challenging for individuals on the autism spectrum. But, it’s very hard for people who are neurodiverse. That being said, it’s not impossible to acquire this skill, it just takes patience and knowing how to talk to people you don’t know well.
If initiating conversations is frightening to you, consider practicing these skills when you know you and the recipient share an interest. For example, you could practice initiating conversations at anime conventions, clubs, or even in a social skills group. When you share a common interest it’s often easier to find things to talk about.
4. Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness helps you be present in the moment and relaxed. This really helps in social situations. No one enjoys talking to someone whose mind is obviously elsewhere. When you’re very anxious about making friends and navigating social situations, then you may be hyperfocused on that which causes you unintentionally ignore the person you’re speaking to. Although it’s unintentional, it can be very frustrating to the person your speaking to and it can come off as being rude.
5. Ease Into the Conversation By Asking Open-Ended Questions
When you’re speaking to people you may not know well begin by easing into the conversation. Stay away from close-ended questions (questions that require a yes or no answer) and instead ask open-ended questions. An example of an open-ended question is “what did you do this weekend? Asking open-ended questions will lead to more discussion. It can also reduce the need for you to talk if that makes you anxious or uncomfortable. Then, ask follow-up questions. This is important because it shows the person you’re speaking with that you’re interested in what they have to say.
6. Offer Validation
The last thing I want you to think about is offering them validation. Show them that you get and understand what they’re saying. Remember, validating others does not mean you have to agree with them. In fact, the Oxford Dictionary actually defines validation as “recognition or affirmation that a person or their feelings or opinions are valid or worthwhile.” Extending validation to the person you’re speaking to helps them feel confident, reassured, heard, respected, and relaxed. Essentially validation makes them feel good. This increases the likelihood that they enjoy talking to you and will want to do it again in the future.
The three steps to validation are:
- Labeling their feelings
- Label their feelings and why they felt that way
- Normalize their feelings
Curious to Learn More Tips for Coping with Social Anxiety and Autism?
If you’re interested in learning more strategies to work on being vulnerable, initiating conversations, and validate others, then I encourage you to consider autism therapy. Specifically joining a social skills group can be very helpful. For example, our social skills groups in California practice these three skills at length. Our hope is that you will feel comfortable learning and practicing these skills with peers who are dealing with similar challenges and are in similar stages of their life because they will truly get what you’re dealing with.
If you’re an individual with high-functioning autism and live in California, then we have a variety of social skills groups to help you practice the social skills necessary to make and maintain friendships. Currently, we’re offering the following online social skills groups:
- Neurodiverse Working Professionals Group
- Autistic Women Group
- Neurodiverse College Group
- College Transition Summer Group (offered summer 2021)
- Neurodivergent Young Adults Group (Post-College)
- Autism Parent Support Group (for parents of a young adult or teen with autism)
Begin Online Autism Therapy:
Working with a skilled autism therapist may be an essential part of helping you overcome the social anxiety you feel surrounding initiating conversations, building friendships, and maintaining friendships. If you’re curious about autism therapy we offer a variety of autism therapy services at our California autism therapy clinic. To get started, follow these steps:
- Contact us for a free phone consultation using this link. You will meet with our care coordinator.
- Like us on Facebook. On our page, we post useful information about our practice
- Sign up to receive our newsletter.
Autism Therapy Services offered at Open Doors Therapy:
Our autism therapy clinic located in the South Bay Area serves teens and adults on the autism spectrum. We help high functioning individuals who identify as having Aspergers, high functioning autism, undiagnosed ASD traits, and their families.
Right now, we are providing all our autism counseling services online. Our autism therapists offer a variety of counseling services including individual counseling for autistic teens and adults, parent counseling, and group therapy. Also, we run several different social skills groups for neurodiverse working professionals, college students with autistic traits, gifted youth & caregivers, neurodiverse adults, women who identify as neurodiverse, a summer social skills college transition training program for youth transitioning to college, teens & caregivers, and a mothers group. Contact our autism therapy office for more information on our services or to schedule a consultation.
About the Author
Dr. Tasha Oswald is a trained developmental and clinical psychologist. She is also is the founder and director of Open Doors Therapy, a private practice specializing in autism therapy services in the South Bay Area, near San Francisco, CA. Dr. Oswald specializes in helping neurodiverse teens and adults and facilitating social skills groups.