How well do you know your child’s friends? Is the friendship mutually beneficial? How do you know? There’s no recommended magic number of friends or amount of time spent with them, but having some kind of healthy friendship is beneficial for everyone. I spoke with two adult female autistic advocates (Lydia Wayman and Amy Gravino) who shared some of their personal experiences navigating friendships and offered advice for parents trying to help their children build positive, authentic, lasting relationships.
Find a Neurotypical Friend
Lydia said that NT friends can help autistic people navigate complex social expectations. In everyday settings and real time, they can explain a pun, warn about upcoming sensory overload, or bridge the gap to meeting new people. They can also give a nudge when a topic has gone on long enough or explain why a word choice may have been heard much differently than it was meant. She said, “I continue to remind myself not to blame the autism, but rather to take responsibility for my actions and reactions and learn to grow through them.”
Be Open About Different Types of Friendship
While finding an NT friendship can be beneficial, Lydia recommends that parents be open to supporting a variety of relationships for their children. She often hears from parents and teachers that an autistic child only wants to spend time with “lower-functioning” children while the parents would prefer the child to spend time interacting with NT or non-disabled peers. For Lydia, some of her closest friends are non-disabled, but people have told her these relationships are not genuine, thus placing parameters on her friendships:
“A couple of my closest friends are these kids – we share interests, jokes, and trust. It’s really that uncomplicated. I think the world of this kid who’s been told it’s not really a friendship because I’m an adult and she’s a child, and I can’t possibly care about her. And the boy she sits with at lunch can’t be her friend because she opens his milk. And the boys she plays with after school are, well, they’re all boys.”
Finding Someone Who Understands
Through middle and high school, Amy had told herself, “If I wear this one kind of make-up, I will fit in … Maybe if I would wear this particular outfit, I will fit in. I always felt like there was one thing standing between me and finding all these friends, and I kept trying to find it, to circumvent it, and it just never, ever worked.”
Although she was often teased, this negative attention didn’t bother her nearly as much as being ignored. Amy recalled, “It was those moments of being in the hall and seeing everyone interact around me, knowing that I couldn’t be a part of it, that killed me.”
“Being ignored– that was almost worse than being picked on. Because when you’re being picked on, they are acknowledging you exist, you’re there. But when you’re being ignored, it’s like you’re not even there. I mean, I had a classmate tell me to my face that if I disappeared, if I killed myself, nobody would care.”
While Amy’s socialization problems did not entirely disappear in college, she was able to find friends who understood autism and were willing to accommodate her needs so they could maintain a solid friendship. As a result, Amy continued to gain confidence in her identity as a capable woman on the spectrum.
In college, Amy found someone in her dorm whose brother had autism and, therefore, understood some of her difficulties. Amy appreciated that she didn’t have to explain each of her behaviors to this friend. For example, one evening they visited a restaurant and bar celebrating a beach-themed event. The noise level was too harsh for Amy, so she knelt down in front of a beach display and began playing with the sand, running it through her fingers. Her friend looked down at her and said, “Well, looks like you’re a little overwhelmed.” Amy was shocked that someone else understood that her behavior stemmed from a sensory overload. Her friend didn’t give her a strange look and ask her to stop; she read Amy’s cues and could then effectively communicate with her and make her feel more comfortable. She didn’t judge or encourage Amy to “tough it out”; she accommodated her.
Listen to Your Child
Parents should give new relationships time to develop and solidify. They can listen to how their child feels about new relationships and follow their lead. Parents can help introduce their children to new possible friends (both autistic and non-autistic) and help their child socialize in the ways their child desires in order to gain the most out of their friendships.
Kyler Shumway is a writer, public speaker, “friendship expert,” and the author of The Friendship Formula, a book dedicated to helping kids and adults learn how to make new connections and build lasting friendships (with foreword written by Daniel Wendler). An excerpt from a chapter of The Friendship Formula (How to Recognize an Unhealthy Friendship) is reprinted below with his permission. The chapter discusses examples of different types of positive and negative relationships, and this excerpt outlines what the healthiest relationship looks like. Click here for a link to the full chapter.
The Healthiest Relationship: Egalitarian
Ideally, all friend relationships would be equal in power and respect. Egalitarian friendships are easily sustainable because both parties are invested and active in the relationship. A good example of egalitarian friendship can be seen among the heroes of The Avengers, where each hero is equally valued and involved. This is the dynamic all of us should strive to achieve.
Egalitarian friends see each other as peers, different but equal, and worthy of the relationship. Friends who enjoy egalitarian relationships feel that they both contribute to the relationship in comparable ways, which allows each to feel respected and valuable. Here are some signs that your friendship is egalitarian:
- Able to support one another. The hallmark of all egalitarian friendships is high reciprocity; the process of giving one another equal shares of time, energy, and love. For example, if one friend experiences the death of a loved one, the other friend is available to comfort them and provide any needed support, and vice versa.
- Trust in one another. If one friend forgets their wallet while out on a lunch date, the other friend happily covers the cost of the meal knowing the favor will be returned. Or, when one friend hears a rumor about the other, they are more likely to side with their friend than believe what others say. This indicates vulnerability and closeness in the relationship.
- Everyone’s opinions matter. If the friends must make a decision together, even something as small as what movie to watch, both are willing to consider one another’s ideas. This indicates respect for the relationship.
- Willingness to repair. When rupture happens, both friends are willing to engage in a healing conversation to make amends and solve the problem. This demonstrates love, care, and desire to keep the relationship intact. If your friendships are fairly egalitarian, congrats! Remember that no relationship is perfect, and you can always grow together as friends. Find ways to avoid stagnation by building and strengthening your bond, and enjoy the ride.