I have a very hard time being a friend and having friends, even on the internet, which is worlds easier for me than in person. Even if I care for someone immensely, it’s very difficult for me to be proactive in interacting with them.
It has nothing to do with shyness or social anxiety. Social anxiety only became an issue after I found myself repeatedly unable to live up to social expectations. I simply do not have the energy to focus outwards at a typical level. Not even close to it.
I sometimes go through interactive periods online where I am able to do a lot of interacting with people. But invariably I get burnt out and withdraw. In the past, this withdrawal has involved shutting down or abandoning accounts and disappearing off the face of the earth. I don’t go to that extreme anymore, but I do still need to withdraw sometimes. I have learned to just interact minimally most of the time, thus avoiding the complete burnout that I used to get.
This has been an issue my entire life. A lot of people on the autism spectrum seem to have difficulty with friendships in a different way. That is, they find it difficult to make friends because neurotypical people find them too odd. I have difficulty because I have a very low threshold for interacting with people.
People (especially neurotypical people but autistic people do this as well) seem to need constant attention or else they feel that you don’t care about them. I always had people I thought were friends asking me if I was mad at them for some unknown reason. I never understood why they thought that, because if I had been mad, I would have said something.
I can not interact with someone for ten years and am able to continue on as if we’d never had a break. Apparently this is not normal, and most people feel that time span as enormous.
I have lost many friendships because of this. I have made an effort to change–to take more initiative in making contact, to spend more time with people, to make myself available to others’ beck and call. It didn’t work. I lost the friendships anyway, because I suffered burnout and withdrew fully.
I may be very interested in your life. I may care about you deeply. I may think about you daily. I may trust you completely. But if you’re looking for someone to talk to every day, to hang out with weekly, to spend a lot of time with, to give you constant reassurance that I care*, I am not the friend you are looking for. And that is not likely to change.
There has been more written about this problem regarding live, in-person situations and the reasons for it. For instance, sensory processing issues make it difficult to keep up with a conversation for several reasons.
It’s common for autistic people to process speech very slowly. I need time to register that something was said, time to process and interpret what was said, and then time to formulate a response. Neurotypical people do all this instantaneously, so they keep talking when I don’t respond, creating a bigger and bigger backlog of speech to process.
And then they say, “You don’t talk much, do you?”
Well, no, you haven’t really given me a chance to do so.
Additionally, if there are other things happening around me, it’s very difficult not to be distracted by these things. Sensory processing difficulty makes everything equal. All sounds are foreground sounds, all movement is significant. There is no filtering of important vs. non-important information. I see and hear it all, and in an environment where there’s a lot going on, it’s near impossible to follow a conversation.
But why do I have just as much difficulty online? I can’t tolerate having textual conversations much more than I can tolerate having verbal conversations. Texting and messaging is definitely much preferable to phone calls and speaking in person. But I cannot spend a lot of time doing those things either.
Perhaps it has to do with areas of interest and focus. It’s well known that autistic people have what are called special interests, areas of intense interest which can consume a lot of time and attention.
People and relationships are not and have never been an area of interest of mine. People talk about learning social skills, and yes, I’m sure they can be learned. But in order to learn something, I have to be interested in it. I am just not interested in socializing. I’d choose to spend my time reading, writing, doing art, researching, and playing video games over socializing nearly every time. The remaining times are almost all due to a feeling of obligation.
And that feeling of obligation brings up another issue: pathological demand avoidance. In short, PDA is a manifestation of anxiety over not being in control of one’s self. For me, it’s the uncontrollable response of freezing up and resisting when something is demanded or expected of me, even if it’s something that I really want to do. So if someone is demanding attention from me or expecting me to do things with them, that makes it that much harder for me to actually do those things.
* I accept and understand that this behavior can be a result of past negative experiences, and in no way do I mean to shame people for it. I only ask for understanding of why I can’t give that to you.