Autism Interview #178: Sarah Henderson on Friendships and Autism Misconceptions

Sarah Henderson is a blogger, speaker, and university student studying math from the U.K. Henderson blogs at I Don’t Look Autistic on a variety of topics related to autism. Today she discussed friendships, self-advocacy, and autism misconceptions.

How did you first become aware of your Autistic identity?

I was officially diagnosed when I was 17 years old, but the process started when I was 15/16 after I asked my therapist if she thought I might be autistic. I had known something was different about me in comparison to my peers for a long time, and when I was younger, I used to research social strategies and practise eye contact in the mirror, along with non-literal language. I used to keep a list of slang words and phrases in my school planner so that I could understand what was going on around me! So, I suppose I knew since I was 10 or so, but didn’t have the words until I was older to explain to other people how I felt inside.

If other people you know are curious about autism, what do you recommend is the best way to learn about it? Where/what/whom do you direct them to? 

I always say the best people to talk to are actually autistic folks, as regardless of how good a researcher is at their job, it is impossible to fully understand what the condition is like if you don’t experience it. Depending on how much detail you want, there are some good books out there such as Odd Girl Out, or a look on social medias or Instagram will yield lots of advocacy accounts where people talk about their experiences in smaller, more specific posts that only take a couple of minutes to read. Blogs or videos by autistic people are really good as well as you can get a feel for a person’s personality, which helps to add the human element to a condition that is often associated with lack of emotion and rigid thinking.

Describe situations where you feel included, engaged, and/or welcomed.

Often there are small actions which go a long way in making me feel welcomed and included. Things like asking if the music volume is too loud or when my flatmate makes sure not to use my favourite bowl so that it is there for when I eat dinner. I always worry about being left out of group activities because I am not good in loud or crowded situations, so when my friend was asking in advance about accommodations she can make so that I could come to an event she was holding, it made me extremely happy. When I thanked her for being so understanding and inviting me even though it might be a little more complicated, she replied with “I wouldn’t dream of leaving you out.” That one sentence made my heart feel very full! (Metaphorically speaking) Being autistic means that you hear all the time about how annoying your condition is and what an inconvenience you are if you take steps to try and help yourself, so being explicitly told that I am wanted and welcome and not a bother is really important to me.

How do you self-advocate in social settings/in friendships, etc.?

When I am becoming friends with someone, I tell them that I am autistic early on as it will inevitably become relevant at some point. I usually give a brief explanation if they don’t know much about it, or if they have heard of it, I tell them how it generally affects me. I also ask if they have any questions and tell them that I would much rather they asked me something they thought might be inappropriate or rude than they acted on a potentially false assumption. I also know that lots of people find it easier to understand by examples, so I tell anecdotes about different reactions (positive and negative) so that they can understand it in context. I also have quite a few neurodivergent friends who already have that baseline understanding. That is always helpful because it’s a person that I can relate to on a level that doesn’t always happen naturally with my neurotypical friends.

What tools/traits/resources do you possess now that help you navigate life as Autistic that you wish you would have had as a teenager?

Ear defenders, sunglasses, and coping strategies! Managing sensory input isn’t always something I can do by myself, so having a variety of headphones, earplugs, ear defenders, etc. is brilliant as I can adapt to different situations. Sunglasses are also great as it helps manage bright lights, especially polarised sunglasses as they reduce glare. I also have ways to stay calm, such as stimming or rocking, reciting the square numbers up to 202, etc. All these are things that I stopped myself from doing when I was younger or just didn’t know to do, but now that I am more comfortable in my identity, I feel much better about doing it openly. Knowing other people on the spectrum also helps as I can talk about my experiences and hear them talk about theirs. It’s nice to be able to talk about it with other people who aren’t coming from a place of learning, but rather one of innate understanding.

What’s one or some of your pet peeves/frustrations/microaggressions related to a lack of autism understanding that you see/experience?

The assumption that there is no change in how verbal a person is always irks me when I hear it. From my own experiences, I know that sometimes talking is the easiest way for me to communicate, whereas other times I cannot get words out of my mouth, however hard I try. My ability to express myself verbally depends on a number of factors, but I am always the same person with the same logic and same thought process. I think it is the idea that people assume if I am non-verbal that I must be in someway “playing up” my autism, rather than the traits being flexible and not fixed for all moments in time.

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