Friendships can form at all stages of life, but the process of making friends can be challenging for children with autism.
All friendships are defined differently in every stage of life. Toddlers and preschool-age friends have less requirements and less expectations than teenagers and adults. The older you become, the more complex relationships become. Relationships hold more value as your maturity level increases and they become more relevant.
Types of friendships
Preschool and elementary school friendships
Preschool and elementary school kids tend to classify everyone as their friends. This is a developmental age group. They are learning what it means to respect one another, be kind to each other, forgive one another, and share with one another. This group invites everyone in their class to their birthday party, unless their parents teach them differently.
When parents choose to single out classmates and make discernment’s, their children develop this characteristic and it becomes a part of their character. Young children rely on the direction from their parents to define relationships.
Unfortunately, some parents fail to understand how their children model their behavior. This is a very crucial part of their development as it relates to forming friendships. Learning to judge and criticize based on a learned behavior from their parents—they are conditioned to isolate others that are different from their group. Many parents are not aware of the discrimination unless their child is the one being ostracized.
True friendships are not developed until ages 12-18. At this stage, we have developed our values and personal characteristics and begin associating ourselves with friends who share common interests. Teenagers start to classify “best friends” from just “friends”. At this age, secrets are being shared and your child may embark on a relationship of trust with another.
Teenagers who fall into this group have “hangouts”, and no longer have play-dates arranged by their parents. This is a difficult time for children on the autism spectrum or those with exceptionalities and mobilities. They often feel different and are treated differently. Resulting in feelings of loneliness and depression, especially when they are excluded from group conversations and social gatherings.
At this age, young people feel it is important to be “popular”. Teenagers with social anxiety develop friendships a little differently. They are protective of friends and feel attached, while “typical” teenagers may have multiple friends and travel in groups.
Teenagers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are often people pleasers and may become fixated on specific peers they feel safe with and who are like-minded. One of my daughters expressed that she feels “invisible”. I realize that this can be a very painful time.
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Making and keeping friends is tough
Making and keeping friends is very tough. If not the most difficult challenge of the school year for a child on the spectrum. Children with ASD or other exceptionalities have social anxiety when developing long lasting friendships due to:
- Having fear of social acceptance
- Fearful of being replaced by a new friend
- The fear of responding inappropriately
- Being fearful of feeling invisible
- Lastly, the fear of being judged
From my personal experience, maintaining friendships has been extremely difficult for my daughters especially during the prime stages of life. Because we realize this, most moms of ASD kids overcompensate to ensure their kids maintain friendships. Some extreme measures include:
- Having over-the-top birthday parties
- Taking the best treats to school
- Volunteering at the school
- Making sure your child has the newest gadget
Initially, ASD moms are excited about new friendships, but fearful at the same time. When parents hold on to the hope that their children’s friendships will be life-long, we as parents can become drained with that of relationships for our children. It is a painful, sad, misunderstood journey for our children that want to create true friendships.
Perhaps, “typical” children believe that the quantity of friendships equals popularity and this is important to them. ASD children are focused on the value of friendships. As adults, we strive to have friendships with value. We quickly realize it is not the quantity of friends that matters, but the quality of friends.
This article was featured in Issue 123 – Autism In Girls