In elementary school, we were taught that, “We’re all friends.” But somewhere along the way, maybe in teen years, the narrative shifts. Friendship becomes based on shared interests, proximity and even physical appearance, as well as similar styles of self-expression and body language.
So, in adulthood, what is mainstream vs. autistic/alternative friendship? While I’m not qualified to speak for all autistic people, I’ll attempt to summarize what I’ve observed. These generalizations may serve as a starting-off point for understanding expectations around this often undefined relationship:
1) Mainstream friendship often has strict limitations and is secondary to romantic relationships (See: amatonormativity). Friends are “people for a season,” or valued sources of diversion and guides through occasional tough times. A lifelong friend is rare, something desired, but not necessary. Many people want a romantic partner to be their best friend. Friendships are built slowly and cautiously. Platonic connections start superficially, with lots of casual hang-outs around similar interests with rare moments of intense discussion about personal life and core values. Friendship is low-lift, and friends will hardly make life decisions (relocation, job choice, etc.) based on maintaining friendships. The end goal remains: few complications, lots of fun, and occasional venting.
2) People with autism have friendships that often are intense and alternative. Foregoing small-talk, superficial chit chats, and boundary norms, autistics dive into friendships with an all-or-nothing mindset. Forging friendships is often hard for us, perhaps because we seek a deep emotional connection and soul-understanding. While shared interests are important (we love to geek out over special interests. ) , we are often willing to foster friendships based on unconditional caretaking and forgiveness, and hope for the same in return. We give a lot and are hurt when we receive less. These kinds of connections are also seen in alt/marginalized communities. Note that many people with autism find friendship too emotionally taxing and are satisfied without it.