Loneliness & Friendships in Children on the Autism Spectrum

"Is it common for a child with high functioning autism to shun peers who attempt to be friends with him? My son seems to prefer to play alone and I worry how this will impact his relationships in the future."

It is hard to know if kids with ASD level 1, or High-Functioning Autism (HFA), are as lonely as their moms and dads believe they are. Psychologists do know that playing with a friend, making a friend, and being with a friend are "overwhelming skills" for HFA kids. Many relationships make little sense to kids on the spectrum, because they are almost totally preoccupied with their own agendas.

Teaching HFA kids much needed social skills is a formidable task for moms and dads and educators. It is not like teaching how to ride a bicycle or tie a shoe, but rather trying to teach something no one formally taught you. How did you learn how to read a room? How do you teach someone how to read a room, especially someone who has no understanding of other people's emotions and body language? Kids on the spectrum have no idea about how to reason socially and come up with proper courses of action in social situations. For example, one youngster with AS got lost in the school corridors on her way to gym. She had forgotten the route, but she didn’t think to simply follow her peers to the gym.

Nonetheless, therapists emphasize the need to teach autistic kids social skills, because they desperately need them to get along in life. The youngster’s lack of social understanding colors every other experience in his or her life. But the question of whether kids on the spectrum are truly lonely and want friends is a different discussion. Like all kids, some are extroverted while others are more withdrawn. Like all kids, they probably vary in their need for social interactions.

When researchers ask children with HFA about friendship, they are usually very negative. They think of friendship with other kids as too much work and often prefer to connect with grown-ups. For example, when one teacher was forcing a 6-year-old to participate in a playgroup with other kids, he said, "I hate kids. I don't play with kids. I'm not a kid. I was born a grown-up." One “autistic child” stated, "If you like being on your own, then be happy with your own company and don't let anyone convince you that it is wrong." This child’s advice to "pushy moms and dads" is this: Never force your youngster to socialize, because most autistic kids are happy to just be by themselves.

However, these kids might be happier by themselves because social activity has caused them so much pain in the past. In one study, gifted kids with HFA could not describe friendship in positive terms (e.g., "a friend is someone who is nice to you"). They had only negative associations (e.g., "a friend is someone who does not hit you"). These kids told interviewers only about how mean peers had been to them and seemed to lack any idea of what reciprocal friendship really means.

But as young people on the spectrum go through the teenage years, most realize that they are missing out by not “fitting in.” It is at this point in their lives that they crave friendships, but this unfulfilled desire (on top of high school pressure to conform, constant rejection and harassment) can often cause depression and anxiety in HFA adolescents. They grow more isolated even as they crave more interaction with others. Young kids with autism often believe everyone in their kindergarten is the same and everyone is a friend. Autistic adolescents know better.

Some research shows that the more time HFA kids spend socializing, the happier they are. Autistic kids can - and do - form friendships. When they do, research shows that even one friendship will speed up their entire social development. Many adults on the spectrum have written about compassionate people who took the time to form friendships with them as children, and by doing so, changed their lives for the better.

Families of children with HFA often talk about their own feelings of loneliness. They tell therapists that marriage to an HFA husband or wife feels like living alone. An autistic spouse often does not attend to details like anniversaries, may not connect with his or her kids on an emotional basis, and may not benefit from marriage counseling.

A mom or dad of a youngster on the spectrum may feel rejection when their youngster refuses to cuddle or express affection. The youngster's needs are unrelenting, and yet the parents’ rewards are sometimes rare. Siblings hide their lonely feelings about living in a family where one youngster monopolizes their parents’ precious time, and they miss the normal give and take of sibling relationships. Many siblings believe that the HFA child's disability is actually an advantage – a passport to special attention, recognition and privilege.

Helping kids with HFA develop social skills will no doubt become easier in the future. Every day, parents and educators are developing better techniques. Researchers are closing-in on the genetic and environmental causes of autism spectrum disorders and may someday develop a cure. There is promising new research being conducted in a comprehensive study of friendship and loneliness in children on the spectrum. Someday, the answers will be clearer for children and teens with HFA – and for the parents who love them.


Resources for parents of children and teens on the autism spectrum:

==> Videos for Parents of Children and Teens with ASD


•    Anonymous said...  Like a few others here, my son isolates, prefers to be on his own. He also gets frustrated with others and finds them "stupid" (his words). He can't be bothered with people.
•    Anonymous said... actually, my aspie son seeks friendships but many boys end up bullying him because they think he is strange. he's very lonely as a result.
•    Anonymous said... He isolates....I have tried to get him out among peers. It is upsetting and obviously "painful." He has two friends, one with his similar obsessions and one who has tried to keep in touch. I hate watching this but don't even know how to begin changing.
•    Anonymous said... my a/s husband and daughters tend to isolate them self too,they love to spend time on thier obsessions or hobbies.only tend to be friends with others who share same hobby,the more i pushed it made them more stubborn,they love being who they are,
•    Anonymous said... No one seems smart enough(in his mind) for my son. He gets really frustrated with average people. He has plenty of friends and calls on them when he feels tolerant. Otherwise he is happy to be in his world
•    Anonymous said... They are very selective in who they associate with. It is quite normal to find both sides of this coin in any child on the spectrum. An example my daughter will not play with her peers but is quite social with older children.
•    Anonymous said... Both of my boys would rather be with adults than kids their own age
•    Anonymous said... My son has a very difficult time making and keeping friendships. It also doesn't help trying to have him be friends with normal developing children because the parents don't understand the different dynamics of the Aspergers child.
•    Anonymous said... Yes, because they don't understand its out of there comfort zone. My son is 8 and I keep putting him in situations to make friends. Last year on the first day I found a classmate that was new to the school and introduced them. They have developed a good friendship now. Or the best they can under the circumstances. I also have him in sports (which) he likes so he has to interact with others. He still prefers to be by himself but at least he is getting exposure.
•    Anonymous said... It is so difficult to just sit back and let your child isolate themselves instead of joining the group. But they just choose not to see it the way we do. If we push then all hell breaks loose. Welcome to the catch 22 of my struggles
•    Anonymous said... But what can we do NOW to develop social skills in our ASD teens? What can we do for the NT siblings and spouses that are hurting so much? I am so glad to see more research being done but what can we do NOW to teach these social skills to our ASD teens? What can we do NOW for the NT siblings and spouses that are hurting so much? It is really quite damaging and unhealthy for them.

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