Being a teenager isn’t easy. But it can be even harder for a teen on the autism spectrum – particularly when it comes to friendship.
By the teen or even pre-teen years, parents no longer arrange “play dates.” And the concept of including everyone is no longer the norm, as kids begin to segment themselves into different peer groups, often determined by common interests. It isn’t difficult to see why autistic teens who have strong interests that may be out of the mainstream for people their age may have trouble finding someone who shares their fascinations.
Furthermore, the hallmarks of an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnosis are impairments in social skills and language abilities. Yet these are the very tools so necessary to make teen friends. Teenage conversations go beyond what is spoken. They rely on more subtle forms of language, such as body language, facial expressions, and speech inflections. They demand the ability to take another’s perspective and to interpret and reason about others’ thoughts and emotions. Difficulty picking up on these social cues can lead to social missteps, misunderstandings, and potentially rejection, isolation, and bullying.
Co-occurring conditions common for people on the spectrum may further complicate friendships in teenagers. In particular, anxiety can make it difficult for your teen to try to make friends, particularly if he or she has had trouble in the past. Unexpected behaviors (whether stimming, tantrums, or uncontrolled emotions) may make peers wary of getting to know your teen.
Your child may benefit from counseling to learn social skills, overcome anxiety, and learn to regulate his or her behaviors. But aside from having a really good behavior plan and Individualized Education Program (IEP) and filling the week with social skills groups, what can your teen do to develop friendships?
- Initiate and reciprocate. It takes a friend to be a friend. Your teen may need to be the one to make the first move. Though it may be uncomfortable for your teen, encourage him or her to initiate social interaction. This starts by simply saying “Hi” to people in the hallway at school and asking people about their weekend, talking about the upcoming Geometry test, or commenting on the school lunch offerings. When someone talks to your teen, your teen needs to know how to respond appropriately. (Here’s how that social skills group can be helpful.)
- Get involved. Encourage your teen to join clubs or organizations at school and in your community. You may even want to require that your teen find two afterschool activities to take part in. After all, if your son or daughter comes home and plops in front of the TV or computer every day, the opportunities for developing friendship are limited. Help your child find something that he or she is interested in. If your teenager likes sports, join a team, even if it is as the manager or statistician. Team sports can sometimes be difficult to learn in the teenage years, but sports like tennis and squash have developmental leagues for people of all ages, which may help your teen to meet new people and even develop a healthy new passion. If sports aren’t your child’s thing, perhaps it might be drama, robotics, or cooking. Your local YMCA and/or community college likely will have an array of classes to choose from if there isn’t something available at your teen’s school. The local church or synagogue likely has a youth group with planned and supervised activities too.
- Encourage age-appropriate activities when possible. If your teen continues to have interests in activities that other kids his or her age have outgrown, consider making a deal with your child. Your child can go to a Lego® group (his preference) if he tries something new (robotics, for example). If your child is not developmentally ready for a group with same age, typical peers, consider finding a special needs group that your child can join. Expand your child’s horizons, but don’t put your child in a situation that is too much for him or her to handle. Start with what is comfortable and branch out from there if needed. The point is for your child to have the opportunity to practice social skills and develop friendships. It is important that your teen experience success, regardless of the setting.
- Blend in. As most teens will tell you, it is important to act and look like everybody else. Maybe your teenager doesn’t care what he or she wears, but peers at school will notice and judge accordingly. Pay attention to what other kids are wearing and how they wear it. (For example, how low are their pants on their waists? How long is their hair? Do they wear basketball shoes instead of pull-ons? Do they wear graphic t-shirts of popular bands or collared shirts? Jeans or khakis? Carry a backpack or use a rolling cart?) The point is not to inhibit your child’s individuality but to make sure your teen is not an easy target for teasing or bullying.
- Practice good hygiene. The easiest way to being ignored, shunned, or worse is to have body odor or bad breath. Make sure your teen takes regular showers, brushes his or her hair, wears deodorant, doesn’t wear too much cologne or perfume, and practices good grooming skills daily.
- Know what’s cool. Learn what is popular and expose your child to it. This will give your teen something to talk about or enable him or her to join a conversation with peers. Watch popular movies and TV shows with your child so you can explain any unchartered content. While you may be worried that a popular show is “too advanced” for your son or daughter, recognize that if it is popular with your child’s age group, your child will become exposed to it one way or another.
The most important variable in whether your teen develops friendships is his or her desire to do so. Some autistic teens don’t much care if they have a friend until they see a reason for having one, perhaps to have a girlfriend or a date to a school dance. Until that motivation, they are comfortable being alone. After all, friendship is hard work: sharing, compromising, showing interest in someone else’s passions, and being sensitive to someone else’s feelings. Being able to be a friend as well as having one doesn’t happen overnight. Remind yourself and your child that friendship is a process, not an end to itself.