Something amazing happened a few months ago.
It was one of the most beautiful realizations I’ve ever had.
I’ve finally figured out how to make and keep friends.
I’ve gotten it down! Finally! Sure, I’m about six to eight years late, but hey, I’ve done it, and it’s paying off. Want to know what I’ve figured out? No? Okay, I’ll tell you anyway.
First, find the potential friends. That means you have to figure out where they are. If you’re me, that usually means finding places where people are generally accepting of weirdness and odd demographic groups. For me and most people, that also means finding places where people will have stuff in common with you. I can’t go to a bar or nightclub and expect to make friends, but I have found friends in band, my classes, LGBT groups, groups for disabled people, and places where “nerdy” types like to hang out. I’d probably have found friends in Pagan groups as well, but I haven’t had much chance find any in person people; usually when I meet Pagans in person, it’s through some other avenue.
Internet people can also make good friends for some people, although that’s a little more difficult. In person friends are easier for me because I can figure out if they’re actually my friends or not, but I’ve found enjoyable acquaintances from certain forums and Facebook communities as well.
Next, talk to the potential friends. I used to just hang around and wait for other people to talk to me first. That works fine for some people and I did make a few friends from people coming up to me and talking to me, but I realized that in the long run I was going to spend a lot of time being lonely if I didn’t start taking initiative. So I talk to people—if they’re having some conversation I’m interested in, or they’re playing some awesome video game, or they have a book or some sort of nerdy thing I like, or they’ve got some Pagan symbol or anything that catches my interest, and I feel like saying something, I’ll start talking at them.
More often, though, my way of starting talking to people is a little…different. A lot of times, I’ll see someone who has awesome hair or shoes and want to touch it. I know it’s not normal, but I’ve found that there’s no harm in asking if I can touch a stranger’s hair or shoes, and usually they say yes! Sometimes we go away from each other after that, but other times as an added bonus they’ll end up talking to me for one reason or another.
Get to know each other. Through talking, you’ll often find out if you have other interests and if you enjoy interacting with this person. If you’re me, this is also a good time to give them “the Autism talk.” I explain to these people that I have Autism (among other things) and that I often unintentionally offend people, and ask them to tell me if I upset them and what I did (and if possible, why it was upsetting and what I should have done instead) so that I can fix it and not do it in the future. This helps prevent future disputes, and usually people are glad to be allowed to tell me when I do something wrong.
This phase requires multiple separate interaction “sessions” and I’ve learned a few tips for doing this well.
- Say hello when you see the person. I used to not do this because I have trouble recognizing people, but when I can recognize people I take advantage of this social skill because it shows interest.
- Ask questions. Someone told me to do this a few years ago, and it is helpful. Apparently people like to talk about themselves, and asking them questions also shows them that you’re interested in them. A lot of times, Autistic people have a tendency to lecture, but asking questions helps us make sure we don’t bore the people with repetitiveness. Also, it helps you learn who the other person is and see if you really do like them.
- Let the other person initiate sometimes. Don’t go up to the other person every time you see them and start talking to them. Wait sometimes and let them come up to you. It’s helped me a lot since I’ve learned it because it helps me avoid annoying people and make sure they want to talk to me. Think about it: if someone doesn’t want to talk to you, why would they go up to you and initiate a conversation? On the other hand, a lot of people won’t tell you to go away if you initiate, even if they really don’t want to talk to you. This helps you weed out the people who are just putting up with you.
- Keep your life. By this, I mean that you should still be doing your productive, important things. Whatever they are (school, chores, work, family stuff, etc.) you can’t ignore those commitments, even if it means saying “no” to people sometimes. This may be momentarily disappointing, but people who are worth their shit will respect you more for honoring your commitments and showing that you have a life outside of them.
Become a “regular.” There’s a point where someone stops being a stranger and starts being one of those people who you talk to a lot. This can lead to varying degrees of friendship or, at the very least, a “friendly acquaintances” relationship. This takes multiple enjoyable interactions over a prolonged period of time. Mostly, I just keep doing what I do when getting to know someone, but with a few extra details.
- Exchange contact information. I usually try to get Skype, email, phone number, and/or Facebook for all the people I collect before the end of a semester. That way, they don’t disappear and leave me disillusioned—and we can talk without being in person! This also makes it a lot easier to see if they want to talk to you since they can initiate whenever they feel like it. But be careful; some people will misconstrue asking for contact information as an attempt to date and become afraid of you, even if you’ve made it clear that you have an irrational fear of dating and would never try to do that.
- Do stuff together. This one is kind of ambiguous because it doesn’t always entail friendship, but friendship always entails this. Even if it’s just getting lunch together or playing D&D between classes, you have to do things with people if you’re going to be one of their people. Other things I do with people include going to concerts, seeing movies, and hanging out at the mall. I don’t go to people’s houses or invite them over very much, but it’s also a good option (I’d do it if I could).
- Be there for them. This may belong more in the next section, but I do this with people I’m not superfriends with too, so I’ll put it here. It’s important to be available when someone else needs emotional support. Sometimes they need to rant; sometimes they want advice; sometimes they’re just sad. I’ve learned that even if it’s something I don’t know much about, I can help people feel better by saying things like “oh, that sucks” or “I really hate it when that happens” or “I hope you feel better,” or by asking if there’s anything I can do to help. Even if someone’s not talking about something “personal” it’s good to do these things when they’re upset anything. I’ve learned that even if I’m listening and I care, it doesn’t help them feel better unless I demonstrate it in a way they can understand.
Keep the friendship going. At this point, it’s largely maintenance. This is hard but it can also be the most rewarding part. This is the part where you’re emotionally attached to each other to some degree and you know you’re there for each other. Keep up the stuff you’re already doing with them, with a few more things in mind.
- Don’t cling too hard. This was probably the most difficult thing for me to learn. I felt like some of my close friends were drifting away, so I got the urge to try to be around them all the time. This actually makes them want to go away even more. When I finally figured this out, I stepped back and didn’t try to talk to them as much—kind of like with letting the other people initiate sometimes. Sure enough, they came back, inviting me to do fun things. Sometimes people become busy in their lives, but clinging harder only annoys them and makes them want to be away. If you let them come to you, you’ll have more fun together, even if you don’t end up seeing them as much.
- Check in on them. If you don’t end up seeing them a lot, it’s good to sometimes send them a message and ask them how they’re doing. Be encouraging if something good is happening by saying things like “that’s awesome!” and “good job!” and sympathetic if something bad is happening (“that sucks!” and “I hope things get better!”). If you have an idea for doing something together and the means to do it (which isn’t always possible if you live in separate states or don’t have adequate transportation), it’s not a bad idea to invite them to do something together every once in a while.
- Be a “good friend.” This means the conventional stuff that even Neurotypicals sometimes have to think about—the stuff you might see in an episode of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Be a good influence, encourage them to do the right thing, be supportive when they’re happy, help them out when they need it, be caring when they’re sad, realize you’re accountable to them on a certain level, treat them the way they want to be treated, and DON’T take them for granted, among other things.
Now, there are a lot of details that I couldn’t put in here because otherwise I’d be writing a book. But this is the basics of what I’ve figured out I need to do to make and keep friends, and it works for me. Keep in mind that I don’t in any world pass as “normal” and that I still can’t read body language and facial expressions very well at all. But I don’t need to to be able to have friends.
…you guys probably already knew all this stuff unless you have social difficulties too. But I couldn’t just keep this inside—I’m proud of it!