Neurodivergent Friendships: the Beauty of Neurospicy Friends

Neurodivergent friendships are a beautiful thing. They’re a wonderful space of quirky uniqueness where we can feel safe to be ourselves. It may be harder for us to make and keep friends but we intensely value and cherish the friendships that we do have. In honor of those cherished neurospicy friendships, I wanted to write a post talking about some of the unique aspects of neurodivergent friendships.

Stereotypes About Neurodivergence and Friendship

As is the unfortunate norm, there are many false stereotypes about how neurodivergent people view friendship. Of course, it’s also hard to generalize but I’ll do my best. Whether you have autism, ADHD, anxiety, dyslexia, or other forms of neurodivergence, despite the vast differences in neurotypes, it’s likely we’ll have similar difficulties in friendships. Those difficulties can include miscommunications, misunderstandings, and misinterpretations that make friendships harder to make and maintain. Neurodivergent people communicate differently. Neurotypical people often misread these signals as not being interested in friendship or sometimes, too interested in friendship.

Another stereotype about neurodivergent friendships is that people with autism, ADHD, or anxiety lack empathy. We tend to interrupt a lot. We also have a habit of responding to stories people tell with similar stories we have. This is often perceived as centering ourselves or trying to one-up the other person. In reality, we’re just trying to show you we can relate to how you felt. In our attempts to show we can relate, we are often misinterpreted as having malintent; a hurtful realization neurodivergent people face regularly.

Difficulties for Neurodivergent Friendships

Again, while it’s hard to generalize as neurodivergence has a wide range of symptoms and severity, there are some common difficulties neurodivergent people face when it comes to making and keeping friends. Some of those difficulties include:

  • Difficulties Socializing-challenges in understanding social cues, engaging in reciprocal conversations, and maintaining eye contact are all difficulties that can make it harder to initiate and sustain friendships.
  • Difficulty with Small Talk– neurodivergent people often find small talk uninteresting or confusing, making it difficult to connect with people in casual social settings. We tend to prefer to engage in a deeper or more focused conversation. Unfortunately, this can feel off-putting to neurotypical peers.
  • Sensory Sensitivities- since we take in more sensory input, sensory sensitivities can affect our ability to participate in certain social activities. Bright lights, loud noises, and crowds can be overwhelming, leaving us with limited options for bonding with friends and potentially meeting new ones.
  • Social Phobia and Anxiety- for neurodivergent people with anxiety or social phobia, it can be daunting to join social groups or approach new people. Often, a fear of rejection or ridicule prevents them from putting themselves out there and making new friends.
  • Executive Function Challenges- neurodivergent individuals, especially those with autism and ADHD, often struggle with executive functioning skills such as time management, organization, and planning. This can make it difficult to initiate social activities or follow through with plans. This not only results in missed opportunities for friendship but also frequently lets down the friends we do have.
  • Stigma and Bullying- People who are neurodivergent are more likely to experience exclusion, bullying, or social stigmas from their peers, hindering their ability to make friends. We often fear we will be judged or have had negative experiences in the past that can leave us feeling wary of new friendships.
  • Mismatched Interests- the spicy brain is prone to intense, niche, and intense special interests that our peers tend not to share. This makes it hard to find common ground to connect with other people who may not want to hear us drone on about Vanderpump Rules (my current special interest. I’m sorry) for hours. As a result, we tend to struggle to find friends with the same passion and enthusiasm for the same interests, or can at least tolerate us droning on about them for questionable amounts of time.

Let Me Tell You About My (Neurodivergent) Best Friend

(If you didn’t sing that headline to yourself, I’m not sure we’re meant to be friends.) In honor of the beauty of neurodivergent friendships, I want to tell you about my best friend. I started a new school in 5th grade and we were in the same class. Both with divorced parents, her dad’s house was one street over from where my mom and I had just moved in with my step dad.

We weren’t best friends in the sense that we were inseparable and knew everything about each other. We both tended to float between different groups of friends but most of our time together was one-on-one. Sure, we talked about boys, clothes, and music when we hung out. But mostly, we obsessively watched I Love the 80’s on VH1 and ate a lot of tater tots. For literal years this was how we spent 90% of our time together.

