Frenpockets and parallel talk: how autistic people make friends

Recently, there has been interesting discussion about autistic socializing and friendships in online autistic community. Myths about autistic people being hermits by nature or difficult and trying people nobody in their right mind would want to be friends with are both old and persistent. Empathy gap between neurotypes (Milton 2012), on the other hand, is very real. It is what makes social interaction and developing friendships between neurotypes challenging. As Milton points out, empathy gap does not exist between autistic people. We have our own preliminary understanding on basic rules of social interaction. Here, I’m going to discuss two such rules.

Rule number one: discretion is a great virtue. We really want to avoid poking at our discussion partner’s sensitive spots, especially in early stage of getting acquinted. That’s why we like to use parallel talk. Neurotypical people easily interpret parallel talk as being self centered, even though in reality it’s a form of considedation. For neurotypical people, the process of getting acquinted with someone involves bouncing increasingly personal questions between people -and autists have noted, that sometimes this results in seriously awkward situations. So we act differently. Instead of asking questions, we tell about ourselves as much as we are comfortable. If the other person shares something, we don’t just say ambiguously (and often, not exactly truthfully) something like ”I know how you feel!” but answer by telling our own experience we find relevant. That way, our partner can judge for themselves, how well we have really managed to relate. So parallel talk enables us to both stay in our personal comfort zone and connect with each other deeply. Autistic friendship often deepens quickly, because it is based on creating an atmosphere of trust and on the other hand on respectful discretion.

Frenpocket is a term coined by Lauren Ancona on twitter. It describes the way autistic friendship adapts to the wildly varying level of social spoons that is just a fact of life most autistic people must deal with. Social stamina can become depleted quite suddenly, and recovery may take a long time. During that time, we may be completely unable to keep in touch with people we care about.

If said friends are neurotypical, this easily becomes a problem, because apparently, neurotypical friendship wears off over time and needs to be affirmed regularly- the more often the closer and deeper the friendship. This is an impossibly hard requirement for autistic people, but on the other hand, autistic friendships do not wear off in the same way. We understand from presonal experience, that social stamina and ability can be totally depleted even though our warm feelings are anything but. An autistic person is like the proverbial Finnish man who wonders, why his wife is unhappy if he doesn’t tell her he loves her every day -he already said that he does when he got married, and the situation has not changed since then.

When an autist decides that someone is their friend, they ”put that friend into frenpocket”. And there the friend shall stay, even though actual communications were disrupted for some reason for several weeks (or years). When the two people are reunited again, the friendship is picked up again and continues from where it was left. Friendship or an autistic person’s warm feelings have not faded anywhere. Frenpocket preserves both until life gets easier and energy levels better.

So autistic people do appreciate friendship and like their friends just like everyone else- they just approach them differently from neuromajority.

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Reference: Damian Milton 2012: On the Ontological Status of Autism: Double Empathy Problem. Disability & Society Volume 27, 2012 – Issue 6 p.883-887.