Autism Awareness Month, Day 9: Making Friends


Sharing antifreeze steaks and Steely Dan songs

I think it’s very important to get to know new neighbors. ~H.M. Murdock (as Mr. Rogers), “The A-Team”

 
She’s your friend?! You have a friend? ~Salmoneus, about Xena, to Gabrielle, “Xena: Warrior Princess” 

 

And I’m giving them your cheezburger

 

A day after the John Elder Robison presentation, I’m still worn out, which is why today’s post is a bit late. The way I often describe it to NTs is that being around large groups of people, for me, is like a cell phone battery. I start out with four bars, fully charged, ready to go. The only problem is, those four bars fall down towards zero a lot faster than most people’s. If I were a D&D or WoW character, I’d have very few hit points but a lot of charisma. In other words, the social interactions I need and crave most are also what drive me to exhaustion and (sometimes) drink at night. Don’t worry, it’s never anything stronger than hot chocolate with a shot of Bailey’s, and I have yet to die of social exposure. That being said, I feel as though making and keeping friends is a kind of masochism. Like that guy in

Brokeback Mountain, I just can’t quit them, no matter how hard I try.

From a purely analytical standpoint, having platonic friends makes more sense than having romantic relationships. The fights are generally less passionate, the good times are more chummy and pressure-free, and generally having friends does not involve exchanging bodily fluids. Mostly, that is. There are exceptions such as the “friends with benefits” category, which I’ll admit to not even knowing the meaning of until recently. I spend much of my free time alone and that’s fine with me.

But why have friends at all? What is the point? Why should Aspies, who struggle with relationships as a whole, want to make and keep friends?

One of the best things I ever heard said about friendship was that it was the phenomenon which brings people together on the basis of shared interests. Person A might casually say, “You know, I always loved The Empire Strikes Back,” to which Person B will say, “No kidding! That was my favorite movie as a kid,” and then a whole conversation begins. To an Aspie like me, for whom special interests are lock, stock and barrel, I cannot have friendships if common interests are not there. My experience with friendship, especially within the past few years, has been unorthodox. I’ll be the first to say that the Internet is any Aspie’s best friend when it comes to making friends. Thanks to message boards, Facebook, and Meetup, it is possible to find people with shared interests in anything from rhubarb gardening to models of World War I vintage planes. If one person shows an interest, chances are very good there are others, no matter how esoteric the interest. The downside to all this is that very few of the fellow devotees of whatever subject are likely to be local. Among my fellow A-Team fans, for example, my closest friend lives 10 hours away, and some live halfway around the globe. That’s the nature of Internet friendships. However, it’s not to say I don’t consider those people my friends.

Real friends might be close at hand...or not

The main problem I’ve encountered among my fellow Aspies, when it comes to friends, is that we just don’t find many people to our liking. Many NTs’ interests are confusing or baffling to us. Why would we want to discuss the latest eliminations on American Idol when we could be talking about particle physics or how internal combustion engines work? The NTs may shun us, and we in turn distrust them or think them superficial. It’s a vicious cycle. I have, on the other hand, seen many successful and happy NT-AS friendships at work. In some way, one must think of them as cross-cultural friendships. Because the language of NTs and Aspies is so fundamentally different, we must learn to speak each other’s language and learn one another’s customs. (If you’d like, think of it as the humans and aliens learning to trust one another in Enemy Mine or District 9.)

I’m also of the belief that no man, woman or Aspie is an island, and human interaction is essential to our well-being. I’ve always wanted to have friends who share my interests and who can relate to me on a purely intellectual level. I’m not interested in having friends for the sake of it, or being “friends” with 500 people on Facebook whom I don’t even know. Like a cat, I pick and choose my friends carefully. If I consider you a friend, I will stick with you forever. (One terribly underrated Aspie trait is that of an almost dog-like loyalty.)

Since I know friendship can be so difficult for younger Aspie children who are navigating the social jungle for the first time, the advice I offer comes from many years of trial and error, experience, not to mention field observations and even Hollywood scripts. Every person, young or old, Aspie or not, deserves and needs at least a good friend or two in his or her life. Finding them is hard, keeping them can be even harder. So how does one go about making friends, anyway?

1) It’s impossible to be friends with everyone. Some people are just mean and there’s no getting around it. Gently teach your Aspie child to avoid those types as much as possible.

2) Get involved with special interests. That’s where the friends for life are often found. If your child is fascinated by plants, try volunteering at a state park or arboretum. Ditto a zoo or animal shelter for a pet lover, and so forth. Volunteering is a great family activity, and those who volunteer are apt to be much more understanding and compassionate of AS differences.

3) At school, try and find a wingman (or wingwoman.) Kids are much less likely to get picked on in pairs or groups. With 1 in 100 children now estimated to be on the autism spectrum, finding a fellow Aspie may not even be difficult. A child can even make friends with a sympathetic NT.

4) Don’t try and force playdates or socialization. Many kids are naturally introverted and, like cats, will seek out affection and friendship on their terms.

5) Practice social interaction and friendship using a child’s favorite characters (trust me, most Aspie kids enjoy this.) What would SpongeBob say to Squidward if he wanted to invite him to a party? How could Murdock and B.A. Baracus tolerate one another’s company on a long car trip?

6 ) Since many Aspies struggle with expressing emotions, they may be reluctant to speak out about being bullied or harassed at school. Keep open dialogue with teachers, coaches, and other parents. They are often your child’s best advocate.

7) Remind your Aspie child that true friendship is blind, and that friendship can come in all ages, colors, shapes and sizes.

Of course he's my friend; where do you think he gets his style?

 If you enjoyed this post, be sure to click “Like” and subscribe to P&Q! Thanks to all those who’ve been following me during the month of April for Autism Awareness Month. Coming tomorrow: Careers and AS.

 

 

  

 
 

 

 

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~ by Howlin' Mad Heather on April 11, 2011.

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