Can people with autism make and keep friends?

The majority of children and adults on the autism spectrum need help in learning how to act in various social situations. They often may want to interact with others, but may not know how to engage friends or may be overwhelmed by the idea alone.

Developing social skills through practice helps to enhance participation, as having autism and friends is very well possible. It may only acquire (extra) work to develop the skill set required.

What’s different

For most children, basic social skills as initiating conversation, recognizing facial expression, turn taking, are acquired quickly and easily. For children with autism, the process is much more difficult. Many children learn these basic social skills simply by exposure to social situations, whereas children with autism need to be taught skills explicitly, and as early as possible.

Autism and friends

When are you friends with someone? When you go to each other’s birthday? When he/she keeps your secrets? If you like each other? It is not always obvious when someone is ‘your friend’.

What is important in a friendship?

Obviously, that depends on each individual, but in general people find aspects as respect, honesty, doing things together and being able to discuss important matters together important in a friendship.

Unspoken expectations

Many people automatically sense what is and what is not appropriate in a friendship. They usually do not discuss what the friendship entails. Friends do things together, keep in touch when something is wrong, and see when the other person needs attention.

If that is not so obvious to you, having autism, misunderstandings can arise. It can then help to talk about it: What does your friendship entail? What do you expect from each other?

Do you need to say that you have autism?

That depends entirely on the situation and your own personality. It is your own choice what you tell and what not. Important is to understand if your autism may affect the contact. For example, will you regularly have to cancel an appointment because it just doesn’t work? Or are there situations in which you can react differently from others, which is difficult for those others to understand? Then it may be good to discuss your autism, so that people can take it into account.

Do it in your own way

Autism and friends, do you need friends? Then look for ways that suit you. Some people with autism find ‘online’ friendships very pleasant. Or ‘theme contacts’: professional contacts in a hobby or joint interest. Friendships exist in shapes and sizes, the most important thing is that you feel comfortable with it.

What can you do to get to know people?

You can search for a hobby or sport that interests you and that you can do together with others. You can find other youngsters with autism. Meeting them gives you the opportunity to meet like-minded people, share experiences and exchange tips.

How do you maintain friendships?

Maintaining a friendship is not easy. If you do not automatically feel what is needed to maintain a friendship, it is best to discuss this with your friend (s). Then discuss which expectations you have of a friendship, and which skills might be difficult for you.

How to learn

Traditional social skills strategies (such as board games about friendships and appropriate classroom behavior) tend to be too subtle when you have autism. In school the focus may be on learning friendship, while the required focus for kids with autism should be on skills to make and keep friends.

The use of peer mentors is one example of an effective strategy. This can be done in a playful therapy setting and including other kids with autism or by exercising in a group or in a class by including kids with whom you feel comfortable.

Thoughts and Feelings Activities

Recognizing and understanding the feelings and thoughts of yourself and others is often an area of weakness for children with autism. Yet it is essential for successful social interactions. Elaborate on a story if the other person is smiling, looking on intently, or showing other signs of genuine interest. On the other hand, if the other person repeatedly looks at her or his watch, sighs, or looks otherwise disinterested, you may perhaps cut the story short.

Having autism it may often be difficult to recognize and understand these non-verbal cues. Because of this, you are less able to modify your behavior to meet the emotional and cognitive needs of other people. Learning to recognize emotions, learning how you and the other one feel; it’s extra work, but for young children with autism the ability to identify emotions can be picked up quite easily.

Social pressure

Some of the people with autism have little need for friends. But then there is often a lot of social pressure to still be friendly with people. Autistic and friends is possible, but it is up to you if you want it and if you need it!

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