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  • Writer's pictureRebecca Dingwell

“We were never friends”: Navigating autism and friendships

Updated: Jul 7


I recently looked through my wedding guest list: the wedding that never was, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. My partner and I eloped instead, with the intention of revisiting a possible celebration later. An anniversary party in 2025, perhaps.


However, as I scrolled through the list of names, it dawned on me that I don’t even speak to most of these people anymore. A handful are still close to me. Many remain mutuals on social media and, once in a while, well-wishes pass between us. Others may as well be worlds away.


Losing friendships isn’t unique to any demographic—it would be silly to claim otherwise. Geographical distance, emotional rifts and frivolous arguments can all cause friendships to end. But an Instagram post by Lauren Melissa Ellzey got me thinking about the loss of friendship in the context of autism. Specifically, Ellzey writes about losing friends after unmasking her autistic traits.


“Friendship loss after unmasking my autism is not the same as losing a friend. It’s realizing we were never friends. They were friends with the masked version of me.” Lauren Melissa Ellzey (autienelle)

As someone who was undiagnosed for my entire childhood, grade school and university years, I thought I was inherently bad at friendships and relationships. I also questioned if anyone in my life knew the “real me.” In groups, I often felt like the odd one out. Even if the people seemed great, it was only a matter of time before someone would pull the rug from under me. There was rarely a warning or explanation.


For a long time, I didn’t understand the friendship hierarchies that appeared to be second nature to others.  It turns out that “work friends,” “class friends” and “best friends” are all separate categories. After leaving a job, for example, I’d try to keep in touch with those work friends. When my efforts to talk or hang out weren’t reciprocated, I eventually realized that our relationships had more to do with proximity than genuine connections. In a similar vein, I assumed something must have come up every time someone ghosted after promising they’d “get back to me” about a lunch date or event. (It took me an embarrassing amount of time to take the hint. No use dwelling on that, though.)


“Autistic people who lack cognitive flexibility may have difficulty keeping up with all the social rules and unexpected variations of interactions.” theautisticlife

The fog began to clear in 2021, when I finally received a clinical diagnosis of autism. Like many folks who are diagnosed in adulthood, I reassessed much of my life. With newfound fervour and excitement, I shared revelations as they came up. Some people were happy for me.


On the other hand, some were not.


You see, they’d liked the meeker version of me. The masked version. The version of me who, deep down, was certain that I was unloveable and broken. My former self would wave it off if a friend was 45 minutes late for a meet-up. She only cried about cruel jabs in private, knowing she was too sensitive and needed to learn to “take a joke.” She held onto friends for dear life, because she had no idea when she might find another.


It was as I’d feared. Indeed, a number of my friends had not known the real me. They finally, actually met me, and…they didn’t like me at all.


“I’ve discovered through years of trial and error is that unmasking Autism and developing ‘social skills’ don’t have to be diametrically opposed goals. In fact, the best way to make new friends as an Autistic person is by unmasking, and sharing more of your weird, distinctive disabled self with the world.” Dr. Devon Price

Losing a friendship is painful enough when you’re the one getting dumped. We don’t always talk about how it feels to walk away. I’ve spent a lot of time in tears, wondering why people I loved didn’t see me as worthy of respect or care. My old habit of blaming myself came back like a tidal wave. Why couldn’t I just be normal? Why couldn’t I have been satisfied with what I had? Why did I doom myself to loneliness and isolation?


On my darkest days, I still feel this way. I am still mourning as I navigate all the life changes of the last three years. But there is light, too. The people who stayed during this time are the ones I believe will stay forever.


My other-ness has also allowed me to find new connections. Every so often, I’ll throw a paper airplane to a person in a passing, solitary ship and they send one back that reads, I thought I was the only one.


You are not, my friend. I'm here, too.


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