Oh the heart-stopping panic that greets many of us neurodivergents when we open the post and find a beautifully written demand with those three words: Save. The. Date.

This glossary entry has, bizarrely, turned into my longest yet! It’s all about the difficulty of saying NO to social invitations. Who knew there was so much to say on the subject? We’ll look at why so many of us feel like this, how we may have dealt with the problem until now, and what we can do differently, now that we know who, and why, we are as we are.

It could be a wedding, it could be something as simple as meeting an old friend for coffee. It doesn’t matter what the event, somehow we so often end up saying, “Yes, love to!” It can even, momentarily, feel good to sound so…straightforward, so like other ‘normal’ people. More often than not though, what we actually wanted to say was, “I literally can’t think of anything worse, but I suppose I’ll have to, otherwise I’ll seem weird.”

Saying NO is really hard. I can’t know the scale of how true this statement is for sure, as I only have my own experience and those heard anecdotally, but a quick Google suggests to me that people of all neurotypes find saying no difficult, to varying degrees. Nobody wants to hurt another person’s feelings, especially if that person has invited us to an event that, to them, is a positive thing; something we should apparently feel privileged to attend.

So if we start with the assumption that everyone finds saying NO tricky, and then we add in our neurodivergence, we can at least start, I hope, to judge ourselves less harshly when we either accept an invite, and hate every minute of it, OR decline one and then we’re haunted by guilt.

Why is Saying NO to an invite a particular problem for autistic people? Well that’s a book in itself! So here are just a few potential reasons why we might struggle:

  • As we know, masking around others is all about trying to blend in, to be accepted as a passing neurotypical. If someone asks us to do something and we decline, immediately we are going against the expectations and hopes of the people we’re trying to silently move amongst, in our camouflage gear. Declining an invite, potentially offending those people, can feel like we’re undermining our own efforts.
  • This brings us on to the, very closely related, autistic behaviour of fawning – a form of masking that involves us bending over backwards to be super-accommodating and nice. The word NO just doesn’t work when we’re having to fawn – the whole point of fawning (an unconscious act) is that we’re aiming to please, not disappoint.
  • There’s also this odd thing, that I’m aware that I do – that is finding myself saying YES because it feels like I should want to do that thing. Because that’s what typical people enjoy doing. We may believe that, given time, we will convince ourselves that we really do want to attend the 48 hour hen do in Ibiza with 14 ‘friends’ that we haven’t seen since we left college. I, for one, have never come close to convincing myself of such a horrifying prospect. That would be a step too far. Fortunately, I’ve never been asked.
  • Undoubtedly related to saying YES because we feel we should want to participate, is the business of us lacking the confidence to stand our ground. After years, potentially decades, of not understanding ourselves, not understanding why we feel different to the majority, this can take its toll on our self-esteem. We’ve, quite understandably, been worn down and worn out. Do we then have the confidence to refuse to do something, when we struggle to explain why we don’t want to do it without feeling pathetic?
  • As we are very well aware (even if prehistoric professionals aren’t) our ability to empathise is strong. It can feel incredibly intense and uncomfortable. We know only too well, how horrible, what we see as, a personal rejection can feel, and we hate the thought of making other people feel that way. Consequently, we frequently put ourselves second, at the very least, in order to prevent others feeling unhappy.
  • It’s no great secret that many of us struggle to maintain relationships, particularly friendships. Anything that threatens those that we do have can seem too much of a risk. We want to say NO, but does that mean we have to forfeit that connection, because of their consequent disapproval or rejection? The ensuing anxiety related to that thought can be as difficult to cope with as actually going through with the dreaded event. So it feels like a lose-lose.

Before we knew our real identities, we may have had a whole, unconscious, mental filing cabinet of ways to get out of an invitation, even if we are only just becoming conscious of this, whilst we look back over our lives and behaviours through this new autistic lens, as I certainly am. I thought I’d share a few of my most frequently used social escape routes (my strategies for avoiding social events). I’ve been using these, inadvertently, for over fifty years. I’m not proud of these, though I feel so much relief now that I know why I’ve been so consistently rubbish at turning up! I think I’ve always hoped that one day I’d wake up with a different attitude and attend everything with delight… never going to happen!

