Q: My son is 11, mainstreamed in 6th grade and doing well academically. Socially is a different story. Most of the time he is content to be alone in his room. But there are times when he comes home from school and asks about friends. He wonders why his older sister is invited to hang out with her friends and no one asks him to do the same. This bothers him (and REALLY bothers me.) We moved to this area 1.5 years ago and he’s not made any close friends. I don’t know how to talk to him about this and don’t know how to help him.
A: This is such a common and poignant conundrum for parents of preteens with autism, and one we too had to work through. We were fortunate to have a speech therapist who had an extraordinary affinity for middle-schoolers with autism. She helped me see that I had to allow my son to define success in friendship his own way, not mine, his father’s or his brother’s. Did my son want a lot of friends, or would he find that overwhelming? Did he want “close friends,” or would one or two good acquaintances be more manageable, more comfortable? As he progressed through middle and high school, he ended up with one friend he could trust with his inner thoughts, and several with whom he enjoyed good-time activities like sports, movies, small get-togethers. The common denominator in all of them was finding a shared interest and building off that. If you look around the typical middle school, you’ll see kids gravitating to each other based on interests: artsy kids, tech-y kids, sporty kids, etc. You see band and choir, athletic teams, chess club, student government, book groups, gaming clubs, drama. Seek out kids who share your son’s interests and help him reach out to them. Start small (short, successful encounters rather than hours-long ones that may initially create anxiety), abandon your own definition of friendship and help him develop his own. One of my Facebook readers recently asked my son Bryce, “What do you think is the best way for us to help our (shy and sweet) son make friends? Also, do you think friendship is needed if he doesn’t seem interested in having them in the first place?” Bryce’s response: “The most important thing is to just be yourself, of course. But here’s a secret I learned when I finished high school and went on to college. You’ll have buddies if you remember this rule: Interested is Interesting. You see, everyone has a story, and all they want is for somebody to listen to them. You will run into some people who are good and bad. But, if you care about them, they’re going to want to be your friend. Look when you’re talking to someone. Look them in the eye, focus, hear their story, hear what they have to say. . . I think friendship is important. You don’t have to have a lot of friendships as long as you have at least a couple you can share your thoughts with, and who support you. Another thing is no matter how long it takes to make friends, it will happen just when you least expect it. That’s how I met my closest buddy, the one who I share all my secrets and similar interests with.”