It is hard to know if children with Autism are as lonely as their parents think. Psychologists do know that playing with a friend and making friends are “overwhelming skills” for these children. One author writes, “they are totally preoccupied with their own agendas.” This preoccupation makes it hard for children with autism to make truly understand others.
The Importance of Teaching Social Skills to Children with Autism
Teaching children with autism 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 others typically take for granted.
How did you learn how to read a room? How do you teach someone this skill, especially someone who has no understanding of other people’s emotions and body language? Children with autism lack social reasoning and proper courses of action in social situations. For example, one boy with autism 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 social skills to help children with autism function in everyday life. As one author writes, the lack of social understanding “virtually colors every other experience in their lives.”
How do Children with Autism Feel about Friendships?
Yet the question of whether children with autism are truly lonely and want friends is a different discussion. Like all children, some are extroverted and others are more comfortable by themselves. Like all children, they vary in their need for social interactions.
When researchers ask children with autism about friendship, they are usually very negative. They think of friendships 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 (a high-functioning form of autism), 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: “Never force your child to socialize. Most Aspies and autistic people are happy to just be by themselves.”
It is important to realize 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 high-functioning autism 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 they go through adolescence, most realize they are missing out by not fitting in. It is at this point in their lives, they crave friendships. This unfulfilled desire along with pressure to conform, constant rejection, and harassment can often cause clinical depression in autistic teens. They grow more isolated even as they crave more interaction with others. Young children with autism often believe everyone in their kindergarten is the same and everyone is a friend. Through experience, teens with high-functioning autism know better.
Some research shows the more time a child with autism spends socializing, the happier he is. They can and do form friendships. When they do, research shows 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.
Loneliness for Family Members of Someone with Autism
Families of people with high-functioning autism often talk about their own feelings of loneliness. They tell counselors that marriage to them feels like living alone. An autistic spouse often does not attend to details like anniversaries and may not connect with the couple’s children on an emotional basis. In addition, they may not benefit from typical marriage counseling.
A parent of a child with autism 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. They also miss the normal “give and take” of normal sibling relationships. One psychologist writes many siblings believe that the autistic child’s “disability is an advantage. A passport to special attention, recognition and privilege.”
Hope for the Future
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 autism 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.