By Brigid Rankowski
Some days there is a longing for the simpler days of my childhood. In the Chicago suburbs of my youth, friendships could be easily formed based on geographical convenience. All the kids on the block knew each other and we'd play outside until the streetlights came on to signal us for dinner. My mother likes to talk about one summer when the sleepovers were so continuous, my best friend and I would bring all our bedding in the morning from one house to the other house two doors down. It sounds almost like a fairy tale from a lost age, but it was a good time when kids went outside instead of staring at screens.
As an adult, I now face the difficulty of meeting new people with similar interests who also want to be friends. There also is a whole complicated issue with dating and the miscommunication when all you want to do is watch a movie, but they think it means something else. Friendships are complicated and as someone on the autism spectrum, I’ve spent the majority of this year getting a crash course in what complex relationships and friendships look like. The biggest issue I had this year was not being a bad friend to others, but not recognizing when other people were not being good friends to me.
I had fallen into the trap of thinking having friends meant I was doing “friendship” correctly. People wanted to spend time with me so obviously, I should spend time with them. People told me they cared about me, and they would stand up for me when other people said bad things about me. In fact, these people let me know others were talking bad about me so I should avoid them. I didn’t understand how friendship really worked because I had not fully understood how people work.
One of my biggest weaknesses is in theory of mind. I fully believe what people are telling me is what they believe and their actions will be reflective of their words. When this does not happen, there is incongruence and this event is very confusing to me. I don’t understand how someone could say they care about me, yet their selfish actions hurt me. I will become physically uncomfortable if someone does something against his or her word. However, I do believe the best in people so I give more chances than I should to people.
We teach autistic kids how to treat other people so they can have friends, but no one teaches us how friends should treat us. We stumble sometimes in the world and get hurt because we don't understand why people would want to take advantage of us or lie to us. I had people use me for money, for my emotional support, and for my kindness. It took months and finally people I trust to step in and say, “They are not your friend.” That one phrase from a person I trust carries more weight than any ot
It took about a year to shed three toxic relationships that drained me. I can honestly say I would not be in the place I am now if those people were still involved in my life. It also took about a year to regain my sense of balance to really understand what a friend should look like. Figuring out the different dynamics of what different relationships should look like is still a work in progress, but new ground has been broken.
So to help those of us swimming in the sea of neurodiversity, let me impart some of my learnings so you maybe don’t have to have the same struggles I did.
- A friend should be there to support you as you grow as a person.
- A friend is there to listen if you need it and will not tell you that what upsets you is unimportant.
- A friend will not always ask you to pay for them or expect you to pay for them when you hang out.
- A friend will not only tell you their problems; they won’t refuse to let you tell them about your problems.
- A friend will not get upset at you and refuse to tell you why they are upset. Sometimes it takes a person a while to have this conversation, but some people never want to talk about conflict.
- A friend may not agree with you all the time, but they will respect your opinions and not tell you that you are wrong.
- A friend will validate your emotions and let you know your emotions are not wrong.
- A friend will respect your physical and emotional boundaries.
About the Author
Brigid Rankowsi is a graduate of Cornell College and is currently working on a graduate degree from Nova Southeastern University. She works as a teaching assistant and a direct support professional. She also performs in the award-winning vaudeville troupe, The Dark Follies. Brigid presents and publishes internationally on autism spectrum disorders and enjoys playing with her fire staff under a full moon and drinking tea.