Emotional Regulation
February 27, 2023

Fostering Connections: Autistic Teens and the Art of Friendship Building

Mastering the art of making friends is more than having someone to hang out with on a Friday night. Friendships serve as the foundation for learning about relationship building, finding love, and raising a family. Friendships help us grow and become better as people. Good friends enrich our lives and improve our health.

Veda Collmer
Fostering Connections: Autistic Teens and the Art of Friendship Building

Navigating different types of relationships may be difficult for autistic teens and young adults. Autism makes reading social cues and understanding unwritten social norms challenging.  Helping your teen master the art of making friends will require teaching the rules, lots of practice, and feedback.  The process will take time and patience but will be worth the effort.

Here are some ideas to get you and your teen started:

Brainstorm where to make friends

Work with your teen to brainstorm a list of ideas for finding friends.  Here are some possibilities:

  • High school and community college clubs.  
  • Support groups for teens dealing with emotional issues
  • Community College classes (taken for fun)  
  • Clubs and groups focused on certain hobbies.  
  • Meetup.com
  • Volunteering

The real world vs. the virtual world

People with autism often struggle to accurately read other people's motives or interpret behaviors. Therefore, finding friends online can pose serious safety risks. If you've heard of the expression Catfishing, you know that people use the internet to hide their true identities. Your teen could be sucked into a scary situation if he or she does not understand the risks associated with online friends.  

Teach your teen how to make friends in the real world first.  Teach how to read different types of behaviors and body language? Teach about the meaning of different types of facial expressions.   Establish clear, written safety rules for your teen to use as a guide.  Once your teen has mastered the art of real-world friendships, encourage virtual relationships with these real-world friends and online friends only.

Create a list of written rules for relationships

Autism makes navigating relationships and friendships difficult.  People with autism struggle with understanding unwritten social roles or accurately reading body language. Work with your team to create a list of written rules that can be used as guardrails for navigating different relationships. Some examples of written rules can be:

Rule #1: Everyone makes mistakes. It doesn't have to ruin your day.

Rule #2: Honesty is different than diplomacy.

Rule #3: Not everyone who is nice to me is my friend.

Rule #4: Know when you're turning people off.

Post the rules in a prominent place in your home and refer to them often. Use them during your feedback sessions. Allow your teen an opportunity to practice applying the rules often. Discuss why these rules are important.  

For more ideas about navigating unwritten social roles, check out this wonderful book, called Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships: Decoding Social Mysteries through the Unique Perspectives of Autism,  by Dr. Temple Grandin, and Sean Baron.

Teach about different types of friendships

All of us have different levels of relationships in our lives. These relationships vary depending on our level of trust with another person, our history with that person, and the context of which we know that person. How we navigate these different relationships involves understanding the unwritten social rules and norms that govern our behavior. You may need to explicitly teach your autistic teen about the different types of relationships to master social relationships. Here are some topic ideas to get you started:

  • Work relationships. As adults, we have colleagues at work that we enjoy spending time with. When we leave a job, we may keep in touch with that person and the relationship may deepen, or we may simply stop being friends. Work relationships may be superficial. We should limit our trust of work friends and not tell them our deepest secrets. We understand that the central focus of work friends is the shared job, so we may limit our conversations to light topics about our interests and activities we enjoy.  
  • Acquaintances. Acquaintances are very superficial relationships where we exchange pleasantries with another person. We may know very shallow details about the other person, such as how many people are in their family, whether they like animals, what they do for a job. We do not trust acquaintances with any information about ourselves.
  • Best friends. Best friends are rare and a true gift. These are friends that we have known for many years. We share mutual interests with our best friends. We trust our best friends and we can even rely on them to help us.  

Compare the difference between work relationships, acquaintances, and best friends with your teen. Use a visual guide, such as a ladder or a circle to show how these relationships compare to each other. For example, a circle could show the best friend at the closest center of the circle and the work friend at the outer part of the circle.  

How VedaOT can help?

We understand how the brain develops and changes to new input.  We can work with your teen to learn the rules of relationship building for a healthy future.  We would love to meet you and learn how we can help your teen master friendships.

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