As a Parent or Carer: How Can You Help Your Autistic Adolescent with Friendship? by Prof Tony Attwood

As a Parent or Carer: How Can You Help Your Autistic Adolescent with Friendship? by Prof Tony Attwood

Foreword by Dr Michelle Garnett

This is the fourth part of a five-part series on friendship in autism during the teen years, a new and original series of articles written by Prof Tony Attwood. In the first part of the series Tony described the differences between neurotypical and autistic friendship. In the second article, characteristics of female autistic friendships were presented. Next, certain successful friendship styles in autism were described. In this article strategies for parents and carers to assist their autistic adolescent with friendship are given.  Next week suggested resources and programmes for teachers and therapists will be presented. We hope you find the series enlightening, and helpful for understanding and assisting the autistic adolescents you know and love to find and maintain friends.

At the end of the school day, when the autistic adolescent has recovered from the educational, social, and sensory challenges of their day at high school, it may be a time to discuss aspects of friendship that have been successful or confusing. The conversation may start with sharing positive friendship experiences such as enjoyable time with a group of peers in an academic or recreational activity, helping a peer, or sharing interests and knowledge. However, there may have been times when the autistic adolescent had difficulty accurately reading non-verbal communication and a peer’s intentions.

A game can be played of ‘Puzzling Peers. The adolescent is asked to describe the situation, and replay the dialogue, gestures, and facial expressions. The parent and adolescent are then detectives or scientists trying to decipher the message or intention. This can include actions such as rolling eyes or being confused as to why a peer would consider she would be interested in this topic. Other puzzling situations can be not understanding why they would be shunned and criticized for telling the truth (she is obese and needs to go on a diet) or not saying a ‘white lie’.

A parent may explain how to elicit more information, such as ‘are you saying that to be friendly or mean?’ or ‘I’m confused, are you being sarcastic?’ and what to say or do in similar situations in the future. They can also help rehearse what to say and do with a friend such as accepting or declining an invitation to meet and the cues and means of ending a conversation or interaction. It is important that friends are not offended by an abrupt ending to a conversation or social gathering, as offence was not intended.

We each have a limited capacity for the duration of social contact with the metaphor of filling a ‘social bucket’. Some typical teenagers have a large social bucket that can take some time to fill, while the autistic teenager has a small bucket, or cup, that reaches capacity relatively quickly. Conventional social occasions with a friend can last too long for an autistic adolescent especially as social success is achieved by intellectual effort rather than natural intuition. Socializing is exhausting and the teenager may need to emotionally recover in solitude at home.

It is important for parents to be aware of the friendship challenges for their autistic teenager including a difficulty initiating social contact with peers and finding someone that they want to talk to and spend time with. As an autistic teenager said ‘It’s not that I’m antisocial, it’s that I don’t meet many people that I like.’ They may become a social secretary arranging and rehearsing social events to encourage the development of friendships and de-briefing after the event focussing on what was socially successful and providing clarification and guidance where specific social skills need to be achieved.

Next week, we will be presenting Part 5 of our series on Adolescent Autistic Friendship: Resources and Programmes for Teachers and Therapists.