An autistic person can be a friend who is loyal, reliable and has sense of humour. They may well enjoy sharing information about common interests.
Many autistic learners, however, report greater loneliness than their peers. Autistic learners tend to have fewer friends than their peers, experience less closeness in those friendships and have briefer friendships. They tend to get together less often with their friends and have less shared activities.
The social skills involved in making and maintaining friends are complicated. They develop as a result of our interactions with others throughout our childhood, and continue to develop as adults. Lack of friends or involvement with peers lessens the opportunities to observe and practise the skills required. This in turn can make it more difficult to develop friendships.
Some autistic learners can appear withdrawn and solitary. This may be through choice but it does not necessarily mean they do not want a friend; sometimes they just don’t know how to go about it in a successful way. They may be motivated to “fit in” with the crowd and have a desire for friendship but lack knowledge and experience of the incremental and complex way in which friendships develop.
Some autistic learners may have a focus on developing friendships but don’t understand some of the unwritten rules of social interaction. They may not understand that friends sometimes want to be with others and might react quite rudely, become distressed or end the friendship if their friend goes and plays with someone else. Wanting to have a friend, they can misinterpret kindness for friendship and may become attached to someone who does not consider them a friend. Inflexibility of thought and a lack of appreciation of another’s feelings may result in rejection by peers.
Children and young people may develop friendships based on similar interests. However we sometimes expect, or are keen for autistic learners to make friends through participating in clubs or other team or group social activities. This can work best when based on the child or young person’s interests or motivations, is well planned, time limited (then built up) and well supported.
It is important to provide opportunities to practice the skills and understanding of what is involved in friendships in naturally occurring situations and environments. For most autistic learners, teaching skills out of context is less likely to be successful.
Autistic people can find social situations difficult or overwhelming and struggle to make and maintain friendships, leading to social isolation. It might feel as though other people know, intuitively, how to communicate and interact with each other.
Getting the right support and information can help to meet new people and develop friendships.
Your autistic child might find social situations difficult. Other children may appear to know, intuitively, how to communicate and interact with each other. Many parents of autistic children find it hard to explain why their children find interaction difficult when they can have strong skills in other areas.
Autistic children may:
- appear withdrawn
- appear indifferent to other people
- prefer to play alone
- accept contact if initiated by others but not initiate contact
- be difficult to comfort
- approach other children but in an unusual way
- use overly formal language and be ‘rule-bound.’
Trying to understand what others mean and how to behave can be bewildering, exhausting and stressful for autistic children. You can help with this by:
- carrying, or giving your child, an autism alert card
- using our communication tips
- asking your child’s schools to teach autism awareness and acceptance
- suggesting things your child’s school can do to support your child during unstructured times, as these can be harder for autistic children to cope with.
- looking for social groups and leisure activities in your local community that are more autism-friendly.
Teaching social skills
- reduce social stressors or triggers where possible
- start with the basics, and progress in stages
- practise any new social skills with your child in a number of different places, and with different people. Autistic children can find it hard to apply new skills in different contexts.
- link skills to real tangible situations, refer to examples, and use people’s names.
- ask school staff, or others involved with your child, what particular social difficulties they have observed your child experiencing.
- pick the time carefully when introducing new social skills. Avoid stressful times, or times when your child is distracted by a favourite activity.
- find apps to support your child’s communication and read app reviews.
- get extra help in school with what you are doing at home and ask them to reinforce the learning. This will help your child to generalise the skills.
You could also ask the school to discuss things like:
- buddy programmes
- circle of friends
- structured social skills lessons
- self-esteem and self-awareness lessons
- disability awareness lessons
- a specific class talk on autism to increase peers’ awareness and acceptance of differences.