Sunday, March 20, 2011
Friends and Autism
The last book excerpt I'll be posting from A Spectrum of Relationships. The free edition will be online soon.
In many ways, our friends help define us to ourselves and others. By recognizing the people we want to spend time with and upon whom we rely for emotional support, we also recognize traits we like and want to emulate. According to psychologists, these “reflective” relationships are necessary to develop the “self” into maturity. Truly deep and meaningful friendships are rare for everyone, with some surveys suggesting most Americans have only three or four close friends. However, having a few quality friendships is all we need; numbers do not trump quality.
Allow me to recognize a difficult reality faced by parents, caregivers, and educators: many individuals with autism do not form close friendships during their lifetimes. Autism impairs the ability to form one-on-one relationships, necessarily affecting friendships. Some adults with ASDs have told me they have no desire, no impulse to seek close friendships. Traditional psychology might suggest these autistic adults are not “mature,” but I believe the truth is more complex. People can and do develop understandings of “self” through observations of people even without close friendships.
One thing I have observed in teens and young adults with ASDs is an inability to accurately assess the differences between friendship and being “used” by peers. I’ve also made this mistake (repeatedly) and assumed someone was a friend when he or she really only wanted to take advantage of my skills, knowledge, or eagerness to please others. I have developed the following criteria for “real” friendships:
• Friends are those people who do things for you without being asked
• Friendship is reciprocal, so if you’re doing all the “giving” it isn’t a friendship
• Friends have other friends, which can be difficult to remember for some with ASDs
• Friendships require effort, but balance
I’m not great at forming or maintaining friendships, as I admit throughout this section of the text. Many autistic individuals tell me the same thing. Friendships aren’t easy for anyone, though, so at least we have company. Remember that ideally friends do the following:
• Complement us, without exceeding our tolerances
• Expand our social network, providing supports and guidance to socializing
• Help interpret the world for us, and interpret us to the world
• Know how to “correct” our social errors without insulting our natures
Because deep friendships are difficult for individuals with ASDs, I remind parents, educators, and caregivers that forming these bonds will take more time for the autistic person in their lives. Also, remember that not every autistic person feels compelled to form close friendships. I’ve had psychologists tell me this is not “healthy,” but that is a reality. I often wonder if “healthy” development is defined too narrowly by mental health professionals. We should accept that some people with ASDs will always prefer minimal close connections to others.
How A Friend Helps
My friends have been important to helping me understand myself and other people. The friends of autistic individuals can help us in countless ways. The belonging a friend offers is only the start. Friends are bridges and buffers, helping us connect to others while also protecting us. Some important examples of how a friend helps include:
• Models social skills and norms in various settings
• Introduces the teen/adult to other potential friends and social situations
• Demonstrates that “me time” is okay, even necessary
• Guides the teen/adult away from stressful situations
• Recognizes potential triggers before it is “too late” for the teen/adult
• Offers comfort when “life” inevitably happens
People generally learn social norms by mimicking parents and peers unconsciously. Psychologists and neurologists theorize “mirror neurons” enable children to mimic the behaviors around them long before basic memories form. Mirroring, research suggests, is instinctive. Some people with ASDs do this well, others have to consciously mimic social skills and norms. Either way, friends are the best models. Observing and interacting with friends also provides an opportunity to learn about ourselves.
Self-awareness requires a knowledge of our behaviors. For people with autism, learning about how we behave is challenging. Watching our friends, the people we attempt to mimic, helps us understand more about ourselves.
Most people with ASDs are not extroverts, and those autistics who are sometimes overestimate their own social skills. Friends can help an autistic person connect to social groups. Often, friends share our interests and know of groups and organizations dedicated to those interests. An autistic person might not be to deal with all social gatherings his or her friends enjoy, but every social interaction is valuable.
Because autism is characterized by isolation, it is easy to forget that everyone needs “me time” and time away from stressful situations. Even friends need time apart, a bit of alone time to recharge emotionally and physically. It is a valuable, though difficult, to realize friends are not always available. Autistic children, and some autistic adults, struggle with the realization friends needing time apart is not a sign of rejection.
Our friends also guide us away from potentially risky or emotionally damaging situations. Not that some “friends” don’t guide us towards danger, but real friends try to protect us. Since autistic individuals cannot always read situations or people, a friend who can perceive dangers is great to have. Even autistic individuals with good math and logic skills often miscalculate personal risks.
Truly great friends, including our close family members, learn to recognize those conditions that lead to sensory or emotional overload. Teens with ASDs seem particularly prone to assuming they can tolerate more stimuli than actually is possible. In school or at home, a meltdown or withdrawal might be okay, but in public settings becoming overwhelmed can be frustrating for a teen or adult with autism.
