Autism and friendship

17 February 2016

Dear friend,

What is the number one question that many parents ask on parents evening?

Do they have any friends? 

They want to know that their offspring is OK, that s/he is happy, not alone...

When I tell people my son has autism. Most people ask me the exact same question; Does he have any friends? 

I understand why they ask this. The media provides us with so many stereotypes about autistic people. The message that all autistic people are unsociable loners is out there but I want to tell you that it is not only untrue for many autistic people but that it is also very unhelpful. My son wants friends!

When the big lad was younger, his friends were mostly the sons or daughters of my friends. It was easy to support him socially. We went to toddler groups a couple of times a week, swimming lessons and of course he came along with me to friends homes and played with alongside their children.

Friendships changed when he started school. According to him, everyone was his friend, although he had one main friend that he played with most. Of course I asked the question at parents evenings and was reassured that everything was OK. He was not alone. He was being included.

When birthday party time started it was difficult. He didn't get invited to many things. He found this hard to accept because in his eyes everyone was his friend so why didn't they invite him? I found this really hard too. He would tell stories about how he hadn't been picked because so and so could only have 5 friends and he was number 6. It broke my heart but I didn't let him see. Some friends made all the right noises then when problems cropped up quickly disappeared.

But he did make friends. Friends with the same interests, namely computer games. The word spread that he was good and other kids wanted to play too. He started to get asked to a few more things and his friends played here regularly. I was so happy relieved that he had bucked the trend. He had one very good friend and many others.

Friendships change, people move on and find new friends. Few friends are with us our whole lives. But change is difficult for the big lad. He is loyal, a friend is a friend.

I had read that whilst autistic children can make friendships they have difficulties maintaining them. that as children get older the social gap widens and can cause problems, leading friendships to fail. Is this what is happening now? It is really difficult for a mum to sit back and watch her child be left behind but I know that I can not protect him from everything.

Problems arise when he doesn't understand why people behave in a certain way or when he fails to pick up on social cues or hints that 'neurtoypical' children do. If children keep saying they are busy when he asks them to play, he thinks they are busy. This is hard to explain and hard for him to understand! But he does know that something is wrong. 

How can you be someone's friend then change the way you act? Was the very insightful question he asked. He can feel something is different but he doesn't know what or why.  I do draw some consolation in knowing that friendship problems are common in all children and not restricted to autistic children. 

By labelling all autistic children as loners who don't want friends we are simply pushing them further out of society. Surely we should instead be asking what we can do to better understand their needs, to include them more? Yes sometimes autistic people do want to be alone, yes sometimes social situations can be a challenge. But autistic people shouldn't be isolated or lonely. Everyone needs a friend! 

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