Compensating With Autism

Mette Harrison
3 min readMay 10, 2023

One of the earliest lessons of my childhood was that I wasn’t a desirable or good friend. I didn’t understand why that was, but I knew that I didn’t do things other friends did and I didn’t like things that most other people did. I was always picking the wrong clothes or the wrong books and movies to like. I was obsessed with Robin Hood in fourth grade, for instance, and then with King Arthur in fifth grade. I mostly lived without friends until I was in junior high, which was when I began to be able to see how I might compensate.

I masked by pretending to like things I didn’t like, going to movies I hated, wearing clothing I found uncomfortable just because it avoided bullying. But compensation was something else again. Compensation was me trying to work harder at helping other people so that I would be valuable as a friend, not in the normal friend ways, but in the ways that I could figure out I could do. I did homework for friends, for instance, and despite my strong sense of autistic justice, I told myself a story that it was all right for me to do this because it was “easy” for me and I felt sorry for how hard school was for the other kids.

In adulthood, I continue to compensate at work and in relationships. At work, I find myself always trying to focus on making myself a “good employee” by doing the things that I can do well. There’s a whole category of things that I already know I’m not going to be great at. I’m not going to be considered the sunshine of the company. No one is going to nominate me for the award for person everyone thinks of to have a good time with, or even the most helpful (I rarely notice when other people need help unless they ask me specifically). I don’t do small talk or chi-chat well. Sometimes it feels like I do it even worse now than as a kid, because everyone is still light years ahead of me and my interests are even weirder (want to talk about crocheting for art installations, Dadaism, or Kandinsky?)

The sense that I am inevitably going to fail badly in normal areas means that I’m always hustling to prove my value to the company in the ways that I can. I try to follow all the rules, have the highest metrics, pass tests the most quickly, and volunteer to do jobs that others ask me to do that I can do (not planning parties, however). I still worry constantly that it’s not enough, that it can never be enough, to make up for all the ways that I’m failing in areas that other people find easy. I’m aware that sometimes people think I’m being rude on purpose, even though I have no idea why they perceive my behavior as rude. I’m aware that they find me abrupt, sometimes bragging, sometimes quiet, sometimes weird. But I can only focus on what I can do, so I hyper-focus on it.

In friendships, sometimes the same thing happens. I don’t think I understand the normal rules of friendship in ways that are obvious to others. I’m always trying to figure out how to “pay into” the friendship pot by being kind and paying very close attention to conversation. I try to remember what they talked about before, though sometimes I remember the wrong things. I struggle with large groups of people, but if it’s 1–2 friends, I can do hyper-focus on them for a couple of hours. If things start to veer into karaoke, talking about your favorite music (I very rarely listen to music because I find it to be a sensory overwhelm), I’m not going to be able to do those very basic things and I feel it.

But trying to explain this to many neurotypical people often ends with them insisting that the rules of reciprocity in friendship that I perceive don’t exist. And they do. They really, really do. I just can’t do a lot of them, and I often end up being dropped off lists. Talking about it is the only thing I can do to try to explain why I find it so difficult and how hard I’m working at the stuff I can do. This often makes my neurotypical friends laugh because they don’t necessarily notice or care about the work I’m so busily offering to them in an attempt to make myself a worthwhile friend.

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Mette Harrison

Autist, Ironman Worlds triathlete, Writer, Right-Brained