Although young children with autism sometimes seem to prefer to be by themselves, one of the most important issues, especially for older children and adults, is the development of friendships with peers. It can take a great deal of time and effort for people with ASD to develop the social skills needed to interact successfully with others, so it is important to start developing social ability early. Furthermore, bullying in middle and high school, not to mention at the workplace for some adults, can be a major problem for people with autism, and the development of friendships is one of the best ways to prevent it.
Personal friendships generally are built on one or more shared interests. Personal friends share their thoughts and feelings as well as experiences. Some people on the autism spectrum tend to be very open, honest and willing to share themselves with others – traits close personal friends will value.
Close personal friends will stick up for each other in front of others, answer questions honestly (in a kind way), help each other when there is a need, and enjoy spending time together. Most people, whether neurotypical or on the autism spectrum, only have a few friends who meet this definition of a close personal friend.
Casual acquaintances and coworkers, however, might not want to share or be shared with as much. They might not be as ready to be open and honest and share personal information about themselves with you, so they feel uncomfortable when you share too much about yourself too soon. Some neurotypicals like to develop friendships slowly. When someone asks you questions about yourself, such as where you were born or went to school or what things you like, they are indicating that they have a possible interest in becoming your friend. That doesn’t mean they will become your friend, only that they are interested in finding out whether the two of you share enough interests to possibly become friends.
Making friends has less to do with whether people like you than it does with whether you have interests or experiences that are similar to theirs, and whether you are also willing to share in their interests that are different from yours. It’s easy to lose potential friends if you share more than they want to hear, or if you don’t give them equal time to share their interests with you.
Many people with autism have particularly strong interests in certain areas. Unfortunately, it might be that very few other people share those interests. Clubs where people with your special interest are likely to gather are excellent places to find friends. You could find people who share your special interests at museum workshops on your favorite topic, while volunteering to take care of your favorite animal at the zoo or animal rescue, in classes in your field or subject of interest, or at local events centered on your special interest. For example, some universities open up their star observatories for special community nights. The type of people who attend such an event likely will be as interested in stars as you are. The Internet might also be a place where you can find people who share your special interests. They might not live near you, but you can still exchange ideas and discuss your favorite topics virtually. One popular forum for people on the spectrum is Wrong Planet, and many others are out there.
It is important to self-advocate, to let others know what makes you happy or uncomfortable. Most neurotypicals are willing to respect these differences if they know about them. If you struggle with verbal communication, you can carry a card in your wallet or purse that explains what you need and share it with others as you choose.
Miscommunication can make it harder for people on the autism spectrum to make and keep friends, too. The reason for this is our autism neurology, meaning that unlike typical people’s, our brains are not wired to automatically pick up, incorporate and effectively use the often elusive and transient social information all around us. This information is called the “hidden curriculum.” Whether for boys and men or girls and women with the social learning challenges of autism, the rules can be vague and confusing. Getting social experience and discussing social rules are good ways to clarify the hidden curriculum and make socializing easier and more rewarding.