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9 Tips for Navigating Friendships as a Neurodivergent Person

9 Tips for Navigating Friendships as a Neurodivergent Person

group of friends sitting on picnic blanket at a park

There are many reasons why people find it hard to socialize – whether it’s being neurodivergent, introversion, social anxiety, or just being a human being, connecting with others can be stressful. Even though there’s no official rulebook of how to build a friendship, there’s this implicit notion that there’s a right way and a wrong way to socialize.

The “right way” to view friendship is the neurotypical model, which is the expectation that everyone needs a group of friends to be happy, and if you’re not with them all the time then you’re doing something wrong.

But a lot of these seemingly required aspects of friendships are really hard for neurodivergent people. The good news is that if you don’t resonate with that style of friendship, A) you’re not alone, and B) there are other ways to approach socializing that are just as valid. Here are some tips for navigating friendships as a neurodivergent person.

Energy budgeting

Real talk: have you ever canceled plans last minute? Sometimes that’s the move–maybe you have terrible food poisoning, maybe you already have your pajamas on, or maybe your house suddenly burst into flames. A lot of the time though, people tend to cancel plans out of sheer exhaustion. Energy budgeting can help with this. The idea is to schedule your day, if possible, in a way that prioritizes the way YOU want to spend your energy. Identify what gives you energy, what drains your energy, and practice letting go of things that aren’t worthy of your emotional energy.

Start and end time

You’re out with friends and it’s getting later and later. Nobody else seems to be ready to call it a night, but it’s approaching midnight and you’re ready to cozy up in bed. Instead of stressing over how to plan your escape, it can be helpful to have a certain time frame determined when making plans as opposed to leaving the end time up in the air.

Be honest

There can be this pressure to make some sort of “legitimate” excuse for going home. It can feel a lot easier to lie about a doctor’s appointment or an upcoming deadline in order to duck out. Many people worry that others will take it personally if there’s no external reason to leave. It can be hard to fight the pressure and say something alone the lines of: “Hey, I’m going to take off now. I’m not leaving because I didn’t have a fun time; my social battery is dead and I really need to go home and watch a bad reality show to recharge.” In reality, people appreciate honesty and will generally respect the decision.

One-on-one time instead of big groups

Big group activities can be overstimulating. Especially when engaging in conversation with multiple people, it can be easy to get in your head about talking over someone, not talking enough, or knowing when it’s your turn to speak. Conversations with a lot of people also tend to move pretty quickly, so it can be hard to chime in on time. That’s why a lot of neurodivergent people prefer one-on-one hangouts because they allow deeper conversations and can be easier to focus on one person.


Skipping the small talk

Sometimes, neurodivergent people will get advice to brainstorm a few small talk topics before going out. If this works for you, that’s great! You might find, though, that regurgitating the weather or referencing someone’s mom’s grandma’s Facebook post is exhausting. Many neurodivergent people find that small talk is not helpful when building authentic connections. Instead of asking someone how many siblings they have, don’t be afraid to get deep!

Neurodivergent friends

Another option is to seek out people who also identify as neurodivergent. Masking, which refers to conscious efforts to act in ways that neurotypical people do naturally to meet social expectations, is something that a lot of neurodivergent people do. This is completely valid, because our society has a very hegemonic notion of the “correct” way to interact with others. Masking can lead to burnout and other mental health issues. Meeting other neurodivergent people can sometimes be less exhausting, as there’s less of a need to “explain” oneself. This isn’t to say that you should avoid neurotypical friendships, which can also be fruitful and supportive. However, seeking out other neurodivergent people can alleviate some potential pressures.

Find Community Online

There’s an online community for anything. Think of some of your interests, and find people online who are also passionate about those things. You can do this through Reddit, Discord, or any online forum. A pro for online communities is that they’re often based around specific interests, which is a great way to meet new people that have similar interests.

Structured activities

Making a plan around a structured activity, like going bowling, working out together, or going on a walk, can lessen some social pressure of hanging out with friends. Having something to do and focus on can make it feel less awkward, and having an activity can be a good starting point for conversation. 

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Assess and vocalize your friendship needs

Put aside external expectations around what you think a friendship should look like, and focus on what YOU are looking for. What is your friendship criteria? What needs do you need to be met in a healthy friendship? What needs are already met at the moment? What is your capacity to give in a friendship? Consider how much energy you have to communicate or how often you want to see someone in person.

Remember, all friendships have different dynamics. Friendships are a mutual exchange, and talking through each other’s needs is a great way to build trust and establish boundaries. At the end of the day, social relationships are meant to bring people happiness. If you feel like the neurotypical model of friendship is draining, confusing, or just not a good fit, that’s totally valid! 

It can be scary to establish boundaries that make sense for you and to shift your friendship criteria. There’s this anxiety in the back of many neurodivergent people’s heads that they’re doing something wrong. The truth is, you’ve done nothing wrong. Socializing can be challenging, and that’s okay! There are people out there who are looking for the same things in a friendship that you are.

Friendships (just like most things) are a spectrum. No matter where you fall on that spectrum, there’s room for you and your authentic self.

For more tips on navigating friendships in a neurotypical world, check the “Friendships” episode of The Neurodivergent Woman podcast:

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