Of course, “life happens” and our friends are there to help cope with frustration and disappointment. That might be the most important role for friends of autistic individuals. Life with a disability is frustrating; “invisible” disabilities like autism expose people to unique frustrations. Because autism, learning disabilities, and other impairments don’t always appear severe, uninformed people don’t always understand the challenges. Our friends do.
Generally, I’m asked about friendships by two groups: teens with ASDs and parents of autistic children. The teens years seem to emphasize friendships and the need to “fit in” with social groups. Parents often ask about friendships because they assume their children with ASDs are lonely, even if the child hasn’t expressed an interest in friends. Therefore, I find myself dealing with two different issues: some people with ASDs desire friendships and some have friendships desired for them.
First, let me remind parents and educators that you cannot force a child, teen, or adult with an ASD to want, desire, or even need friendships. Some autistic people even resist friendships, actively wanting to be left alone by peers or colleagues excluding any necessary interactions. This desire for solitude can be difficult for some people to understand, but it is real and does seem to be more common among autistics. Therefore, any advice I offer on friendships should not be forced upon autistic individuals. You can only offer to help someone who wants friendships, otherwise I advise respecting the wishes of the autistic person for solitude.
If you are an autistic person and don’t feel compelled to form friendships, that isn’t unusual. You are not “weird” or “defective” — regardless of what some mental health “experts” might want to claim. If you must have an impulse to form friendships to be normal, I’m quite comfortable being abnormal. Do not let people push you into being something you are not. Express yourself, explain your needs and desires, but don’t try to change if that doesn’t feel right to you.
With the preceding caveats, I’ll now try to offer what few insights into friendships I have. I encourage readers to seek out other resources on social skills and relationships, since any text can reflects only one set of opinions.
Where Friendships Begin
Friendships begin in same settings for individuals with or without any challenges. Most of our friends start as peers or colleagues: people we meet at school, work, or similar locations. However, because autistic individuals must adapt to social impairments, they might need to consider alternative settings for developing friendships. The following are some suggested settings for meeting potential friends:
• Churches, synagogues, mosques, and similar spiritual communities
• Schools and various classroom-like settings dedicated to learning
• Support groups dedicated to life skills and social development
• Special interest groups (“SIGs”) and clubs dedicated to topics or causes of interest
• Progressional organizations dedicated to careers or academic disciplines
• Volunteer groups and civic organizations dedicated to helping others
• Workplaces are the primary settings in which most adults meet new friends
The more organized and routine a setting or event, the easier it is for autistic individuals to navigate the social norms. The groups listed generally follow schedules and have defined rituals. Because there is a purpose for gathering with others in these groups, that also reduces the stress caused by social situations. For people with ASDs, I suggest avoiding “social only” gatherings as settings to meet new friends. Notice that I’m not including some of the places teens and adults often associate with meeting new people: clubs, dances, concert, coffee shops, bookstores, museums, etc. Some of those might be good for dating (a later chapter), but I have found these are not the best places to make new friends. However, some organized groups and events do meet within these settings at times.
School and “class-like” settings offer the most routine and predictability for meeting new people. For children with and teens with ASDs, parents tell me that dance classes, martial arts, gymnastics, and swimming programs are good ways to have a classroom atmosphere outside of school. Autistic adults might find classes at craft and hobby stores are an option. There are also “continuing education” and “community classes” at many high schools and colleges. Many community colleges offer a catalog of such courses.
I’ve found it can be difficult to locate special interest groups and clubs, especially in smaller towns and rural areas. However, if you join a national group the organization usually provides the contact information for local gatherings. There are national groups for everything from astronomy to zymurgy (beer brewing) — a quick Web search locates most of these easily. I’m a member of several national groups with local chapters. I receive local event calendars and e-mail notices, so I could easily meet people with interests similar to mine.
Friendships develop at different speeds based on too many factors to catalog. Some people simply “click” as friends within days. Other friendships take years to evolve as peers and colleagues learn more about each other. Some of the factors that help friendships evolve might include:
• Working on projects together, thereby sharing a purpose and goals
• Dealing with challenges together, bonding through the adversity
• Sharing a passion for a cause or topic outside work or school
• Coming from similar backgrounds, resulting in familiarity with experiences
• Enjoying the same hobbies and interests
One of the constant refrains in business and education is, “Our differences make us better as a group.” While no one can dispute we learn from people different from ourselves, the reality is we tend to prefer to socialize and bond with people more like ourselves. In high school cafeterias and office lunchrooms, people with similar skills and interests tend to gravitate towards each other. While we might learn more mingling with different people, I’ve found most people aren’t that interested in topics that excite me. I’d rather be around people with shared interests.
