Friendship is one of the greatest joys in life. A large number of scientific studies have found that in addition to bringing happiness, friendship improves individuals’ health and increases life expectancy. Other studies looking at friendship have found that a lack of friendship leads to an increased risk of various illnesses such as viral infections, heart disease and cancer.
Having worked in the field of autism for almost 30 years, I have heard many family members voice concerns regarding their child’s difficulty in forming friendships. The myth we’ll debunk today involves the notion that individuals with autism can’t form meaningful friendships or do not desire to form meaningful friendships.
First and foremost, autism is a communication disorder. The difficulties in communicating with others can indeed hinder the ability to form friendships, but not necessarily because the desire is not there. A wide variety of variables are at play when discussing autism and friendships. The difficulties in communication make it challenging for many individuals with autism to interact with peers in traditional ways. Friendships are typically built on shared interests between two people. Think about your good friends, the common bond is that you probably share your thoughts, feelings and experiences with one another. It’s a two way street so to speak, friends generally give one another equal time to share such thoughts and experiences. Reciprocal communication does not come easily for many individuals with autism, it typically needs to be taught in the context of a formal communication training lesson. Additionally, many individuals with autism have strong interests in certain areas, and often times these interests may be somewhat unusual. It’s possible that the peer group available to the individual with autism does not share similar interests. Helping the individual with autism expand his or her repertoire of interests will serve to increase the possibility of shared interests with their peer group.
It takes a great deal of effort for many individuals with autism to develop the social skills required to interact with other people. This is why it’s imperative that parents and educators start developing a child’s social skills from a very early age. Social difficulties for children with autism are quite diverse. Sometimes the social challenges are mild, and sometimes they are much more complicated. Whether mild or more severe, such social challenges almost always involve problems with social understanding. This is further compounded by communication deficits, attentional abilities, poor problem solving skills, intellectual disability and sensory processing disorder. Social skill development comes naturally to typically developing children, so many educators and parents take it for granted that these skills do not naturally develop in children with autism. Rather, such social skills have to be taught explicitly and children with autism need to be given the opportunity to practice these skills (over and over again) in a safe environment.
Spreading awareness is vital. Educating typically developing peers on autism and characteristics associated with autism is critical. Without such education, typical peers will not understand why the individual with autism acts a certain way, and unfortunately, this can easily lead to teasing and bullying. The child with autism may be viewed as a “loner” or “odd”, therefore unapproachable. As a result, classmates are less likely to try to build a relationship with the child with autism. Many schools have implemented programs that strive to create a culture in which the understanding of autism is increased. Such programs result in greater acceptance of the differences in individuals with autism as well as an increased ability to interact effectively with the individual diagnosed with autism.
Here’s a link to one such program. This work was the culmination of The Inclusionary Practices for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders Study conducted by the University of Prince Edward Island and the Prince Edward Island Department of Education.
As one parent of a child with autism so eloquently stated, “I don’t profess to know how it is for you or your children, every individual is very different. What I can tell you though, is that friendship is extremely important in my son’s life… so important that if he’s mad at you, you don’t get to be his friend, if his friend isn’t friendly, he’s lost all hope on friendships, if a friend isn’t there, he’s sad. Next time I hear a doctor tell me that people with Autism are emotionless, or unable to have real friendships, I’ll have some words for them… clearly those doctors either don’t deal with people that have Autism or they aren’t paying enough attention.”
Yes, all individuals with autism need friends and most individuals with autism want friends. It’s a matter of taking the time to equip children with autism with the tools they need to form such relationships.