You may identify with a few of these. I’m cringing as I prepare to share:

  1. The last minute cancellation: This is the classic follow up to the over-enthusiastic initial response of, “ooh YES lovely. Count me in!” That, of course, is followed by immediate and chronic regret that will last for the entire build up to the event, increasing as it nears. This escape route involves us making contact with the invite-giver one hour before the event faking a stomach bug, migraine, tyre puncture, even the slightly dodgy but brilliantly vague ‘family emergency’, if we’ve already used the others on the same person previously. The difficult thing with this is that we need to diarise our excuse so that we don’t look completely blank when said person asks us if we feel better etc. Does this qualify as a NO? I suppose it’s a NO in a YES’s clothing.
  2. The disappear, never to be seen again method: This is where we just don’t turn up, without explanation. This is a toughie to pull off, particularly if you’re trying to get out of attending your cousin’s wedding anniversary dinner. They know where you live, as does the rest of your family who did manage to attend! This one’s more suited to all of those dreadful clubs that we join, go once, and don’t wish ever to return, despite having masked like maniacs for the duration of the first session, culminating in a, “See you next week!” as we leave. Is this a NO? Hmm, I suspect it’s more of a snub. Do we care, if we’re never going to see them again? Maybe not.
  3. The eternal postponement: This is never going to work for weddings, funerals or bar mitzvahs. This is a card to pull from the pack when facing the challenge of casual meet ups – friends, family, ex-colleagues and the like. We want to see some of them, on some level at least. We just don’t feel we can right now. So we just keep postponing. This can go on for months, even years. And every time we rearrange, or discuss rearranging, we do actually mean it. Is this a NO? Hmm… it’s more of a theoretical YES.
  4. The written decline: Okay, let’s try something harder. Something that will save us endless dread and increased anxiety… How about saying NO at the written invite stage? This saves the pain of the endless build up to an event we’re, in all likelihood, going to use item 1. to avoid anyway. A written RSVP is easier to manage, as our seemingly-incapable-of-pulling-off-a-lie faces aren’t in evidence. Still not easy though, not unless we’re planning on incorporating a lie along the lines of “sadly, we’ll be in Rhodes that very week – can you believe it?” Well, they won’t believe it unless you’re prepared to lay low for that week (diarise that one too) and even then you’re probably going to need to superimpose yourself on to some blue skied, olive tree-ed backdrops to put on social media. Probably best to book that Greek holiday after all, to be on the safe side. This IS a NO – hurray! It’s also a lie. We’re not good at those, hence the need to book that holiday quick. The perfect NO is surely the one where we can tell the truth…
  5. The telephone decline: Let’s give saying a truthful NO a go… A phone call out of the blue from an old friend saying they happen to be in your area and would love to meet TOMORROW, for goodness sake! Well, your truth-telling face is still safe, but there’s the voice problem. Are we suddenly squeakingly high-pitched and stammering? Such a giveaway. Calls are particularly hard because of the lack of processing time. We genuinely may NOT know if we want to meet them. We just haven’t had time to go through the whole situation on the spot. The telephone decline is really hard to pull off because, in panic and a heightened state of anxiousness, we may accidentally blurt out a YES to buy us some time while we research and analyse all of the details surrounding the event. Don’t forget, we always have good old item 1. to fall back on if we let an accidental YES slip out! This is not a NO or a YES, it’s a MAYBE, BUT PROBABLY NOT – so this is progress.
  6. The ultimate face-to-face decline: Oh so hard. Almost impossible. I can’t even remember when I last managed to say NO to a face-to-face invite. There is just nowhere to hide in this scenario. The face is doing its truth serum thing, the voice is wildly unreliable. Short of running from the room screaming (followed by approach number 2.), I’ve got nothing to offer here. Maybe say YES on the spot and then use methods 1., 2., or 3., or maybe just WhatsApp a NO and incorporate a crying face to suggest we’re sad that we can’t go. I think the one with the two stripes of tears means we’re a bit gutted. Or it could mean we’re crying with joy. I genuinely have no idea. Maybe forget the emoji.

This all feels very deceitful, now I’m writing it down honestly, on paper. But it is the truth. It has been my unconscious, long-term method of saying NO without saying NO. Because NO just hasn’t felt remotely possible, for all of the reasons already given, and many more. So, is this our fault or is it this ridiculous people-pleasing, socially-fixated society? The one that dictates that sociable = healthy and selectively social or unsociable = creepy old hermit!

So, how does finding out we’re autistic make saying NO that little bit easier? We are confident that we are autistic, with or without a formal diagnosis. As one of my autistic friends recently pointed out, “Why would any of us lie about such a thing?” She’s absolutely right – there is no benefit to us to pretend to be in a stigmatised minority group, that is treated with anything from indifference to contempt by wider society. So, if someone tells us they’re neurodivergent/autistic/ADHD etc, it’s a pretty safe assumption that they mean it.

