An Autistic Guide To Navigating Drinks-With-Friends 

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I have a major personal conundrum: I enjoy spending time with people I like, but I have a severely limited supply of social energy to do so.

This was brought home for me on Friday – one of my old colleagues was leaving the organisation I left several months ago, and so I made the decision to tag along with her and some other ex-colleagues for goodbye drinks.

Now, I don’t drink. In fact, I don’t drink anything other than tap water and very specific brands of hot chocolate. For some reason, a large chunk of my sensory quirks have centered around liquids and consuming said liquids. As a result, I have numerous awful memories of being the one sober friend (sidenote: never think signposting me as the responsible one is a good idea), and I also have high levels of anxiety around drunk people.

However, I know that a lot of people I enjoy spending time with like to socialise this way – many of these people have put time and thought into accommodating my difficulties, so the very least I feel I can do is put some effort into socialising with them in a pub setting (clubs is where I draw the line – I don’t do clubs).

Despite all the odds stacking precariously against me, I had a really good time with my friends. This was due to a) having awesome friends and b) having an armoury of techniques built up over years of terrible experiences. As with the tube strike/transport difficulties scenario, I’d like to share these techniques in the hopes that someone can use them built up their own armoury (without having to wade through the uncomfortable and awful situations I have in order to  do so).

Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin.

* Have a way out – it’s not the most joyful or optimistic thing to think about when you’re preparing for some time out with friends. But once I’ve done it, the knowledge that I have a back up plan always makes for a less stressful evening. Having a way out could be as simple as making sure you have several different routes to get home (printing it out as well, as a stodgy phone connection can lead to said phone being thrown into a bush), or as pre-planned as having written and rehearsed scripts on what to say when you want to leave. Good scripts, I’ve found, begin with ‘I’ve had a really nice time, but’ can be followed with:

  • ‘I have someone I need to pick up.’
  • ‘(Insert family member here) needs my help.’
  • ‘I have tickets for a certain train.’
  • ‘I’m not feeling great.’
  • ‘I have work/school/an appointment early tomorrow morning.’
  • Or simply – ‘I have to go now.’

The closer to the actual truth the better, but if you have to embellish, a good rehearsal with a family member or trusted friend can be lifesaving.

* Have a ‘buddy’ code – usually, for me, I’ll have at least one person that I trust enough to come up with a ‘buddy’ code. I’ll speak to this person beforehand, outlining exactly what’s making me anxious about the event (recently, for example, I reached out to a close friend and explained that I was extremely anxious at the thought of everyone getting drunk around me), the signs to look out for in case I struggle to communicate (hand signs, specific stimming, a code word or phrase, or a text), and what to do when those signs appear. Before I had a trusted friend for these things, I would have my mum as my ‘buddy’, and our code was ‘I feel sick’. I would call or text, tell her I was feeling unwell, and she would hop in the car to come and collect me.

* Use the toilet – the first thing I do when I get to a venue is work out where the toilets are. As pubs and bars can get loud and busy, the toilet is the perfect place to lock yourself in your own space for as long as you need to. This is where I go to catch my breath and recharge my batteries. Toilets in these places can also get crowded and noisy, but they will be less so than the main area, and you can lock yourself into a cubicle to create a safe space where you can stim, put your headphones on, or simply do some breathing exercises until you feel ready to face the world. Plus, no one will question you going to the toilet, and they will very rarely notice or question how long you take.

* Set your limits and be firm – I am terrible at this, and my life would be a lot easier if I took my own advice. Set a clear limit with yourself and others: I will only stay until a certain time, if people move on to a club I won’t go with them, here is a list of things that make me uncomfortable and that I will not do, and so on and so forth. Write these down to remind yourself. If you feel comfortable doing so, let the other people in your group know where your boundaries are. If you don’t feel comfortable doing so, ask your buddy to mention it – buddies can also be important tools in making sure you stick to your limits and stand firm against anyone who tries to get you to cross them.

* Use your techniques – I’ve spoken about these in greater detail in my post on navigating transport issues. Those same ideas apply here, and in many other situations. These techniques and strategies may include:

  • Stimming aids – fidget spinners, fidget cubes, soft toys, chewable jewellery, a heavy scarf etc. Have a play around and see what works for you. Sensory Oojamabobs is a great place for chewable jewellery, fidget toys and scarves can be four for ridiculously good prices on Amazon, and TY do lovely little soft toys of various textures that fit neatly in the bottom of your bag.
  • Breathing – I’ve told you all about about my favourite calming breathing exercises before, which is the 4-7-8 technique: breathe in for four seconds, hold for seven seconds, and breathe out for 8 seconds. It works for me, so here’s a quick rundown on how to do it effectively and safely. If other techniques work better for you, don’t be afraid to do these either. Write them down if you have to, and don’t forget that the magic toilet cubicle safe space is there for you to use if you need it.
  • Headphones – if you have some noise-cancelling headphones, don’t be afraid to put them on. Depending on whether they are bluetooth enabled or not, you could also pop some calming sounds on without getting too tied up with wires in a public place. My favourite soundscapes for these moments can be found on myNoise, which also has an app that you can download for when you don’t have a good internet signal.
  • Apps – there are multitude of apps that could be helpful here. Whether it’s a meditation app (there are a lot of these, it’s about finding which ones work for you), a gaming app, a fidget app (to keep your hands and your brain distracted and away from the panic) or something entirely different, have a good search for whatever works best for you.

* Don’t feel guilty – whatever happens, please don’t let what you have to do weigh on your conscience. I’ve been there. And it does no good for anybody. If you need to hide in the bathroom for twenty minutes, or put on your headphones for a little bit, or even if you had to leave earlier than planned, do not let yourself be dragged down by the thought that you are disappointing your friends. They may well be disappointed, but if they are the kind of friends every person deserves to have, they will understand; they won’t want you to stick in a state of high anxiety, teetering ever closer to the edge of shutdown or meltdown. The very fact that you have made the effort to be there, in a situation which does not come naturally and for which you have to put a lot of systems in place, shows that you care about them.

* If you can’t go, you can’t go – as with the transport issues, you have to be the judge of your own abilities. If it’s been an awful day; if you feel on the edge; if you have precisely zero emotional energy; if you feel in your gut that going would be a bad idea, don’t be afraid to back out. As much as it is important to regulate your own anxiety in order to partake in these situations and spend time with your friends, it is also imperative to remember to regulate your anxiety for your own well-being. If you are worried about upsetting your friends, talk to them if you can, or, if you feel you can’t, ask your buddy to do so, write them an email, or send them a text. They may be more open to understanding than you think.

I am acutely aware that I am very lucky – my friends, my ex-colleagues, my current colleagues, have all taken the time to understand how my autism affects me and how best to deal with it. Other people may not have that. If I could close my eyes and make a wish that every single autistic person could have that sort of understanding, I would.

However, I’ve not always had this. A lot of the understanding and support is incredibly, wonderfully new to me.  And these few techniques are my own personal arsenal, built up over nearly twenty-six years of trying – and failing – to navigate that task that should be so simple: spending time with my friends.

I hope it may be helpful. If it stops even one person going through some of the experiences I have had, then it will be worth more than just words on a computer screen.

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