• What to Say When You Think Your Friend is Autistic.

    Should I tell him?


    We’ve all had this kind of thought, haven’t we? (No? Just me?)

    You know, you meet someone, or you have a friend, and the more time you spend with them the more you think they might be autistic. At least, you suspect they’re neurodivergent in some way.

    Of course, if you’re like me, you may feel that suggesting that someone else is autistic is a compliment. Some of my favorite people in the world, including my late husband, two of my children, and most of my employees, were all diagnosed autistic as adults. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just a thing, and for some of us, it’s one of our favorite things.

    But not everyone experiences autism the same way.

    My friend story

    I remember back when I was a school psychology student, the first time I heard the words “Asperger’s syndrome” was in Dr. Clare’s Abnormal Psychology class. (Yes, back in the day it was included in Abnormal Psych!) The more she described the characteristics of Asperger’s, the more familiar it all sounded. It was like a light bulb went off in my head. All of these characteristics clearly described…our friends’ son. (I’ll call him Mark, and his parents Peter and Nora, not their real names.)

    No, I didn’t even think of my own husband and our two as-yet-undiagnosed autistic children when I learned about Asperger’s. It would be years before I recognized that I was living in an autism-majority household. But back then, I felt strongly that our friend’s son probably had Asperger’s syndrome. When I described it to my husband, David, he agreed. This sounded just like Mark, our friends’ brilliant, awkward, lovable, teenaged son, who had intense interests and was also an intensely interesting person.

    But, how could we tell them? It was such a weird sounding condition, and this was long before it became the “diagnosis du jour.” We knew if the situation were reversed, we would want to know. We also knew it could come across as insulting, and we didn’t want to damage our friendship. We liked Peter and Nora too much to risk offending them.

    So we came up with a plan.

    Our Plan

    We invited them all over for dinner one night. After we ate, the kids all went off to play video games while we lingered over coffee. As I had expected, Nora asked me how my studies were going. This was my cue.

    I told her that I loved the school psych program, and I was learning a lot of things I’d never known before. For example, I told her that I’d never heard of this condition called Asperger’s syndrome.

    Naturally, Peter and Nora asked what that was, (remember, this was a long time ago,) so I described the characteristics. They looked at one another several times as I was talking, and then Nora asked Peter, “Doesn’t that sound like Mark?” He agreed, and they planned to get him tested for this “new” syndrome. Mark was diagnosed with Asperger’s, which helped Nora and Peter support him as he navigated community college. It felt great to be able to help our friends, without coming right out and stating my suspicion, since their child’s diagnosis was none of my business. It would be years before we realized that David and two of our children were also what at that time was called Asperger’s syndrome, now known officially in the DSM-5 as an “Autism Spectrum Disorder,” but familiarly as autism.

    I’m not suggesting that you try to orchestrate a situation where it will naturally come up in conversation like I did back in my grad school days. That happened to work out for us at that time, but I wouldn’t do it that way today.

    In fact, I wonder what I would say if I met someone I believed to be autistic?

    Maybe they already know they’re autistic, and my bringing it up would be unwelcome.

    Is there any reason to say anything?

    I believe in everyone just living our best lives and minding our own business.

    But sometimes you might see a situation where you could make a positive difference by bringing it up.

    When should you consider mentioning autism, and when should you keep your thoughts to yourself?

    Don’t mention autism if…

    • You don’t know them well or for very long. If this is a new acquaintance, then whether or not they or their child is autistic is none of your business.
    • You are autistic yourself, but they don’t know about your autism yet.  This is a clue you may not be close enough to have a conversation about whether they or their child might be autistic.
    • You suspect they may have negative opinions about autism. Some people use “autistic” as a slur when name-calling, so suggesting that they or their child is autistic might be taken as an insult. It’s not one, but some people just don’t know any better.
    • They haven’t shared their own or their child’s struggles with issues such as sensory overload or feeling burned out by too much social activity. If they aren’t looking for solutions, there’s no need to insert your opinion.

    Consider mentioning autism if…

    • Your friend or their child struggles with autistic traits at school or work, and the teachers or supervisors blame them and act like they are the problem. It may be helpful to mention that autistic folk share these struggles and deserve accommodations and understanding.
    • Your friend knows that you are autistic and has initiated conversations with you about it.
    • Your friend asks you if you think they or their child might be autistic.

    If you’re not sure, tread lightly. Don’t blunder in if there’s no groundwork in place for having the conversation. Above all, maintain your position of neurodiversity-affirmation. There is nothing wrong with being autistic. It’s a different brain, but an excellent one.

    The best scenario is that you are available to your friend to have the conversation when they are open to it, and they bring it up. If they don’t show interest or curiosity about autism, leave it alone. Continue caring about them and being the best friend you can be. The timing may not be right to talk about autism now, but the day may come when that will be what they need to hear, and they may have questions for you. As a good friend, answer any question they ask you about autism,  and support them when they’re ready, even if the time to explore autism is not right now.

    They are lucky to have a friend like you.