I see a lot of amazing individuals who happen to be on the autism spectrum. Our sessions can cover topics such as social skills, managing emotions, increasing independence, tips and tricks to elicit behavioural change and making sense of this language we call “social norms.” I also work with mum’s, dad’s and extended family members to help them understand the wonderful, different and quirky wiring of the ASD brain, to give them strategies and tools so that they can support their child/family member in reaching their potential and to be a shoulder to cry on, a soundboard to vent too or someone to laugh with who “gets it.” Within my sessions, I would say that one of the most common concerns I hear from a parent is sharing with me that their child has no friends and plays by themselves at recess times. I can see the sad look in their eyes and feel the way their heart sinks when they talk about the fact their child doesn’t really seem to get birthday or play over invitations, or that each day when they ask “who did you play with?” their child replies “no-one.” They fear their child is lonely. I know that as parents you want your child to be liked by others because you know how amazing they are and how much they would have to offer in a friendship, even if their idea of friendship is a little ‘different’ to the norm. Most of all, you always want your child to have a sense of belonging, especially in environments where you can’t be there to watch over, shadow, prompt and protect them.
My automatic response to this concern is always… “BUT does your child want friends? Are they fussed by lack of friendships? Do they like playing by themselves at recess times or do they want peers to play with?” These questions are often met with a surprised look… doesn’t everyone want someone to play with at recess times? My answer to this question is NO…! The ASD brain is not wired to always want friends to play with at recess times. I have chatted with countless children who tell me they want to play by themselves at recess times and they don’t really care about playing with friends. This made sense to me. They have spent all of that class time fitting in, tolerating peers and using a lot of energy on their social skills in the classroom. When the bell goes for recess, they need a break like we all do, but their break doesn’t come from playing with friends (that just requires even more energy and social skills than what the classroom did!). A lot of children will seek solitary activities at recess time so they can re-charge their batteries. Solitary means you don’t have to use those harder social skills like negotiating, being flexible during play and reading nonverbal cues in a noisy unstructured sensory environment! It means you can be the boss and do exactly what you want. As hard as it is to admit, sometimes a desire for friendship or a buddy to play with is our want and need as the parent, not our child’s. I would of course always check with the child whether they wanted help with making friends. If their answer was ‘no, I like playing by myself’ not another word was said on the matter. Of course, if their answer was ‘yes’ or at any time their desire changed, we would go full steam ahead in working on friendship skills such as learning how to join in, asking others to play, what goes into building and keeping a friendship and getting their school involved with a play timetable or buddy system. I was always optimistic that when they wanted support to build friendships (either inside or outside of school) we would help them find their group, their niche, their ‘like-minded’ peers to connect with.
But the other side of the coin soon hit me, and it hit me hard. This darker insight came from working with older teens/young adults on the spectrum (I mostly work with younger children, but have some beautiful older teens/young adults who teach me so much). The story was tough to hear, and it has opened up my perspective as to the wider spectrum of how friendships can impact on an individual with ASD. These are the individuals on the spectrum who all of their life have yearned for friendship and connection but have not been able to find it. They have desperately wanted to be liked, to be invited in, to be appreciated, to connect and to belong. They have tried to learn the social skills needed but their lack of confidence and self-worth mean they have been hard on themselves and think they have always stuffed it up and not been good enough to make and keep friends. The hard truth is that they have indeed been bullied and rejected which means countless experiences and memories of not being what others look for in a friend which is damaging to anybody’s confidence. Their awareness of their social differences are perceived by them (and likely their peers) as being so very awkward and not successful. No matter how hard they have tried they have not been able to execute social interactions or build long lasting friendships. They are not on the same wavelength, not on the same page in the book, not connecting. They have to act so much to try and fit in that they feel fake in all of their interactions, like they cannot even be themselves. And one day it hit me… this is loneliness. What hit me even harder is that it is this loneliness that has led to the darker pathways they find themselves on like depression, anxiety, never leaving the house, no self-worth, self-esteem or confidence and above all a heavy cloud. This is loneliness from wanting to connect but not having the natural skills to do it, and even worse being rejected countless times.
In my role as a Psychologist, I am also a teacher, a motivator and a support system. I will always spring into action to try and build the confidence and skills needed to try and combat the loneliness and connect with others. However, it made me realise that there is an important message for all of us in this, and one I hope all parents across the globe are teaching to the next generation. The message is that individuals on the spectrum cannot combat loneliness without your help. The next time you find yourself in a situation with a child or adult initiating an interaction that is ‘socially different’ think to yourself: this person may be on the autism spectrum and they need my social patience. Please embrace it and stay in the interaction. Don’t reject or escape. Find ways to connect and make it a positive experience. You will find so many incredible layers underneath the initial ‘social awkwardness.’ Embrace a social difference, embrace ‘difference.’ I ask that you teach this to your children as well. You or your child could truly could be the very thing that starts to mend the loneliness.