Friends and autism: Does my child have too few friends?

Dr. Robert Naseef & Dr. Cindy Ariel

Question: Does My Child with Autism Have Too Few Friends?

I am very worried because my son who is now 10 years old has very limited friends. Actually he likes to play with just one other boy who also has issues. It doesn't seem to bother him, but I am very worried about how lonely he will be when he is older. I have many friends and some of them since grade school. I don't want my child to suffer as I fear he will, and even more so in the future. Can you help me with my own worries and also with my son?

Answer: From Dr. Robert Naseef:
Your dilemma raises the concerns of many dedicated and loving parents. That your child seems happy now is a blessing not to be taken lightly, but obviously that is not a guarantee of future happiness. Pleasant memories of your own childhood are also a good thing. The good and bad memories of our own childhood are never far for all parents who inevitably have important formative experiences in their personal history. We want our children to have happy experiences like our own and we want to protect them from some painful incidents. In this sense, we have one foot in the past (in the families we originated in), and one foot in the present, in the family we have created.

The diagnosis of autism carries with it difficulties in relating and communicating, which impacts the expectations that parents have for their children. This does not mean that a child is incapable of relating and communicating, but it does mean that life will be very different than expected. Undoubtedly your son's condition has been a challenge for your family. I want to call your attention to the essay, "Don't Mourn for Us" by Jim Sinclair. This adult with autism helps parents to sort out these very important issues. As he puts it, "Autism is a way of being. It is pervasive; it colors every experience, every sensation, perception, thought, emotion, and encounter, every aspect of existence. It is not possible to separate the autism from the person - and if it were possible, the person you'd have left would not be the same person you started with."

Friendship is but one of these different experiences. That your son has a friend he likes to be with is to be celebrated. There is little doubt that you would prefer him to have a more normal friend, but it is no surprise that he might have more in common with a kindred spirit - another child with differences. This is not to belittle or deny your own feelings. It is important to accept your own emotional reaction to your child's differences, including your worries about his future happiness. Accepting your worries, noticing them, honoring them, and letting them wash over you is the best way to help yourself and your son to be happy and to be all he can be. What I think we have the most control over is just this: our relationship with our child who has a challenging life, who is very different, and who is beautiful and loveable each and every day.

From Dr. Cindy Ariel:
We all want the very best for our children and we often compare their lives with our own at every stage. In many ways, this helps us to relate to them and to help and guide them as they grow. In other ways, though, it encourages us to project some of our own issues onto our children and treat them as if they are ourselves. Our children are very much like us in many ways, but they are not us.

It is difficult to learn to separate our children from ourselves. Especially, as mothers, we have felt the extreme biological connection as our children literally were inside of our bodies and attached to us; we once even shared their life-line of oxygen and blood. We know they are so deeply a part of us, and yet we must learn to separate ourselves and understand them as individual people now surviving and growing on their own, with limited help from us.

You sound like a very social person. It's fantastic that you enjoy people so much and are able to maintain such long-term friendships. I'm sure this has helped you in many ways throughout your life. Your son may not be as social as you are. The fact that he has any friends at all is a positive thing. Many people are fine with only one or two close friends and feel much more comfortable living this way.

Many children on the spectrum end up gravitating to other children who may be different and can understand what it feels like to be different; they sometimes find relationship in and through their differentness and it is comforting and comfortable for them. It doesn't sound like your child is suffering the way you might be if you did not have so many friends. You can give him encouragement and opportunities to be around and interact with others and his level of comfort around others may slowly expand. But pushing it may only make him feel more and more uncomfortable.

An important part of healthy growing up is the ability to love and be loved. There is no standard as to how many people you must love or be loved by. Try not to worry about his friendships so much unless he shares with you that it is distressing to him. Helping him with this one special friendship may help him to open himself up more and could eventually impact other relationships. Your son is lucky to have you at his side, obviously loving him.

Courtesy of About a NYTimes Company

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