My son was diagnosed with moderate autism at age two and his struggle to make and maintain friendships has been a difficult one. Unlike the accepted perception that autistic people prefer to be alone, my son craves the interactions he sees going on all around him. Because he cannot pick up on the behaviors of others and apply them to his own actions, he is lost and unsure what to do in most social situations.
From the time Ben was diagnosed, I have made sure he had all the gadgets and trappings of his peers. When a new video game system came out, Ben got it. When a certain backpack or clothing became popular, Ben had it. I wanted him to seem as normal as the the next child in appearances so he would have something in common with his peers.
Making friendships as a child is all about fitting in, unfortunately, so I made sure his outside appearance was as close to others as possible. My hope was that his differences would seem less dramatic if he looked like the other children.
In elementary school and, to a degree, in middle school, this approach was successful. Because most social interactions during this age are in school and school-related activities, he was included in most gatherings. He was not aware, thankfully, of all the birthday parties to which he was not invited.
During the few non-school-related functions he was invited to, I had to stay right beside him so he would not end up in the corner flapping his hands in his face in an attempt to process all the sensory input. We’ve all been to a kid’s birthday party and know how chaotic it can be. Imagine having to deal with that insanity with a sensory disorder. Not pretty.
Middle school brought new challenges. There was a little less supervised time and opportunities to break off into friend groups. This is when Ben started to feel the need for friends very strongly. He stood off to the side and watched as his classmates paired off. He desperately wanted to be a part of a group but had no idea what to do.
Unfortunately, he became ripe picking for bullies. He was often included in a group just for entertainment value. Often at afternoon pick-up, I would find him in the middle of a laughing group of boys. He would get into the car, so excited, telling me all about his new “friends”. After further investigation, I realized they were laughing at him and manipulating him to say and do embarrassing things. It broke my heart to have to explain this him but I had to in order to teach him. His trust in people was shattered and his willingness to reach out to other students was severely damaged.
Ben is now in high school. The bullying has abated some but he still struggles with making friends. Dances, lunch, football games, etc. have a whole new set of rules, and he is confused by the change from middle school. His resource adviser wants him to attend these functions alone but I refuse to let him go by himself and further perpetuate his isolation.
One of the saving graces has been Facebook. I was reluctant to let Ben join because of the horror stories I heard about what teens do to each other online but we decided to make the leap of faith and try it. I monitor Ben’s friends and make sure he is not tricked into adding anyone who is trying to hurt him. I taught him how to use chat, and I sit with him and help him with his conversations. It’s a far stretch for me to sound “cool,” but I try to think what a typical child might say to his friends.
Facebook is helping Ben understand how to chat with other teens in person and sound less like an adult and more like a teenager. He is so proud to have 77 “friends”! It also helps for others to see his interests are more in-line with what other kids are into even though he may not be able to express it in real-time conversations.
If I could offer any advice to parents of children with autism, it would be keep up with what typical kids are doing and offer the same opportunities to your child. Of course, sometimes this may not work if your child has no interest in an activity but it is worth a shot. Hopefully, as an adult your child can be who they are freely without worry of fitting in.