Finding Autistic friends online and off

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I’m feeling significantly better than last week. Partly because I did some of the ‘feel better’ strategies I listed in the previous post (seeing a friend, and going on a day out away from my usual environment was especially helpful), and partly just because the passage of time is a healing thing. Still, I unfortunately in no way feel like my normal self and am still prone to getting overwhelmed by various physical sensations/emotions and worries. Also my energy and info processing capacity is sluggish – I still can’t really read or write or think about the stuff I would usually. Instead, all I can focus on is how I am feeling emotionally, why I feel this way and what I can do to get out of this funk. I’m not sure if such an intense focus on my problems is a good thing or a bad thing. But I guess I just need to go with whatever it is I feel motivated and relatively happy to be doing.

Despite experiencing quite a lot of emotional pain, there are some positives that have come out of my recent experience. The initial thing that triggered it all was actually a very positive emotion (perhaps even the most positive there is), although inevitably doomed to backfire because of circumstance (and because this emotion can also be a painful and dangerous one). I feel like I’ve already learned quite a bit from what happened and should hopefully be more equipped to deal with anything like this again in future. I also feel this episode has given me a lot of time to think, to write about my feelings, to let out emotions (I actually had a meltdown earlier this week which is a very rare occurrence for me – it was horrible during the fact but ultimately very cathartic and left me feeling calm and relieved in the hours after), and ultimately to find a new perspective and path to head down.

As I mentioned in my previous post, a core issue in how I’m feeling relates to feelings of social isolation, and especially from the autistic community (with which I am really eager to connect). The second part has to do with info and emotional overwhelm in relation to my ‘intense interest’, which is what I want to dedicate my time and energy and essentially my life to. I’m going to address this in a third post. This is post number two in whatever this series is. You can find number one (the emotional breakdown/burnout that triggered it all) here.

First, I have quite a bit of regret about the past, about being undiagnosed until 27, about social stuff, and how I imagine (perhaps naively) that having had the first thing rectified (being diagnosed younger) would have dramatically helped rectify the second thing (having more meaningful peer connections). However, there is literally nothing that can be done to change the past – except for how we choose to look at it – so there is not much point in dwelling on these thoughts. It only makes me feel bad. I am very far from alone in being late diagnosed and feeling regret and other things about it. I don’t want to play the blame game or keep imagining how things could have been different, or comparing myself to others or any of that. At the same time, though, nor do I want to ignore and repress how I’m feeling, because regret (and also things like jealousy) often points us in the direction of the things that we want and that are currently missing from our lives. I don’t want to prolong the pattern of regret, so I need to change the factors that have led to the creation of the regret, all whilst trying not to dwell in the regret. I have a lot to feel happy and grateful for – past, present and future – and need to focus on these things – not least the fact that I was actually able to discover I was autistic, get diagnosed and become part of this community – this doesn’t happen for lots of people (especially all the past generations), or happens for many even later in life.

I don’t necessarily feel equipped to start changing these factors and addressing the sources of my regrets and desires, especially not now. But I am going to try and see where it goes. I often feel stuck, hopeless and anxious about the prospect of trying to find people to connect with. There are a lot of unknowns, a lack of knowledge, control, certainty and limits – especially online. My experience over the past couple of years has not been amazing, and whilst I certainly made some connections both online and off, they ultimately haven’t become lasting ones. Social anxiety, a somewhat depressive mind-set, executive functioning issues, screen fatigue, and limited capacity for sensory and social input is not the most conducive mix. But, I’m hoping it should be do-able. I have to believe I can succeed in finding meaningful connections. Hopefully it is just a matter of making it a priority, of dedicating time and effort, perhaps with a bit of luck thrown in.

So what am I looking for? Well, I want to meet people I can feel meaningfully connected to both online and off. I’ve also decided I’m going to focus on the autistic community in order to do this. It’s not like I’m averse to attempting to befriend non autistic people or anything :p (and actually I am thinking about pursuing a couple of avenues along these lines as well). But there are a few good reasons why I want to focus on the autistic community. For example, I feel I need some sense of focus and limitation otherwise the amount of possibilities seem endless and utterly overwhelming. The main reason, though, is that I really like talking about autism and ultimately want to connect with others who are also passionate and interested in this and in trying to change things for autistic people for the better. And it’s simply more likely that autistic people are going to be knowledgeable and interested in talking about and doing things around autism than your average allistic person is going to be. I also feel slightly sad about only discovering the autistic community in my late 20s and so have understandable feelings of wanting to compensate for this lost time through focusing my energy on it now.

