If you are becoming especially close to a friend, you may want to consider informing them you are autistic. Disclosing your autism diagnosis can be a difficult, personal, and unpredictable process. It is hard to know if the person will react positively or negatively. This is by no means necessary in every friendship and it should be your choice. Here are a few benefits to disclosing to friends.
Firstly, it will help friends understand you better and maybe explain certain things. Someone who isn’t aware of your diagnosis may mistake your style of conversation (e.g. speaking about a certain subject more than others, tone of speech) for lack of interest or rudeness. If they aren’t aware of sensory overload or your experience with it, they may think you are leaving a noisy space because you are annoyed or bored with them.
Disclosing can help put these things in context. For example, explaining you are very passionate about your course or certain subjects because they are a special interest. Another example would be explaining certain stims are signs of excitement or distress. Finally, it could also help inform them of sensory needs, such as not wanting to be in loud bars and restaurants, or that if you go, you may need to take a break by stepping outside. If you have difficulties around organisation and being late to events, mention that this isn’t intentional and that you respect your friend’s time. These pieces of information will help friends understand your interests and to be more attentive to when you are overwhelmed by the environment.
When the time comes for the actual sharing, it is usually better to make it sound like it’s not a big deal or just another aspect of your personality. Don’t make them think they should make it a massive, redefining issue. If there was a specific reason you wanted to disclose, using that for context can make things clearer.
As said above, reactions can be unpredictable when you disclose. If you’re uncertain about telling your friend, try to keep these things in mind. It’s important to remember that most negative reactions stem from misunderstanding and ignorance. Similarly to the experience of coming out as LGBT, try listening out to see what the friends’ opinions are with disability issues. This can help gauge their level of knowledge. Explaining autism in the context of your needs can help remedy a lack of prior knowledge and you can also direct them to resources such as the AsIAm website.
Also, remember that it’s possible the person you’re speaking to may be neurodivergent and have their own access needs. In this case, disclosure can lead to a sense of community. Finally, remember that disclosing to a friend doesn’t carry the same risks as doing so to an employer. The power dynamic is more equal with friends, meaning if they react negatively or reveal prejudice, their ability to influence your life negatively is less profound than a manager or figure of authority.
Making friends is great, but it’s important that you don’t overlook your own needs. If you choose to disclose, it’s important to set boundaries and make sure your needs are respected. For example, you might have a friend who stops by your accommodation unannounced on a regular basis. It is okay to tell your friend that you appreciate the visits but need to know before he or she comes over as you need to prepare yourself. If you don’t establish this boundary early on, it may lead to unnecessary conflict in the future. There is no point in disclosing your diagnosis and outlining your needs if they aren’t respected.
If a friend asks you to partake in an activity that may cause distress, such as going to a loud nightclub, you have a few options. If you know that you can be in clubs for brief periods of time if you take breaks, explain this to your friend. Tell them that you can come for a little while, or that you might need to slip out at points. Maybe come to an arrangement where if you go to a place they enjoy, that next time you can choose the activity. If you know that you can’t do the activity under any circumstances, simply explain that it may be overwhelming to you and thank them for the invitation. This will signal to the friend that you still enjoy their company and would like to be invited in future.
Finally, it’s important to be mindful of other friends’ boundaries. Autistic people are passionate about their interests and this often extends to friendship. However, different people have different levels of comfort and boundaries. To use the above example, some friends will enjoy house visits and enjoy the company, while others may like their own space. Failing to notice someone’s boundaries may give the impression of being overbearing or overly attached. Try to keep a few things in mind.
Firstly, if your friend is neurotypical or non-autistic, they may communicate their boundaries in a less direct way than you. For example, if they don’t enjoy phone calls at night they may let calls go to voicemail. It may well be the case that they just missed the call. But if the next time you talk to your friend, they say something like, “I’m so tired after work I just relax and don’t even answer the phone” this might be a hint. Listen out for clues like this.
If you’re uncertain, it might be best to ask. Be careful about how you do this because people can be intimidated by the direct question “am I making you uncomfortable?” A good way to do this, if you’ve disclosed, is lead the conversation by referencing your own boundaries. For example “I really don’t like house visits because I need time to prepare, would it be the same for you?”
Above all, remember that friendships are 50/50 with an element of give and take. If you need certain needs and behaviours to be respected, it’s important you afford the same respect to friends.