Thursday, 14 July 2011

Autism and Friendship.

It is commonly thought that autism and friendship do not go hand in hand and it can be true that autistic individuals find friends hard to make and find it hard to maintain friendships. The concept of friendship is a difficult one to understand when you are autistic. People often assume that autistic people cannot make friends. I've always thought that this is rubbish. The friends that A has are incredibly important to him. One of the first things that a person will say to me when I tell them that A is autistic is "but he is so friendly!?"

In A's case, the strongest bond that he shares with his friends are the friends he has who are themselves, are a little bit strange! When he joined his new school he was adopted by a group of ten boys and within this group there was such variety in personalities and interests that he felt supported. As a group they work, balancing out their little idiosyncrasies and dissolving tensions quickly. Many of the parents I meet with ASD kids lament the lack of friends their kids have and declare the kids incapable of having friends. I haven't found this the case with A is he is supported properly. I oversee everything, which the kids so far do not seem to find and I try my hardest to anticipate any shenanigans happening.

This group is now splitting up with half of the boys going to independent school and one boy moving away. Now I know that in reality, he would make new friends in high school and indeed drift from the friends that he made in primary school, still, the dissolution of this group makes me a little sad. As much as the end of primary school was the end of an era for A, the same goes for this group of friends. A is a little upset by this fact but mostly unperturbed by it, focusing excitedly on the new possibilities that high school will bring. I am MORE upset by it as I see it as the loss of his safety net. On the last day of school while I lurked (supervising) in the background of their unsupervised picnic, I saw something that really moved me. A was very very upset when he came out of the doors for the last time and only one other boy within the group shed a tear. He continued to sob intermittently throughout the preparations for their picnic. As they waited on their pizza being cooked, he started to cry again. Really cry. The guys, instead of ignoring this and being made uncomfortable by A's public display, crowded around him and patted him on the back reassuring him that "it was good to let it all out". I had to make excuses and say that I was off to the shop to get them juice so they didn't notice me crying! A went through the first five years of his primary school career without any friends, the parents feeling uncomfortable about their kids hanging around with some autistic kid. To see this happening was just amazing.

Now this weekend we have to deal with a different event. One of the boys that is closest too is moving away on Saturday. To another country so while they have invited us to visit, he won't see him very often at all, if ever depending on everyone's busy schedules. I'm planning to get the two of them together before the move but know that A will be incredibly upset at the thought of a last meeting. I'm trying to find out ways of dealing with this upset and trying to figure out how best to explain things to him.

I was researching possibly social stories about how to cope with the loss of a friend and found this wonderful site by Stuart Duncan called Autism from a Father's Point of View. Stuart has observed as I have, that autistic kids form different types of friendship, a very simplistic sort. They way that we see friendship doesn't really apply to ASD kids. Familiarity, cooperation, interacting all occur at a very simplistic level. The way that A sees friendship is that everyone is his friend. Why wouldn't they be? Unless (and usually until) they commit some slight, he will be their friend. I will share some of his insights because he writes about them far better than I can! Cameron, Stuart's son and A sound so alike! Like myself, Stuart has observed that autistic kids are able to make friends but in their own different ways.

Four aspects of the effects of autism on friendships:

Doing something together – Not what is important
For my son, doing something together is not what is important. Doing something together leads to conflicts, leads to him possibly losing (if it’s a game)… he, and his friends in his class, are very happy knowing that each other is there, even if seated at separate tables. And when one child isn’t there, Cameron tells me about it. If it’s a friend that he particularly likes, he may even be disappointed or sad.

This is one of those things that builds a level of friendship but doesn’t create nor define the friendship. Keep in mind, this is from the point of view of my son… but he can consider someone a friend from the moment he meets someone. Primarily because he has no reason to think they’re not a friend. They have not done anything wrong to him, so I guess the old “innocent until proven guilty” motto is what he goes by. And rightly so.. children should know not to take candy from strangers but shouldn’t have had to deal with anything traumatic enough to make them believe that people are out to get them in some way. Why wouldn’t they like people until given a reason not to?

So easily defeated
When the children do play a game together, the adults over-seeing the games tend to try to make it as fair as possible, whether it’s their teachers or us parents. Everyone gets a turn to win. But that’s not always how it works out, there isn’t always an adult there or someone just doesn’t get their turn to win, for what ever reason. It’s at moments like these where my son will not only break down but remain in a very miserable funk for the rest of the day as he declares to the world that no one will ever be his friend ever again… no one lets him win. This can happen for many reasons, such as not sharing, not listening to his wishes/demands and so forth… a friend that isn’t doing what he thinks as the friendly thing to do immediately sends him into a tantrum filled tirade about how he’ll never have friends again.
And to think that some doctors still try to convince me that people with Autism are emotionless.

Easily abandoned
Sometimes he doesn’t feel like he’ll never have a friend again, sometimes he’s all too eager to throw away what ever friend he does have the moment he’s mad at them. Now, this is more of a “every child goes through this” thing than it is an Autistic trait, but it still is worth mentioning… mostly just because us parents know it’s cute. Your child does something wrong, you send them to their room or for a time out and they storm off yelling “That’s it, you’re not allowed to be my friend anymore!” You try not to let them hear you chuckle because this is very serious to them. In the case of Autism, perhaps even more so because as I have mentioned, friendships are so very important.

That really is hitting the nail on the head. So if you think an autistic child cannot make friends, you could potentially be mistaken. A's friends compensate for these facets of his autism and I hope that his high school friends can too.


  1. I wish I knew how to say goodbye to good friends without totally losing my cool and being bummed out for a month - if you ever do find the cure, let me know too :)

  2. In the end I just ket the guys hole up with dvd's and munchies and just enjoy their time together. It's difficult trying to console him when theirs no definitive time that the boys will meet again. X

  3. It's sad that they grow up and people move on.  My son isn't autistic but he sees his friendships in pretty much the way you describe them above.  Great post made me shed a tear myself.

  4. Thank You Sarah-Jane. It;s very hard to watch them go through this. xx


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