Hi, I’m Craig Kendall, the author of The Asperger’s Syndrome Survival Guide. In today’s issue we will discuss…
Autism Social Skills and Bullying
How to Gain Friends
Friendship Academy – This is part of a series of articles on coping with life with high functioning autism written by a young woman with Asperger’s syndrome.
I talked to a young adult with high functioning autism the other day, and interviewed her about what she would change about the way people both past and present reacted to her high functioning autism. I think her answers will be very instructive in showing us ways we can more effectively interact with both children and adults on the autism spectrum.
What do you wish had been done differently when you were in elementary school to help those with autism?
I wish more efforts had been made to get me involved or at least interacting with others my age. I read books all the time, even in the hallways, and was scared of the other kids. To me, they were almost like characters in a Pac Man game that you have to avoid at all costs or else you’ll get eaten. I moved through the world methodically, viewing others only as objects to be avoided and protected from. I didn’t have the first idea how to relate to them.
I was 10 years old when Asperger’s was put into the DSM, so there wasn’t a lot of awareness about it. I got good grades so was mostly left alone by the teachers. But I got picked on a lot, and the only people I ever talked to were adults, and not even that much.
A peer mentoring program, an interest based program such as books or board games, something like this could be implemented even at the elementary school level to help the kids who are struggling socially learn how to interact with others. I suppose the feasibility of this also depends on the size of the school – consider having programs with kids from more than one school.
What do you think is the best way to create bullying prevention programs in the schools to help those with autism?
I think that we need an increase in character education.
Kids need to be taught proper listening and communication skills from an early age – how to use “I” statements to state how someone made you feel, repeating back what someone has said to let them know you understood, and affirming statements such as “I understand.” We had a program like this in my 7th grade. It was very valuable to me, but I feel it came too late to make a dent in most of my classmates’ way of thinking.
Kids should be taught about differences and disability from an early age, and exposed to those with disabilities in integrated classrooms. There should be “buddy” systems for those in the younger grades – each student is paired up with a disabled or socially weaker kid while they are still young enough to be eager to help.
Make being kind, compassionate and helpful a part of their culture, a part of their lives, early enough and KEEP IT THAT WAY through the later grades – create a whole curriculum around it. Find ways to get even the most reluctant students involved. Make it fun. Do this and you’ll produce caring, smart, compassionate citizens who are both people smart and book smart. Academics can be learned from a book any time in your life, but the basic way you learn to relate to those around you is instilled from a pretty early age.
How did you make friends? When did you make friends? Was it hard considering you are a person with high functioning autism?
I wasn’t even aware of a desire to have friends until 7th grade. After becoming aware I had no idea how to go about it.
In 10th grade, a girl seemed to notice me and start saying hello to me after homeroom. We progressed to brief conversations and notes left in each other’s lockers, all of which was initiated by her. Then I went to her house a few times and she went to mine. She was the first friend I ever had, but it took someone with compassion who was willing to take a chance on someone who was a little different for it to happen.
I will always remember the first time we were together. There, in my room, with another person my age, I had no idea what to do. I was so used to entertaining myself. I felt strangled. Five minutes passed, and it was like an eternity. We didn’t have many common interests. We went to look at websites on the computer, but both wanted to look at different things.
This went on for a few meetings, and then we hit upon something we could both like – country music. I protested at first but I loved the sound of Billy Gilman’s “One Voice,” the first country song I ever heard and liked.
Our friendship grew from there. We had both had a lot of difficult times in our past, her with abuse from her family and me with the loneliness and isolation of growing up high functioning autism without friends. We could relate to each other on this and spent a lot of time talking about it.
Tips for Making Friends for those with Autism
It’s more important to find someone with a similar personality than someone with similar interests. Maybe you can ask a school counselor to match you (or if you are a parent reading this, your child) up with someone who will be a good match for a friendship.
Give the person a chance – it will be awkward at first, but like I said, shared experiences will help you forge an initial bond with that person. If you take the time to get to know someone, you may find a depth of character and personality that you never expected existed behind their facade.
If you are a parent, share these tips with your child, maybe by printing them out and leaving them in a common place, so that your child will be able absorb this information without too much pressure from you.
Adults with Autism – Growing Your Friendships
If you’re like me, after so long of being out of practice in the friend world, you are going to be constantly wondering if you’re “doing it right.” You will be analyzing what you say, how it is received (never mind how difficult this is because you can’t read the other person’s non-verbal cues), and what, if anything, you need to change. You will also at times be thinking “This is too hard! I don’t have the energy to think of what the other person wants. Maybe I would just be better off by myself!”
There is danger in thinking like this, though, because while being by yourself has its benefits, it is ultimately lonely and unsatisfying.
After enough time has passed, you will find that you and your new friend will have fallen into a rhythm of sorts. You know what both of you like, hate and can tolerate. You don’t have to spend as much time worrying what they think.
The frustration of having to consider their needs becomes far outweighed by the pleasure of having them consider yours – by the mutual companionship of the friendship. But you won’t know you’ve gotten here until some time has passed, maybe a year or 2, and then you can look back and see all the ways your friendship (and social skills!) has grown, all the ways you have adapted to each other. Be patient if you can – it’s coming!
For much more information on high functioning autism and many of the latest treatments and therapies read Craig Kendall’s book, New Hope for Autism.