All people have areas of passionate interest and those about which they don’t care at all. Students and adults with ASDs often exhibit perseveration on a skill or topic specialty. If other people aren’t interested in the same activity or pursuit, they are unlikely to be comfortable with the seemingly “one-track mind” of an autistic individual. The result is that autistic people do seem to form friendships with equally passionate specialists. Mentors often become lifelong friends, for example.
Stress, ranging from homework deadlines to major disasters, has a way of bringing people together. The shared experience of “surviving” either metaphorically or literally creates bonds among people in a class, workplace, building, or community. Working together with a sense of urgency forces people to ignore their differences to focus on similarities. Members of sports teams experience this same bonding. I’ve noticed military veterans explain basic training the same way: “surviving” the boot camp creates lifelong bonds.
Because stress can be debilitating for some people with ASDs, I’m hesitant to suggest seeking out stressful situations. Also, I’m simply not good at sports which only results in more isolation, not friendships. I did participate in school band, which includes competitions and concerts. Those events are shared experiences that can lead to bonding.
Being a Friend
Many of the autistic teens I have met are desperate for friendships. The desire for friends seems particularly overwhelming for students diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome or as PDD-NOS. Earlier in this text, I noted that I theorize these “less impaired” autistics are more aware of the friendships others around them have and want similar connections. I don’t really like the phrase “less impaired” but technically these individuals with ASDs exhibit a greater awareness of social connections and social rituals. Some describe themselves as extra-emotional and “too sensitive” while other autistic people seem to have less instinctive empathy.
This painful awareness that they do not have the same connections as their peers can lead autistic individuals with try too hard to be friends with other people. When you try to force a friendship to develop, the result is usually the opposite: peers and colleagues start to avoid you. The question I’m asked by students and adults with ASDs who do want friends is how to actively seek friendship without making other people uncomfortable. Here are some suggestions for being a friend:
• Offer assistance you realistically can provide when the friend needs help
• Listen actively to learn as much about a friend as possible, without being “nosy” or pushy
• Show appropriate generosity, without trying to “buy” a friendship
• Limit contact such as phone calls, e-mails, or text messages to once a day (or less)
• Return messages and calls in a reasonable time, but avoid instant responses
• Avoid “shadowing” someone, it makes people uncomfortable
• Appreciate that friends need breaks from each other
If there’s one word I can offer to individuals with ASDs wanting friends, it is “restraint.” This also applies to dating and romantic relationships, which are special friendships. People want to be liked and appreciated, but they don’t want to feel stalked. Too much attention starts to seem obsessive, and that will scare away a potential friend. Also, when you invest so much energy into pleasing someone else you start to forget what makes you special.
Autistic teens seem to have a tendency to shadow and fawn over potential friends. I’ve suggested allowing yourself one daily “outside” contact when there’s no emergency or pressing purpose for more contact with a friend. That is hard for every teen, but it helps an autistic teen avoid accusations of being obsessed with someone.
An exception might be if you use a social networking site such as Facebook. Then, if people are responding to your posts and you are responding to theirs, that seems acceptable. My general guideline for autistic teens is that you should never be the “most responsive” person in an online forum. It’s okay if you are sometimes the only person to respond to an online post, but then you should stop with that single response. If someone perceives you as an online stalker you risk more than losing the friendship: online stalking is a crime in some states. I have had to explain to a school that an autistic student wasn’t stalking, but felt compelled to respond to every online update posted by a friend.
Another impulse some people with ASDs feel is the desire to shower potential friends with gifts. You cannot buy friends, so don’t try. Offering all sorts of gifts for no reason is not being a good friend. Doing someone else’s homework or office project is not being a good friend. Also, telling someone constantly how important they are to you is not going to win friends. You can do too much and give too much for a genuine friendship.
The real friends in our lives are the people who listen to us and appreciate our psychological needs. If you want to be a friend, you have to practice active listening. You aren’t listening closely when you are constantly doing and giving. Active listening means hearing or reading the words of a friend and carefully analyzing them to understand your friend better.
The key is listening broadly so you understand the entire person, not little bits of trivia. Memorizing trivia doesn’t help you understand what matters to a person. I cannot tell you my wife’s one favorite meal, her one favorite flower, or her one favorite author. Her specific preferences might change over time. Instead, I can tell you that she likes Tex-Mex and Italian food. I can tell you she loves gardens and most flowers. I can tell you she loves books and owns everything from art histories to science fiction. Broad information about someone is more useful in a friendship than the minutia.