As part of my Autism and Me blog series which can be found here, I talked about ways you can be a good friend to someone who is on the autism spectrum. I have a lot of fantastic friends which I am extremely grateful for, although one common thing I have found is that the friends are not on the autistic spectrum cannot fully relate to my experiences of being on the spectrum. Autism impacts everyone differently, but a common thing among people on the spectrum is that there are struggles that they face as a result of being on the autistic spectrum (e.g. autism masking). Moreover, certain struggles that most of us face may be harder for people on the spectrum and cause them greater stress (e.g. adapting to change). Therefore, you are likely not to be able to relate to everything that people on the spectrum experience. This is completely fine, and there are ways to be supportive to someone on the autistic spectrum even if you cannot fully relate to them. This is what I talk about in this blog post, where I will give 4 ways in which you can be a good friend even if you can’t fully relate to their experiences.
Accept that you may not be able to fully relate so don’t judge
If you have a friend on the autism spectrum, and you cannot relate fully to their worries and struggles then you first have to accept and acknowledge that you may never know the full story of what they are going through. Therefore, you shouldn’t judge them. Autistic people understand that you cannot relate fully to their experiences of being on the spectrum, and you shouldn’t feel bad about not being able to relate. But if you accept that you may never be able to fully relate, and not be judgemental because of it, then that goes a long way. Remember that if you judge the experiences of an autistic person when they open up about it, then it could put them off opening up about it again and even dent their confidence, which no one wants.
Try to support them indirectly rather than directly
What I mean by this is that if there are particular challenges that your friend on the autistic spectrum faces that you cannot fully relate to, then you don’t need to go out of your way to help them directly with overcoming those particular challenges. Indeed, it is up to your friend to take the ownership when it comes to finding solutions and coping strategies. However, you can certainly support and help them in indirect ways, and normally this helps a lot. An example to illustrate this is someone on the autistic spectrum that finds adjusting to change difficult. Imagine that they are either starting university or starting a new job which will involve a lot of change and will inevitably prove to be stressful at times. Whilst you may find it tricky to give specific advice when it comes to directly helping them overcome the change, you can still do things that will indirectly help with making things slightly easier for them (e.g. checking up on them every 2/3 weeks or offering to meet up if you live nearby). In summary, if you cannot relate to specific challenges that someone on the autistic spectrum experiences, then trying to directly help them with those challenges is likely to be ineffective, but small things that can be of an indirect help can go a long way.
Educate yourself on autism
It might be the case that you don’t have any or only 1 or 2 friends on the autistic spectrum, and therefore you don’t have much prior knowledge on the autistic spectrum. This is totally understandable, and if you are in that situation then it is good to try and research more on autism so you have an insight into the challenges that people on the autistic spectrum face. Note that you don’t have to do research to the extent that you are an expert on autism, but a brief understanding of topics such as autistic burnout and autistic masking will be fantastic. Having some knowledge on the autistic spectrum means that you are likely to be more empathetic to the challenges that people on the autistic spectrum face, even if you cannot fully relate to all of the challenges. Furthermore, educating yourself shows good initiative, which your friend on the autistic spectrum will appreciate.
Offer a safe and reliable space for them to talk about their worries
Firstly, it is important to note that for a good number of people on the spectrum, autism is a very personal and sensitive topic. So therefore, they may not be comfortable in opening up about this topic to you. Furthermore, the fact that you may not be able to fully relate to the challenges they face may act as a barrier in opening up, which is not your fault and doesn’t reflect negatively on you as a person. However, when they feel ready to talk to you about their autism then you should offer a safe and reliable space for them to do so. A safe space means that you should be a good listener and not be judgemental, so that they feel as comfortable as possible when opening up. A reliable space means that you should make sure you should be available to meet up and call at pre-planned times, unless there is a good reason to cancel (e.g. last minute thing that came up). Note that a safe and reliable space for friends to talk should apply for every friend, so this is not an autism specific point.