A (Neuro) Spicy Friendship

We have now been friends for 25 years. (Wow, that feels crazy to even type.) I’m not sure when it happened but somewhere along the way we both started to realize our friendship didn’t look like most friendships. Instead of going out together, we often took downtime together. We had some of the same special interest movies that we’d watch over and over again. (Newsies, Remember the Titans, just about anything with Christian Bale.) Both of us intensely loved books and rocks but were far more subtle about the latter. Rarely did we ask questions of each other, despite both knowing our home lives weren’t great.

We endlessly info-dumped whatever topics currently had our interest. We had our own little language and way of speaking to each other. When I was coming to the realization that I might be autistic, she was going through the same process completely separately. Of course, as we learned more about it, we both realized the other one probably was as well and started comparing notes. Then both of her kids were formally diagnosed so…I guess we were all pretty on the nose with that one and so our little neurodivergent cluster grew.

Neurodivergent Clusters

That’s one of the things I find hilarious about being neurodivergent: our tendency to cluster. Put me in a room full of people and I can almost guarantee whoever I end up talking to the most is also neurodivergent. A neurodivergent person is going to have a hard time making and keeping friends with neurotypicals. Of course, it’s not impossible but it requires the neurotypical to put time into understanding neurodiversity and how it can impact friendships. That being said, neurodivergent people find comfort in being around other neurodivergents. We feel more understood and accepted. We can mask less and just enjoy our interests without thinking so much about our facial expressions, tones, or how much we’re interrupting.

Seriously, if you think you’re neurotypical but all of your friends have ADHD or autism, it might be time for an evaluation. We are that prone to finding each other. I’m not saying entire groups are either NT or ND. But in my own anecdotal experience, even my NT friends have family or close childhood friends who are ND so they’re more used to the quirks of neurodiversity.

The Neurodivergent Ability to Find One Another

We tend to be rapid identifiers of each other. It’s like some kind of neurospicy radar but really it’s just the pattern recognition. I maintain that you could put us in a room full of people, tell us to find the autistic or ADHD people, and we could do it with alarming/hilarious accuracy. I’ve had friends introduce me to other friends, sensing we would just get along well for some reason. Multiple times those people have indeed become friends only to later realize we both share the ’tism.

I worked as a nanny for a number of different families throughout college and grad school. I adore and stay in touch with many of the families but there is one family that has always been my favorite. We always got along so well and just understood each other in a way I didn’t have with the other families. Well, color me not-surprised as the updates over the past few years have included an almost household-wide diagnosis of various types of neurodivergence.

When I say we have a tendency to find each other, I mean it. Often with hilarious accuracy. Sure, these are my own anecdotal experiences but every neurodivergent person I know or follow on social media is having these realizations and conversations about neurodivergent friendship clusters.

Themes of Neurodivergent Friendships

Research surrounding neurodivergent friendships is heavily based in autism research so please bear with me through further generalizations. In the past, research on autistic friendships has looked at it through a neurotypical lens. These studies took data from the perspectives of parents, teachers, siblings, or health professionals rather than autistic people themselves. They focused on the “quality”, duration, and frequency of peer interactions. It’s easy to see where such subjective terms could take on a neurotypical slant in assessing autistic interactions.

Research Developments Regarding Neurodivergent Friendships

Thankfully, more modern research has started to study autistic friendships differently. This research looked at how autistic people described their friendships and how they developed. From that data, researchers were able to define five sub-themes:

  1. They would always look after me.
  2. They actually understand me.
  3. We grew into being friends over time.
  4. They like the things I like.
  5. They’re [neurodivergent] like me.

Essentially, what this means is that our friendships tend to develop differently than neurotypicals. We engage differently and struggle with neurotypical social interactions. It takes time for us to feel comfortable around someone enough to mask less. Masking less exposes us to rejection and even bullying though, so it requires a level of trust and what basically amounts to levels of friendship. You start off with pleasantries and as you grow used to their company, you mask less. If they respond well to it, you can be more up-front and open with them. Once you reach the best friend level, outsiders may perceive it otherwise because you spend your time in the same room, doing entirely different things. To others, we may look completely unengaged with one another. For us, we’re spending quality time with one another while both doing things we’re interested in.

