As many know, being autistic can present challenges with keeping and understanding friendships. The lack of them can deter the positivity of one’s well-being. COVID has made the isolation effect of those who have no friends very challenging and can result in flare-ups of mental health symptoms that wouldn’t have been there prior.
If you asked me 10 or even 12 years ago if I could carry a conversation with someone unknown to me, I would say you’ve got to be kidding. Even at the day program, while I have been there for over 17 years, I really wasn’t social with any of the fellow members until five or six years ago. Something in the dynamic of the members that were attending then or just starting to become more engaged in my topics just seemed to click.
Prior to that, I was one to cling to the staff of the day program and not extend myself to my fellow members. While having a communication goal can be difficult to measure in a day program. I remember the day I started there over 17 years ago and my primary staff person who was hired shortly after I started. In our program, members are asked to sit on the panel of one of the interviews of the staff hiring process. And as such, that person later told me that they could see my fear back then of having social difficulty. I did transition into a short term employment placement at their sponsoring agency for a little while, while still being close to staff.
After returning to the day program following an absence for technical training, I was more social but more of a mentor than a peer. But as I said in those last six years, something changed. I felt confident to be a part of the conversation and wanted to be like my fellow peers. Yes, it was like my job presented challenges. As I have said before, a close friend of mine now said when he started I acted like a jerk more than a friend. I don’t know exactly how my social skills blossomed, but things sort of bloomed into being more of the member I was intended to be than a staff person. It was never a fact that I was better than anyone else and I never think that I am in any way. It was just that I had great feelings of self-doubt and not wanting to extend a branch of myself to others, especially fellow peers, because I didn’t think I could relate to them.
I have met those over the years and social media has also helped in that effort as well, It has made me aware of things that I need to know, qualities I have and the good in me that I may not want to believe. It makes me realize at 36, that I have many qualities and do so much to help my community, both geographically and both in realms of autism and mental health, that oftentimes I forget to give myself grace for everything I have been through for at least the past two years, however it is turning a corner for the better and I feel great about that.
Putting yourself out there isn’t easy if you are not given the opportunities to do so. If you are feeling lonely, I would suggest being connected to social media if you are not already. While it may seem like an anxious feat for some, it is worth its weight in gold. You can tailor the privacy settings on many accounts so that you can be as out or as hidden as you want to be. The same can be said with what you share or are engaged in. There are so many groups, pages and such that include self-advocates just like me and autistics that just want to look for a friend. It would be suggested that some basics in what to share vs. what not to share online should be understood before opening yourself out there. However, if properly managed it can pay off in dividends.
Having those connections can open doors to further conversations if you want them and you can be of a greater value than you think you are. Yes, there are some creepy people out there and you can usually tell the signs of who is of value versus who isnt of quality. It is good to have an understanding of what is safe to say online versus what is not. In all honesty it can be a lifesaver in these challenging times when you or others you know may become cut off from the rest of the world that they were accustomed to before pandemic times.
Sometimes, having a good friend to support you can mean all the world to your day and can boost your mental health for the better rather than regress back to the old behaviors, therefore the pros outweigh the cons when you do your research, learn and put yourself out there.