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Guide to Friendships for children and young people on the Autistic Spectrum

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Making Friends and Improving Peer Interaction Skills

Making friends can be a challenge for all children, however those with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) can struggle more than most. Many people with autism would really like to form genuine friendships but struggle to do so because of the difficulty of understanding social cues and non-verbal communication as well as issues associated with social anxiety. Other people with autism may not be interested in forming social relationships and this is not something to be concerned about.

It is not unusual for an autistic person to have very few friends and this may make them feel quite lonely. You could also find that, because they don’t have a group of their own friends, they are heavily dependent on their family for social interaction and for support through life. This can become more and more difficult as parents and siblings get older.

Developing social skills is critical as a foundation for future success and personal well-being. So let’s start at the very beginning:

What is a Friend?

Start by explaining what a friend is and how having a friend can be fun:

A friend is a person who is important to you and who you enjoy being with.

Friends like each other and play together.

Friends have fun together and apart.

They enjoy doing many of the same things.

When you need a hand, friends always seem to understand.

Friends depend on one another.

They respect each other’s differences.

Friends are caring and considerate of one another.

Friends cooperate with one another and are willing to share and take turns.

Friends want to be together.

Friends make you feel good about yourself in their company – relaxed, confident and secure

Friends keep in touch.

Important things to remember about friendship 

  • Friendships should not start to have a negative impact on your life - Some people take advantage of the social naivety of someone who does not understand all the social rules.
  • A friend is not a carer - A true friend will guide you away from harmful situations and will support you through times of stress and overload. But they are not your friend purely to look after you and you should not rely too heavily on them.
  • You can help people to understand you and any behaviours and attitudes that they may not be used to. Share your diagnosis be proud of who you are
  • Good friends will accept these things and do their best to help you with your worries. They should not make you feel uncomfortable about the behaviours that help you to feel calm.
  • All people have characteristics that they could improve on - Some people may be easily offended, while others may be selfish or rude. You may also have traits that you may want to work on to improve your performance in social situations. However, you should never feel like you need to change who you are to make friends. People who expect a person to change in order to be their friend are not good friends.
  • Your friends will probably have other friends they want to spend time with - Try not to overload your friends with communication. Your friends may also need time to themselves, just like some autistic people like to do.

Making and Meeting New Friends

  • Think of ways you can meet others.
  • Discuss / draw out the activities you can enjoy doing with others.
  • Invite friends to come round. (Show them how) plan your activities
  • Use your special interests to join clubs or start conversations.
  • Role play how you first greet a friend with family.

Ideas on How to start a conversation

  • Practise greeting people, what can you say, what can you ask?
  • Stand about an arm’s length away from a person if you want to start a conversation with them, this helps them to know it is them you are talking to. It is also helpful to face them but you do not need to make eye contact if this makes you uncomfortable.
  • Conversations normally begin by saying ‘Hello’ or, if you need to attract the person’s attention, you can say ‘Excuse me’.
  • You can continue the conversation if they say a greeting back to you like ‘Hello’ or ‘Hi’. They may also ask you a question like ‘Hello, how are you?
  • It may be helpful to write down some topics that you feel comfortable talking about as well as some questions that you can ask people. (Twinkl.co.uk have some good conversation cards you can download)
  • Some common topics include the weather, their work or what activities they have done recently. For example, if you know that someone went on holiday recently, you might ask them if they enjoyed it.
  • It is considered rude to make critical comments of others, even if they are true, so try not to do this in conversation
  • Ask the person questions about them (e.g. age, where they live, what they enjoy doing etc.).
  • What positive and encouraging things can you say to a friend  -  “well done” , “I’m really enjoying this”  “Come on Tom- you can do it”
  • Find out whether you have any similar hobbies to each other (e.g. music/history), and talk about these. If you don’t have any similar hobbies, ask them questions about their hobbies.
  • Take it in turns to arrange to meet up on a regular basis (once or twice a month) to do something you both enjoy and have agreed on.
  • Give each other your phone number/email address, and ask how they prefer to arrange things - use the preferred method (texting/calling/email) to arrange meeting up.
  • Only ask the other person questions you wouldn’t feel awkward/anxious answering
  • Saying ‘please’ when you ask for something and ‘thank you’ when somebody gives you something or helps you with something shows that you are a polite person and that you are grateful for their help.
  • If you make a mistake or upset somebody it is usually a good idea to apologise for hurting their feelings. You can also ask them what you did wrong and explain to them that you did not mean to upset them.
  • Parents you can help with this by drawing it out as a comic strip conversation.