Have you ever had a friendship that started out, at first, on the worst possible footing—and yet, somehow—it grew anyway? I have an autistic friend who can testify that is exactly how our relationship lurched forward. When we first met, while I was leading a national disability ministry, my “wheelhouse” was primarily in the area of intellectual disability. At that time, I did not have any close personal connections with adults who have “high functioning autism” (a misnomer in and of itself). Lori was the first woman I had ever encountered who carried this descriptor.
We met in 2013 at our denomination’s annual General Assembly. While working the booth for our ministry, Lori circled by several times and then finally came up and talked to me for a bit. She mentioned that she had a son with autism. I’d had those conversations with lots of folks before. Then she said, “I have autism too.” Now she had my attention.
When “typical” folks meet people with disabilities, we can often fall into one of three categories of unhelpful responses: condescension, complacency, or consumerism. In my experience, the most common response is one of condescension—a revealing of our own biases of superiority towards people with differing abilities whom we presume to be inferior to us. It’s an ugly disclosure when it happens. And it happens frequently. Condescension says much more about us and our distorted views of ourselves than it says about people with disabilities.
The second category is complacency. Complacency is indifferent to the difficulties associated with disability and deeply rooted in our postmodern cultural context. Complacency can mask as acceptance—but it refuses to acknowledge (or feel any responsibility toward) the ways that some degree of suffering always accompanies disability in how the body works differently than we expect it to. For people with autism, the differences in neurological functioning create very challenging sensory, communication, relational, and executive functioning hurdles. When we are complacent or indifferent toward those realities, we communicate to people with autism that we expect them to bear these challenges in silence.
The third trap is a consumer mindset—one that sees the person with autism, in this case, as a commodity. Wow—you inspire me. Wow—you’re not what I expected. Wow—you could be really useful to me. I fell into this latter pitfall in my first encounter with Lori. Acknowledging that I did not know nearly as much about autism as I really needed to, I was thrilled to meet someone who was not only a parent of a child with autism but also autistic herself. What a gold mine! That’s when the unfiltered speech started on my part. “Will you be my (ministry’s) Temple Grandin?” Yes. I actually said that. I know. It’s mortifying for me even now, just to type it, let alone acknowledge that I blurted it out. (In case you don’t know who Temple Grandin is, she is a woman with autism who is a world-renowned speaker on the subject and also a brilliant, accomplished researcher in the topic area of animal husbandry.)
What I Am Still Learning
I thought it might be helpful to share a few things I’ve learned (and am still learning) along the way about becoming friends with someone who is autistic. I’ve asked Lori to interact with me on this post as well, so this post is only Part 1 of 2, as Lori’s voice in this conversation is, of course, crucial.
In my experience, I think those of us who would describe our interactions with the world around us as “neurotypical” will benefit from recognizing that we subconsciously settle into several things in our friendships, without even being aware of them. “Easy” neurotypical friendships are often based on commonality, comfort, competence, and conformity. We find it easiest to relate to those with whom we share things in common, whose presence doesn’t require us to be uncomfortable in any way, where our knowledge of the world and how it works feels competent, and where there is some mutually agreed upon level of conformity.
Christ-like relationships, on the other hand, are not focused on “ease” but on “intentionality.”…