Salem, Oregon — I’m on the autistic spectrum, and I’m about to finish my first year of college. College is difficult for everyone, but especially for people whose brains work a little differently than everyone else.
Most of my classmates are neurotypical folks. Meanwhile, I have Asperger’s, a relatively minor version of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Throughout my life, I’ve also had the benefit of a lot of professional help overcoming my challenges. Even so, I entered college with the knowledge that making friends would be my most difficult task outside of academics. But I knew that in order to be happy in my new environment, I needed to form meaningful friendships. Here’s what I learned about making friends in school:
1. Join clubs that pique your interest
Clubs and organized activities provide a structure. Also, because clubs bring together students who share a common interest, the people who you have absolutely nothing in common with are filtered out. And while approaching people is always a daunting task, knowing that you share a common interest means that the two of you will have something to talk about. Clubs have another great advantage: often they have recurring activities. Meaning, even if you are unable to exchange contact information the first time you click with someone, you will be able to see them on a regular basis.
This is a great opportunity to try new things, as well as meet people. For example, I joined a Dungeons and Dragons campaign this year. I had never played DND before. It gave me the chance to try something that I had been curious about for a long time.
2. Embrace the differences between you and other people
Your friends don’t need to be other people with ASD for you to get along. Having friends with different life experiences, perspectives and cultures is a wonderful way for you to learn about both yourself and the world. They probably have a different perspective on life, and it will be fun for the two of you to compare and contrast your respective experiences and ideas. If you enjoy someone's company, then you should not discount them simply because you have differing temperaments. Having neurotypical friends also forces you to use and practice your social skills.
3. Understand your limits
Socializing requires a lot of work for folks with Asperger's, because we tend to fixate on aspects that others find intuitive. I encourage those of you with ASD to stay true to the introvert you are and give yourself plenty of time to unwind when you feel you need it.
College is even exhausting for neurotypical people (although both the academic and social systems are built for them) — so you can imagine how that gets magnified if you have ASD. It is important to maintain your friendships, but remember that academics and your mental health come first. It is perfectly fine to occasionally skip an outing because you feel drained or have too much homework. If you are forcing yourself to socialize when you are extremely strained, you will not be the best version of yourself. You need to find a balance between challenging yourself to socialize, and giving yourself a break.
4. Be authentic
Do not attempt to be someone you are not for the sake of fitting in better. You only have one life and your goal should be to live the best life possible. If you do not make friends as your authentic self, but as some persona you created in your head, you will eventually feel as if you’re living a lie. This is stressful, and it will not bring you relationships which nurture you or bring you happiness.
If people do not like you for who you are, then there is no reason you should have them around. This is different from friends who will point out when you need to improve, which is often the marker of a good friend. But keep in mind that this world is full of judgmental people who do not accept differences. I have found that the best way to avoid such people is to be my authentic self and speak my mind.