Friendship In Action

Today’s post is just a quick appreciation post for a couple of friends of mine who are really good about understanding and accommodating my needs.  They set a really good example that I think others could benefit from, so sit down, get comfy, and let me tell you a quick story.

Background: I have 2 couples who are my chosen family.  They both live several hours away from me, so naturally we haven’t seen much of each other since early 2020.  Couple A consists of my oldest friend in the world and his wife, Couple B are newer friends but the sort of “I met them and we had known each other forever” friends.

So I have a birthday coming up.  It’s a big one and I really wanted people to come celebrate with me, but that was not going to happen for various reasons, all understandable.  In lieu of a proper party, I started working on arranging a party via Zoom.  Then, about 2 weeks out, Wife A texts me saying they will be coming to town the weekend of my birthday and would like to take me out for dinner/drinks/etc.

If you’re autistic, I don’t think I have to explain why this caused me to suddenly freeze up and almost say no to the whole thing, even though I loved the idea. 

For the NTs reading this, here’s why: I had already abandoned the idea of going out for my birthday and had begun to plan a quiet weekend at home binging my favorite show and eating my favorite takeout and then doing the Zoom party for a few hours.  This text threw a wrench into all that because I now had to figure out where I wanted to go, what I wanted to do, etc.  I had to change gears again, and I’m not great at doing that to begin with.

Now here’s the big lesson I want NT friends and family of autistic people to get from this: Wife A told me that Husband A had wanted to surprise me that weekend, but she thought it would be better to give me a heads up.  This means everything!  It took me a few days to get my head back around the idea of going out and then to get excited about it again and start planning.  Once I did, all was great, but if they had texted me on their way into town instead, I would have shut down and said no, just because I couldn’t recalibrate my ideas, expectations, and social battery that fast.

On the other side of the coin, we have Couple B.  They are not coming in for my birthday, but jumped on the Zoom party as soon as I mentioned it.  They are wonderful, amazing people who have always been there for me and super understanding of my needs and limitations.

Upon ordering me a gift, Wife B asked me “surprise or a heads up?”.

That quick little question is a huge gift in and of itself.

I know many NTs don’t understand why surprises can be so unwelcome to autistic folks.  Contrary to what you might think, we don’t necessarily want to know what our gifts are before we open them, but we might like to know enough to know we’ll like them.  There’s a special kind of guilt that goes with receiving a well-meant gift that we don’t really like and not being able to cover our disappointment fast enough to save face – it makes us uncomfortable as well as the gift-giver and we never want to hurt anyone’s feelings.  Also, even happy things can be overwhelming to us and knowing just a little bit about it in advance, especially if it’s a really amazing gift, can help us avoid getting totally overloaded in the moment. 

Asking if I’d prefer to have some information or to let it be a total surprise is not only a recognition of my needs, but a way of allowing me to decide how much surprise I could deal with.

Because I know Couple B quite well and they’ve sent me surprises before and I’ve always loved everything, I said a surprise was fine with a few caveats.  1 – Do give me a heads up if it can’t be left on my front porch in the heat (melted chocolate is tasty but messy) and 2 – If you want me to wait until my actual birthday to open it, tell me.  It turned out that neither of those conditions applied, so when it arrived, I immediately found out that it’s a tea sampler and I made a nice cup of tea straight away!

All of this is to say that a great way to be a friend and ally to the autistic people in your life is to keep big surprises to a minimum and ask them if they’d prefer a heads up for little surprises.  Nothing surrounding my birthday has been spoiled by what my friends did – it’s made me more able to enjoy something that might otherwise have been very overwhelming.  After a few days’ thought, I’ve chosen a restaurant for dinner, decided where we can go get drinks, even gotten excited about what to wear (it’s my birthday and I’ll wear a costume if I want)!  Being able to plan that removes a lot of stress so that on the day, I’ll be able to relax and enjoy the evening with my friends.  If I had been uncertain about the gift, being able to ask for at least a hint would have kept my brain from going to spiraling thoughts about what it might be and how I might not be gracious enough when I received it (this is a big worry for some of us). 

So give your autistic loved ones a heads up whenever you can, make sure they know they can always ask for more information if they need it, and they will be much more relaxed and you will all have a better time!

Silhouette of three people with arms raised against an orange sunset.  White and blue text on a purple back ground reads "Friendship in Action"

How do your friends and family support and accommodate your need for knowing what’s going to happen?  Do you actually love surprises?  Just like there are extroverted autistics, maybe there are those who love big surprises – please tell me in the comments if I’m over-generalizing.  How do you deal with receiving gifts?  Do you have a script you’d like to share?

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