How to Interact with a Neurologically Atypical Person

I am weird. I really thought until college that it was just because I grew up in Maine, but then I went to a fancy college outside a big city and realized there really was no one remotely like me. So, as with all my life, I continued to make friends with other unique people. Unsurprisingly, this means throughout my life I have had a number or neurologically atypical friends. A newer friend of mine, who just befriended a of mine, who is outside the norms enough that she can’t function in the job market and is paid a stipend by the Danish government. She’s having trouble learning how to interact with her and asked me if there were some books she could read. I really don’t know. For TV, I can recommend The Big Bang Theory (Sheldon), Atypical (Sam), Broen AKA The Bridge (Saga) and even Bones (titular character). I tried looking up internet articles and I found a bunch for classically autistic people, but a lot of it didn’t apply. So here is my attempt at giving advise on how to have friendship with someone whose brain is wired very differently than yours:

1) Have a thick skin: expect your atypical friend to make a lot of hurtful comments by accident. S/he is likely bad at reading people and social cues as well as doing the social dance. Things most people would know not to say or to couch in polite terms, your atypical friend will probably just blurt right out. It’s not intentional. Either let it slide or explain to your friend why it is hurtful. I personally am a fan of acting mock offended, to let my friend know that this is not something people just come out and say, but I’m also not holding a grudge.

2) Be direct and spell everything out: This also totally applies to me. I remember my toddler son was wandering around a bank and a teller was concerned I was eavesdropping on someone’s conversation with their banker. She tried four or five polite ways to get me to move and I didn’t understand until she just came out and said it. If you need your atypical friend to do something or stop doing something, just ask. Try to be compassionate, but if you need them to go home so you can cook dinner, just say it. I’ve found friends with social anxiety also really appreciate this.

3) Set boundaries: This can be physical or metaphorical. You might need to tell your atypical friend not to stand so close to you, or touch you so much. It might be setting time frames for your visits or what part of the house is off limits. You can’t assume your atypical friend understands any of the unwritten social rules, you have to state them all clearly.

4) Don’t take anything for granted: Remember atypical people are bad at reading social cues and knowing unwritten rules. So don’t assume that your friend will know not walk into your bedroom and start poking at your stuff or to take off their shoes coming in the house, even if everyone else does.

5) Be patient A friendship of this type is a lot of work. Be patient with yourself and the other person, it takes time to form any relationship, having to build up a common language and etiquette system from scratch takes a lot longer, so just hang in there, it will be worth it.

6) Be Kind In these types of situations, frustration is common and it’s hard to be both tactful and blunt, but remember, the other person isn’t trying to be infuriating, s/he isn’t trying to be hurtful. In the same respect, just because that person doesn’t express him/herself like you, doesn’t mean s/he doesn’t have feelings, so you need to practice the balancing act of setting boundaries/spelling things out and not seeming mean. For example, I have a friend who has a lot of trouble leaving when I ask her to, she once described me as “throwing her out like the kitchen trash” and I had to explain to her that it’s because it’s stressful for my husband when he comes home to unexpected guests. She stays till the last possible moment, so she puts me in a position where I have to rush her out, it’s not that I don’t like her, but she’s going to make my life difficult if she doesn’t go right then.