I attend a support group once a month for mothers of children with Aspergers. Their children may be 5 or 35, but all of the mothers have similar wishes: that their children be happy, that they have friends and a social life.
People with Aspergers seem to have great problems making friends.
I started exploring this topic by googling the phrase ‘how to make friends’. Many websites were returned in the listing and the general consensus was that there are several basic steps in making friends:
- Eye Contact
- Small Talk
The list seems simple doesn’t it? But it is a minefield for those with Aspergers. I discussed this list with my son who has had his own issues with friendship and we came up with the following concerns :
Eye Contact – Many Aspergians have a real problem with making eye contact, especially when they don’t know the person they are interacting with. According to my son, looking a stranger in the eye makes him nervous.
Smiling – For most people, smiling is a welcoming gesture. According to my son, smiling at a stranger seems premature, you don’t know them yet, so why smile?
Greeting – The spoken word, even my son agrees this one makes sense to talk to them.
Acknowledgement – Calling the person by their name, again makes the person feel that you are paying attention to them. According to my son, whether or not he does this depends of how he feels – is he nervous, does he remember the person’s name.
Small Talk – Those innocent, fluffy things to talk about to get to know the person. This drives many Aspergians mad. My son just doesn’t do small talk with strangers. He will ask family members about their health, or their day at work, but I think he has taught himself to ask those questions.
Overall, what I picked up from my son, is that making friends goes against much of what we teach our kids about interacting with strangers (and Aspergians love to follow those rules). Greeting people we don’t know, telling them our names and interests when previously such information sharing was discouraged. And after a few experiences of trying and failing, or trying and finding that they have NO common interests, Aspergians often don’t try anymore. They don’t want the pain or humiliation anymore. They don’t like being judged and found lacking. They don’t like being mocked about their interests.And the truth is, for many Aspergians, their interests are very narrow, very focused in one or two areas. So it will be harder to find that group of people (or even just one) that has that interest as well.
My son did say that if he went to an event, knowing that everyone there had a common interest such as Minecraft, it would be easier to meet people and interact with them. He wouldn’t see the conversation as small talk, but as real discussion of what everyone likes.
Oddly enough, I have seen my son around small children, and he is wonderful. He looks right at them, and talks in a soft non-threatening voice. He asks them relevant questions and will sit and play with them for quite a while. I can only suspect he feels no pressure or anxiety or judgement from them, so he is relaxed and quite outgoing. I have also seen my son fully relaxed with discussing with people one of his interests such as computer games or trading cards. He seems to blossom as he speaks. Which makes it doubly hard to watch as he retreats inward in other situations.
For myself, I found I could make friends much easier in college than before. Part of it was that, in college, I was surrounded with people like myself with common interests so we had similar things to talk about. Part of it was that those people often were also Aspergians and less concerned with eye contact, smiling, and small talk. And I am sure a large part of it was that I was more comfortable with myself, of who I was, and that came across in how I presented myself to others.
So, my advice to Aspergians trying to make friends: find people like yourself, with common interests, and relax. Play some computer games, argue over what Tolkien really meant in The Lord of the Rings, or play paintball. Just enjoy being together.