It is hard to know if children with Asperger Syndrome are as lonely as their parents believe they are. Psychologists do know that playing with a friend, making a friend and being with a friend are “overwhelming skills” for Aspies. Other people make no sense to children with Asperger Syndrome and as one author writes, “they are totally preoccupied with their own agendas.”
Teaching Aspies social skills is a formidable task for parents and teachers. It is not like teaching how to ride a bicycle or tie a shoe, but rather trying to teach something no one formally taught you. How did you learn how to read a room? How do you teach someone how to read a room, especially someone who has no understanding of other people’s emotions and body language? Children with Asperger Syndrome have no idea about how to reason socially and come up with proper courses of action in social situations. For example, one boy with Asperger Syndrome got lost in the school corridors on his way to gym. He had forgotten the route, but he did not think to simply follow his classmates to the gym.
Yet clinicians emphasize the need to teach Aspies social skills because they desperately need them to get along in life. As one author writes, the Aspie lack of social understanding “virtually colors every other experience in their lives.” Yet the question of whether children with Asperger Syndrome are truly lonely and want friends is a different discussion. Like all children, some are extroverted and others are more withdrawn. Like all children, they probably vary in their need for social interactions.
When researchers ask children with Asperger Syndrome about friendship, they are usually very negative. They think of friendship with other children as too much work and often prefer adults. For example, when a teacher was forcing a five-year-old to participate in a playgroup with other children, he said, “I hate kids. I don’t play with kids. I’m not a kid. I was born a grown-up.” Luke Jackson, a thirteen-year-old author with Asperger Syndrome, advises other Aspies, “If you like being on your own, then be happy with your own company and don’t let anyone convince you it’s wrong.” His advice to “pushy parents” is “Never force your child to socialize. Most Aspies and autistic people are happy to just be by themselves.”
However, these children might be happier by themselves because social activity has caused them so much pain in the past. In one study, gifted children with Asperger Syndrome could not describe friendship in positive terms such as “a friend is someone who is nice to you.” They had only negative associations such as “a friend is someone who does not hit you.” These children told interviewers only about how mean people had been to them and seemed to lack any idea of what reciprocal friendship really means.
Yet as Aspies go through adolescence, most realize that they are missing out by not fitting in. It is at this point in their lives that they crave friendships, yet this unfulfilled desire on top of high school pressure to conform, constant rejection and harassment can often cause clinical depression in Aspie teens. They grow more isolated even as they crave more interaction with others. Young Aspie children often believe everyone in their kindergarten is the same and everyone is a friend. Aspie teens know better.
Some research shows that the more time an Aspie spends socializing, the happier he is. Aspies can and do form friendships. When they do, research shows that even one friendship will speed up their entire social development. Temple Grandin, Liane Willey and other adult Aspies have written about compassionate people who took the time to form friendships with them and by doing so, changed their lives for the better.
Families of people with Asperger Syndrome often talk about their own feelings of loneliness. They tell counselors that marriage to an Aspie feels like living alone. An Aspie spouse often does not attend to details like anniversaries, may not connect with the couple’s children on an emotional basis, and may not benefit from marriage counseling. A parent of a child with Asperger Syndrome may feel rejection when their child refuses to cuddle or express affection. The child’s needs are unrelenting and yet the parents’ rewards are sometimes rare. Siblings hide their lonely feelings about living in a family where one child monopolizes their parents’ precious time and they miss the normal give and take of sibling relationships. One psychologist writes many siblings believe that the Aspie’s “disability is an advantage. a passport to special attention, recognition and privilege.”
Helping children with Asperger Syndrome develop social skills will no doubt become easier in the future. Every day educators are developing better techniques. Scientists are closing in on the genetic and environmental causes of autism and may someday develop a cure. There is promising new research being conducted at the University of Western Australia in a comprehensive study of “Friendship and Loneliness in People with Asperger Syndrome.” Perhaps someday the answers will be clearer for people with Asperger Syndrome and those who love them.
Bashe, Patricia and Barbara Kirby. The Oasis Guide to Asperger Syndrome. New York: Crown Publishers, 2005.
“Friendship and Loneliness In People with Asperger Syndrome,” The University of Western Australia, see http://www.autismnsw.com.au/research/wa.asp
Jackson, Luke. Freaks, Geeks and Asperger Syndrome (London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers) 2002.
Kennedy, Diane. ADHD Autism Connection. Colorado Springs, CO: Waterbrook Press, 2002.
Klin, Ami; Volkmar, Red; and Sparrow, Sara. Asperger Syndrome. New York: Guilford Press, 2000.
Lovecky, Deirdre. Different Minds. Philadelphia: Kingsley Publishers, 2004.
Powers, Michael. Children with Autism. Bethesda, MD: Woodbine House, 2000.
Sohn, Alan and Cathy Grayson. Parenting Your Asperger Child. New York: Perigee Books, 2005.
Willey, Liane. Asperger syndrome in the Family. Philadelphia: Kingsley Publishers, 2001.