So, here we are with this Get out of Jail Free card – an autistic or adhder identity – to finally behave as we should always have been able to behave, without judgement. Our neurology was decided for us – we had no say in the matter; this is NOT a life choice. It’s that simple. If we’ve been researching, reading books, trawling the net, speaking to friends, joining communities on and offline, ruminating, we will now be realising that our neurodivergent minority is actually vast. Millions and millions of people all over the world feel the same way about social gatherings. They too have been concocting their own ways of escaping social commitments, amongst all of the other tedious, energy-sapping daily grinds that we all have to navigate. Now we know that we are not bog standard human material, but we’re in a sizeable minority, could this mean we could actually play that Get out of Jail Free card? Our neurodivergent labels should give us the space to start respecting our needs, putting ourselves first, in order to stay healthy. If we can stay healthy we can be more functional. We can be better partners, parents, employees, good friends. If we can cut ourselves the slack to say “NO thank you, I can’t/won’t/don’t do that”, rather than resorting to our list of social escape routes, everything should feel better for us, because we’re being honest and that honesty is costing us less energy.

We now understand that we are not being a party pooper, a misery guts, a conversation killer, antisocial, rude, thoughtless, ungrateful, a spoilsport, a wet blanket, dull and boring, unfriendly, a killjoy, a stick in the mud, standoffish, reclusive. We are none of these. We are simply finally trying to be ourselves, for as much of the time that we can be. We are being authentic.

Granted, there are certain situations that are very difficult to decline. Sometimes, we just need to grab a mask and get through it. In those situations, I find that the more I can know about the event before committing, the better. On balance, most people have been really accommodating with this, especially since my diagnosis. They understand that anything that makes me leave my comfort zone is frightening to me. So, the more they can tell me about numbers of people, type of venue, what we’re supposed to wear, timings etc, the less unknowns I have in the lead up. It’s not perfect but it definitely helps. As does planning my route in advance, finding the venue on Google Images, checking the parking situation etc.

If something is optional, we really have reached the point in our lives, and our understanding of ourselves, where saying NO is okay. This can well mean the difference between us staying well or going into meltdown, becoming selectively mute, experiencing burnout, shutdowns, sensory overwhelm, flare-ups of co-occurring physical or mental health conditions, migraines, panic attacks and so much more. Is saying YES to a social event really worth all of that? And just how long are we going to be able to keep this up for? Many of us have already experienced serious mental health problems, hospitalisation and even attempted suicide. Many of us have lost jobs, family and friends because we just can’t maintain this 24/7 mask – we are time bombs waiting to go off.

Could we try saying NO? Maybe just dip a socially declining toe in the water and see how it feels?

Gentle ways to handle a social invite

  1. If we are ‘out’ with our autism diagnosis/self diagnosis, it may well be better to be honest and say that we really appreciate the invite, and hope they all have a wonderful time. Unfortunately, we won’t be attending as we are trying really hard to respect what we need in order to stay healthy, to stay as level as possible. And we are still learning what those boundaries are. Social engagements of this kind are too much for us to cope with at the moment. “I’m sure you understand…” If we feel really confident around that person, we could go further and explain that this just isn’t what gives us pleasure, and tell them why. It’s really hard the first time, but it does get easier.
  2. Offering an alternative plan where we can feel comfortable is also an option I have used. Nothing makes my heart sink more than arriving to meet a friend and finding they have invited other friends (that are NOT my friends). “Oh you’ll love them all”, they try to reassure me. I really won’t. Those experiences are horrible. So, let’s say that a friend, that we truly don’t want to risk losing, asks us out on some dreadful skittles evening to honour the 50th birthday of a complete stranger to us. Declining would be perfectly reasonable and then to make clear that this is about our needs, not a rejection of our friend, we could suggest meeting up one-to-one instead, for a catch up. That’s not a flat rejection and it’s not a rejection of our friend. Sometimes it works.
  3. Here’s one that has really been working for me: Taking my unofficial ‘support dog’ with me wherever I’m socialising, if I truly can’t get out of it. I absolutely insist that we only meet in dog-friendly venues and then my little fluffy girl sits on my lap the whole time. If I get stressed, I’ve got her to cuddle and if I’m bored with the company I’ve got her to talk to. If it’s really unbearable there, I figure I can take her out for a wee and then do a runner! This would be such a lovely option for so many of us – we do love our animals – I’d be so happy if everywhere was entirely pet-friendly.
  4. There’s always the I’LL THINK ABOUT IT option, or, I’LL GIVE IT SOME THOUGHT AND GET BACK TO YOU. That’s totally okay. It’s not a NO, it’s taking the time we need to consider our options without being under pressure to perform.

There are so many ways to decline invites gracefully and without causing offence, I’m sure. I’m still at the test subject stage, so I’ll update this as I find methods that work and don’t work. I’d love to hear your approaches too, if you’d like to contact me via the Share page. In the meantime, remember, if anyone asks you to go on a hen do to Ibiza, with 14 virtual strangers, there is absolutely no need to decline politely, ‘OF COURSE NOT!’ is more than adequate.