Ways Neurodivergent Friendships Look Different

So many of the stereotypes surrounding neurodivergent friendships are based on neurotypical understandings of friendship. Because we struggle to connect with others and with reciprocity, we’re often perceived as uninterested in friendship and self-absorbed. We need a lot of downtime to decompress which often gets mistaken as not wanting to interact socially. To help break past the neurotypical nonsense, here are some of the ways neurodivergent friendships look different:

Communication Styles

Every neurodivergent person has different communication challenges and preferences. This can include the struggle to maintain eye contact, interpreting social cues, or preferring written over verbal communication. Neurodivergent friendships adapt to these challenges and take on unique vocabulary, gestures, and other accommodations for one another.

Sensory Sensitivities

As neurodiversity often includes sensory sensitivities, neurodivergent friendships make relevant adjustments. We take the time to understand and accommodate our friends’ unique set of sensory needs. Compared to neurotypical people, we spend much more time considering whether an environment is suitable for socializing given our sensory sensitivities. If we’re meeting friends who also have sensory sensitivities that may be different from our own, further accommodations may be necessary.

Special Interests

We tend to bond over shared special interests, and it can get intense if you’re within earshot. While some of us may come off as quiet and withdrawn in many settings, put us with someone who shares our special interest and watch us light up. We can talk for hours with a level of enthusiasm that oozes out of us in every direction. Typically, we become more expressive, both with our facial expressions and tones we speak in. We will excitedly gesture and likely have at least a few happy hand-flaps. We truly love talking about these special interests and can form intense bonds over them.

Routine and Predictability

Listen, I know every ADHD person reading this is going to go, “Nope, not me. I hate routine.” And that’s fair because part of me resents my need for routine too. But, I also know how much better I function when I have a stupid routine in place. Many neurodivergent people find stability and comfort in routines and predictability. This means they may need social activities that are consistent and structured. This can provide a sense of security for both friends. For some neurotypical people, such a social arrangement may feel stifling. With neurodivergent friendships, there is not only more understanding of why, but a similar need for routine that makes friendship easier to navigate.

Emotional Support

Neurodiverse individuals experience emotions differently. We may struggle to identify how we’re feeling and have difficulty expressing those feelings. We definitely struggle to regulate our emotions sometimes which can come off a bit messy (to put it lightly.) Others who are neurodivergent understand these struggles more for what they are rather than slapping negative labels on people. As a result, neurodivergent friendships often involve a lot of active listening, patience, and understanding of one another.

Honesty and Directness

Since we struggle with identifying emotions and communication, people who are neurodivergent tend to value honesty and direct communication. If you’re passive-aggressive with us, we will very likely miss what you’re trying to tell us. And speaking from experience, neurotypicals are more likely to perceive us as being passive-aggressive or having a hidden agenda when we say something very bluntly. Neurodivergent friendships have a preference for clear, straightforward communication. This leads to open and genuine interactions rather than dreaded small talk.

Acceptance and Understanding

When you’ve got a spicy brain, you’re more likely to understand your fellow spicies and their different needs. This leads to neurodivergent friendships often being characterized by high levels of acceptance and understanding. Sure, there are many empathetic neurotypicals who do their best to be understanding and accepting and they make great friends for neurodivergent people also. But there’s just nothing like knowing someone truly gets your experiences and how to accommodate your needs. While many neurotypicals expect us to reign it in and mask for their comfort, in neurodivergent friendships we embrace each other’s quirks and unique differences and love each other more for them.

Summarizing Neurospicy Friendships

This was admittedly a hard post to write because I wasn’t sure which direction to take it. It’s so hard to generalize neurodivergent friendships because each type of neurodiversity brings different challenges. Part of me just wanted to write an entire post full of different stories where I discovered childhood friends are also ND or funny ways I’ve stumbled onto new ND friends online. From what I’ve read, successful blogs are supposed to offer a solution so should I be offering up friendship advice? I feel autistically unqualified for that as I’ve been feeling socially inadequate lately while I cope with other things.

However, it’s possible in my indecisiveness of how to pull this post together that I’ve just unintentionally given you glimpse of neurodivergent friendships. Their rambling and tangential qualities, complete with made-up words and bluntness that provide an accepting and supportive space. Friendships don’t come easily to neurodivergent people. That’s why the friendships we do have mean so much to us, even if we may show it in unusual ways.

Tell Me About Your Neurodivergent Friendships

I want to hear your neurodivergent friendship stories! Did you also discover your lifelong best friend is neurodivergent? Were you and your spouse both diagnosed late in life? Or maybe you’re struggling with friendships right now, and that’s okay! Share with me so we can support each other and bring some joy to this pretty crappy world.

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