Honestly, trying to find people online is quite an overwhelming prospect, perhaps even more so than irl. I think this is because online is pretty much limitless and it is so easy to get distracted from what was your initial purpose or route. I can just see myself endlessly reading or commenting in Autistic Twitter conversations – which is all fine and good to an extent – but I don’t actually know the people (properly or at all) I am communicating with. I don’t know who they are as a person, they don’t me. I don’t know how likely it is that I might manage to find people online who I can genuinely know and care about and feel for, and vice-a-versa. Of course, it happens. And quite a lot (a good proportion of relationships start via online dating these days). But most of the time this happens when people meet online and are then able to take their connection offline. Not being able to do this regularly or at all poses a degree of blockage. Sure, I can probably make causal connections where we message every now and then, or interactions where we know of each other and like, comment, share. But there’s a definite limit to how much this fulfils the need for real meaningful connection we all have as humans. Still, I am going to pursue this avenue through whatever means it might take (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, online dating, discord, email, and probably more!) because it is worth taking the chance and, at the very least, I should end up with casual friends I can message with even if we can’t know each other more deeply or in real life.

The dilemma is that I feel easily and simultaneously overwhelmed and unfulfilled by random/casual social media interactions (whilst I acknowledge that the whole thing can be quite addictive and provide short-term gratification at least). I don’t (want to) care about followers, or validation or feedback from people I don’t really know when what I’m lacking is deeper connection. At the same time, social media is a potentially great way for finding these more personal connections. And the autistic community is relatively small and widely dispersed, and various physical spaces are not always accessible to many of us, which makes online very necessary. So that’s the dilemma. I need the thing which is overwhelming me, and that is very often prone to throwing me off task. Perhaps it’s about the style of engagement you choose – wide and shallow vs. limited and deep? And obviously these are two poles and there is a lot of grey area that people fluctuate through as well.

To find those deep connections I think requires being quite selective. Not being selective enough up to now has contributed to me feeling overwhelmed and unfulfilled, because I’ve ended up spending a fair amount of time communicating with people I don’t really know or might not actually have a huge amount in common with. I think, for me, online connections are best with people I already know irl (which is not many) and then hopefully with a small handful of people that I can find online and get to know really well. Of course, it is going to require quite a bit of shallow and wide wading to work my way up/down(?) to finding that deepness, but hopefully with time I will find myself spending less time wading and more time deep diving.

So what sort of people do I think I could connect well with? Here are some core things I’m looking for (in case you were wondering!). People who are:

  • Autistic
  • Roughly between 25-35 of age
  • Into autism and autistic/disability rights, perhaps blogging or doing advocacy or just someone who likes talking about this stuff
  • I’m also especially interested in connecting with other autistic women and also those in the LGBTQ+ community (though these aren’t ‘must haves’ or anything)
  • I’m interested in a relationship, so people who are single and also looking for a partner would be another plus. (But I’m also looking for just friends too, so again not a requirement.)

As for ‘real life’… The opportunities for encountering other autistics are fewer than online, because there is a smaller pool of people local to me. This means it’s harder to be selective according to various criteria and less chance of finding compatibility. But at the same time, encounters are likely to be a lot more rewarding, because you are actually meeting people in the flesh. It feels/is more real, and doesn’t involve spending hours sat in front of a screen. And even if you don’t go on to develop a lasting connection with someone (which is the norm really), even short interactions with people you don’t really know can be fun and rewarding (I’m trying to convince myself of this last one lol as someone who is very introverted and struggles to interact with people I don’t know well…) But I think I actually feel less overwhelmed and more grounded by the thought of meeting new people irl (compared to using social media). There is a lot of anxiety to be fair, but a different sort to the info/digital overload sort I discussed above. It is more to do with the anxiety and exhaustion of interacting with people face-to-face. The fact online doesn’t involve this (unless you are video chatting) is a pro for online, but also a con (because you are gaining less info/knowledge about the person and your potential compatibility/connection). Depending on the people and the compatibility, this can be so rewarding – far more than can be gained through online in my experience (although I don’t want to generalise, or downplay the strength of online friendships that many have and feel, and that actually I myself have occasionally felt – not least the very thing which actually triggered this whole episode and change in me a few weeks ago).

So, finally, I just want to say if you are reading this and would like to connect with me online (and you meet some of the above criteria :p), that would be great! Also, if you are in a similar boat, or perhaps have some words of advice or comfort to offer or whatever else, feel free to leave a comment below or contact me on social media.

Also, I really love looking at photos on Unsplash and struggled to pick just one image for this post. So I’ve included a few more that I liked below. Yay for beautiful photography!

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