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. In addition, 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 this.
Personal friendships are generally built on one or more shared interests between two people. Personal friends share their thoughts and feelings as well as experiences. Some people on the autism spectrum tend to be very open and honest, and willing to share themselves with others, which are traits close personal friends will value.
Casual acquaintances and coworkers, however, may not value these traits. They may 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 take the development of 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 if you both 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 the interests they have that are different from your own. It is easy to lose potential friends if you share more than what the other person wants to receive, or don’t give the other person equal time to share their interests with you. 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 that meet this definition of a close personal friend.
Many individuals with autism have particularly strong interests in certain areas. Unfortunately, it may be that very few people around them share their interests. Clubs where people with your special interest are likely to gather are excellent places to find friends. You can also 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, 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 will likely be as interested in stars as you are. The Internet may also be a place where you can find people who share your special interests. They may not live near you, but you can still exchange ideas and discuss your favorite topics virtually.
It is important to self-advocate, to let others know what makes us 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.
Missed communication 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 then effectively use the often elusive and transient social information that is 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 are equally hidden, vague and confusing.