MAKING friends, and retaining friends, as a neurodivergent is a minefield. One I’ve been reflecting on a lot in recent weeks, for various reasons. 

A couple of weekends ago, I went to the influencer launch of Ellie Middleton’s (below) literary debut Unmasked. A book that delves into the lived experience of being a late-diagnosed neurodivergent.

A must-read for anyone looking for a deeper perspective on the topic, or indeed anyone like me who is a late-diagnosed neurodivergent and has a lot to unpack.  During the Q&A portion of the session, I looked around the room. It was filled exclusively with the UK’s top neurodivergent creators and influencers – some of which played a massive part in my own self-discovery and diagnosis.

Not least, Instagram’s “Neurodivergent Lou” whose posts on neurodivergent traits in women are the reason I am still standing today as a diagnosed autistic woman.

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Meeting her was the most life-affirming experience – there I was, having a cup of tea with the woman who, quite literally, changed my life and gave me the answers I’d spent 23 years in search of. It felt like I’d known her for years. The room was quiet, besides the faint noise of everyone clicking their various fidget toys.

From tangles to wacky tracks, there was no shame or judgement to be found in employing whatever method helped you, as a neurodivergent, to be present and to feel regulated.

For the first time ever, I sat clicking and twisting my new wacky track unashamedly, shocked by how much it allowed me to focus and stay regulated. I now carry one in my pocket everywhere I go.  I had never met the vast majority of the people in the room, but I instantly felt in the presence of “my people”.

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I felt the ability to let go, and the safety to leave the mask I am so used to wearing at the door.

I was more authentically myself in this room full of strangers than I have the ability to be around even my closest friends and family.

Not because the latter are any less welcoming or supportive, but because I’ve been playing a character for them my entire life – a character that they have come to know and love. A character that is difficult to transition out of – though a transition that is in slow progress.

Part of late diagnosis is, famously, being confronted with your entire existence and presence in the world and subsequently unlearning almost everything you thought you knew about yourself.

Most of us realise that we generally do not yet have an authentic sense of self and instead, the version of us that exists is the culmination of whatever our external environment has taught us to be over the years.  We are who we have trained ourselves to be in order to survive – not who we actually and innately are. 

Friendships are intrinsically linked to this process.

Meeting new friends, shedding others and taking stock of the wonderful friends who are truly the pillars of my existence has prompted my deep personal reflection of my own – incredibly neurodivergent, and at times very lonely – journey through friendships. 

I spent my teens and early adulthood attempting to squeeze myself into the world’s most unfulfilling group of friends, an activity (which I’m coming to learn is a rite of passage for any neurodivergent) that routinely made me hate and lose myself.

Though there were many good times and memories that I’ll always cherish, they made me miserable more often than they brought me joy. I say that not necessarily as a reflection of them as individuals – and in fact some of them as individuals will always be my best friends –  but as a reflection that they, as a collective, were just not my people.

Yet for more than 10 years, I cosplayed as one of them. 

As a neurodivergent who is also wrapped in multiple layers of privilege, I am relatively palatable in terms of society’s standards, and it meant that I could easily fit in on a surface level.

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Though internally I was in hell, drowning in my inability to navigate the extreme pressure of being in the “popular” group of school friends with zero of the necessary social ability – externally I was just another one of the girls. 

In reality, I was perpetually the odd one out, the one everyone had something to say about, the one no-one bothered whether they were there or not there.

My friends, in a backwards reality, were my harshest critics, and my quietest cheerleaders.

Every decision I made was analysed with a searing judgment and viciousness that wouldn’t have been unexpected from my worst enemy.  I lost count of the number of group chats that excluded me or birthdays I was left out of over the years. A practice that feels unnecessarily cruel, and one my neurodivergent brain could never quite understand.

Was my presence really that offensive? Or was it just abject nastiness?

I didn’t have the tools to make sense of it, and so the former always won in my mind – decimating my self-esteem for good measure. I wasn’t alone either, and I wasn’t the only one in the group to be singled out over the years.

I did my hardest to pretend I could fit in. High school is already a shark tank for young women. Let alone the weird, neurodivergent, socially unconventional ones, even if they are unwittingly trying to hide it. Being “popular” was a valuable social currency to be in possession of, the ultimate tool for survival more than anything else. 

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Even though no-one knew I was autistic (myself included), when I reflect on the things I was ridiculed for or bitched mercilessly about, it was often intrinsically linked to my differences in communication, expression and emotional response.

I was different. I was autistic. And that was the crux of it.

A realisation that unfortunately for my already tortured teenage self, wouldn’t be afforded to me until my diagnosis at the age of 24 when I started to unpack who I truly was. 

Being in that room two weeks ago with a group of people just like me, who accepted me for me; who invited me into that space just for being me; who included me even though they had only just met me – and even though most of them were already established friends – felt like a defining moment in the journey of my friendships.

It was kindness, acceptance, inclusion.

Everything that real friendship should offer you. In two hours, they showed me friendship I’d waited more than a decade for from other people. It was so healing for that younger version of me, that wanted nothing more than to be accepted but had simply been looking in the wrong place. 

Being undiagnosed robs you of much joy, but there’s something extra sinister and particularly lonely about how it precludes you from finding that sense of belonging.  Though I have found friendships difficult to navigate, I find myself now as a diagnosed autistic adult surrounded by some of the best friends I could hope for.

The kind of friends I could call at 3am, that want to share their lives with me and want me around, that exist not to judge me or ridicule me – but to celebrate me, and I them. Some have been enduring friends that have stood by me in the harshest of times. Some are new friends, that I hold just as dearly as if I’d met them as a child. 

Diagnosis opened the portal to an entire new life for me in many ways. But one of the most important things it afforded me was the ability to identify my people – and those who definitely are not.