Because of the verbal and non verbal communication difficulties that I explored earlier, making and maintaining friendships can be very difficult for autistic teenagers.
During adolescence it can become much harder for autistics to make friends because social interactions become much more complicated, and more based around the sharing of feelings and small talk as opposed to the rough and tumble action based games of childhood. I have always struggled on the friendship front, and did not make my first peer group friend until I was 9 years old. I often preferred to play with much younger kids because their style if play was easier to understand and they let me control the game. Conversely, it can also be easier to befriend adults or older kids because the older children often scaffold the interaction because of their greater social maturity, and can be more forgiving of social mishaps. It is the peer group interactions that are often most difficult for autistics to navigate.
I was very excited to make a friend on my first day of secondary school. I was at this age interested in making friends but I really struggled to understand the social rules behind friendship, and keeping a conversation going was very difficult. I just wanted one very close friend who would be exclusively mine, and I did not want to share this friend with other girls. The first few weeks seemed to go smoothly enough, and we went shopping and I visited her house for tea. But unbeknownst to me this friend was getting frustrated because I did not understand the concept of personal space. I followed her around everywhere, using her a bit like a safety crutch because I found it hard to navigate the school building on my own. She introduced me to her other friends, but this made me anxious because she was my friend and I worried the other girls would steal her from me. On the school residential trip, I saw this girl walking off with her other friend, and I burst into tears. I could not explain to the teacher why I was upset. Shortly after this the girl told me she did not want to be friends with me any more as I was too clingy.
The second attempt involved a girl in my class who mothered me. She voluntarily took me under her wing, and would often check if I was okay. Again, this friendship worked for a while, but the girl had a group of friends that did not accept me into the group, and I had no idea how to interact in groups, so I stayed on the periphery. Eventually I gave up trying to be her friend and isolated myself.
Finally a girl approached me one day as I stood all alone by the vending machines one lunch time. he said she wanted to be my best friend and she gave me handmade friendship cards. I took her on face value and did not realise that she might abandon me. I was invited to her house twice but I was very quiet because I did not know how to keep conversations going. Her mum phoned my mum up to say that I was very quiet – I had no idea how to use small talk. The next day, the girl told me she did not want to be friends anymore as I was too quiet and she liked girls who talked more.
After this last attempt at friendship, I gave up trying to make friends and I became increasingly introverted and anxious. I attended the lunchtime club at school, which was attended by socially isolated kids and those with learning needs. I made a friend there who was in the year below me, but it did not last because I struggled to maintain friendships. Eventually I spent lunchtimes all alone in an empty classroom or locked in a toilet. I stopped caring about making friends and was in any case head over heels in love with my idol the actress Kate Winslet, who I was totally obsessed with, so I fely happy despite my increasing anxiety, OCD, social exclusion and avoidance. However, this isolation and anxiety was storing up problems for later because I was not getting the help I needed. Without peer interactions, I was alone in the world and being alone for too long means you start to brood and over-think things, which can make OCD and anxiety worse. It would have helped me if school had checked up on me and helped me feel less isolated, or been in contact with my parents and worked out a way to help me with anxiety and friendship. I was in denial at this age though, and I refused to see a counsellor. The school should just have been more proactive in picking up on my social isolation. I was given a school record book with targets to interact more and attend the lunchtime club, but all the work was placed on my shoulders and the school did nothing active to help me interact and overcome anxiety. It’s important to sort out the issues early before they spiral, because social isolation can affect self esteem and adult outcomes.