I’m Autistic, and Beer Helped Me Come Out of My Shell

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group of friends at trivia in brewery

Imagine this: You wake up one day and feel all of your senses tingling. You aren’t sure what’s wrong, but they’re on fire. No matter what you do, you have no choice but to feel them every moment. That’s what autism feels like to me, and it’s a part of my identity.

Growing up, it was difficult to find environments that gave me a sense of belonging. I have had to adapt to various situations that don’t have accommodations for me. For example, some places host music events, which can get a bit loud for me (no shade toward the musical acts themselves). It would be great to have a place to stand inside where the music is less intense. Also, some places are too small. I’m 6’2″ and feeling claustrophobic makes me feel sensorially overwhelmed. I don’t insist on having them everywhere I go, but comfortable accommodations are something that make the lives of autistic people easier. I often sacrificed my comfort for others, which drained me of any social energy I had outside of school and work—until I received a sign from the universe to give something new a chance.

About a year and a half ago, I got a text from a good friend inviting me to attend a trivia night at a local brewery. “You’re smart. Come hang,” he texted. I have a low social battery when it comes to new environments, because I use a lot of my energy masking any part of myself that could give away my autism. Given that I “pass” as neurotypical, it typically goes unchecked.

But when I walked into Aftershock Brewery in my hometown of Temecula, Calif., for trivia, I instantly felt at home. I don’t know how to describe it other than feeling like blocks had been placed into the right-shaped holes. Everyone at Aftershock was welcoming. I met the owner, Jean, who gave me the rundown of the beers on draught. I met my friend’s brewery buddies, who embraced me without hesitation. As the night went on, I felt freer to be myself. I discovered more about how confident I truly am in front of people, and this led to a wonderful friendship with the people there.

For the friendship to grow, I had to make observations. Those observations, rooted in my neurodivergence, led to a form of inner healing that opened me up to friendship.

Branching Out

I began splitting my time between Aftershock and another brewery called Relentless Brewing Company just a few miles away. Many of my friends go to both breweries, which makes it more comforting for me. According to Neurodivergent Insights, roughly 50 percent of autistic people deal with social anxiety. Personally, it’s a miracle that I’m able to socialize to this extent to begin with, but it’s not without reasons.

One of the intriguing aspects of socializing in breweries has to do with the design. I’m not an interior designer, but I do find myself attracted to colorful environments. At Aftershock, the walls are covered with gold California state-shaped designs, with the biggest one hanging on the wall. Their tap handles are shaped like California as well. At Relentless, the walls are decorated with an urban graffiti design that I’ve always found comforting. According to Embrace Autism, autistic people tend to mix their senses together. For example, I always associated California with gold given the Gold Rush that started in 1848. It regulates my reactions that way. People never understood why I did this. Associations are natural to me, and they are how I familiarize myself with any new space. When I look at the walls at Aftershock and Relentless, I feel connected to my childhood.

It’s not impossible for businesses to make their spaces more neurodivergent friendly. Just ask Brewability Lab in Englewood, Colo., which hires neurodiverse employees, and Perkiomen Valley Brewery in Green Lane, Pa., which offers a space that is “sensory and mobility friendly.”

‘Low Pressure’ Environments

Accommodations are personal, and it’s hard for autistic people to make themselves feel at home in unfamiliar environments. To do that, I had to continue looking into the child version of myself. This meant finding anything I could do to be comfortable, even small actions. Everyone—especially autistic people—“stims.” Stimming is the body’s natural way of self-regulating its emotions and physicality. This can look like cracking your knuckles, humming, tapping your fingers, and other fidgets. Given the high energy of the crowds in breweries, I played off of it, in part using the examples of stimming I would see neurotypicals do. I would write the answers for trivia questions for my team and doodle on the paper to center myself. I also tend to tap my fingers on my legs whenever there’s an awkward silence. According to the American Psychiatry Association, 44 percent of autistic people reported using stimming to regulate their emotions.

For me, I’ve taken what’s available in a taproom environment and used it to my advantage, such as the paper to doodle on. This juggling act of code-switching and honoring my needs has been introspective. I have noticed how emotionally freeing it has been to allow myself to unmask in these environments.

Another way I’ve made myself at home is by practicing my socialization skills. Quite frankly, a brewery is the best place to practice them. As a society, we see breweries as hangout spots, places to go to unwind after a long workday. Few people decide to bring their laptop and fill out contracts while sipping on an IPA, but people do come and sip on IPAs to celebrate the finalization of them. Breweries are, overall, low-pressure social environments.

Being Comfortable With Yourself

When it comes to socialization, autistic people have a hard time picking up on social cues and often feel the need to “play a role” when trying to make friends. If I had a dollar for every time I felt that way, I could buy the house rounds all night. I got tired of feeling inferior for being myself, so I decided to change my approach. I decided to drop the act. Dr. Michael Kitlowski, a psychologist in Temecula who specializes in treating autistic patients, says this is a solid way of building a foundation for your social life.

“People feel comfortable around you when you are comfortable with yourself,” Kitlowski says. “Being conditioned to behave a certain way makes you not comfortable with yourself.”

In part, the comfortability of being around my good friend was a good steppingstone. That connection helped ground me in the environment, thus making me more approachable to others. Plus, the comfortability of these new environments made me feel like it all was fitting like a glove.

“You’ve become more open, started to make more jokes, and are engaged a lot more,” my friend recently told me. With that said, I still have growing to do. It takes time to break down expectations placed on you by neurotypical people, but the rewards include lifelong friendships, a richer social life—and a bigger variety of beer options I wouldn’t usually partake in.

To any autistic person reading this, I implore you to approach this social scene with an open mind. Find out what works for you, and what doesn’t. The only person who can determine where you are welcomed is you.

Ian Donley is a writer based in Southern California who specializes in sexuality and identity. He is currently pursuing his bachelor’s in English.