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Life on the Autism Spectrum

Autism & friends

The people we interviewed had different experiences of friendships. Many had difficulties making and sustaining friendships, a few did not want friends because they did not like socialising and others had good friendships.
 
Several people had a friend or several friends and these included online friends who interacted via MSN, friends from school and friends from an autistic support group.

 

Alex has online friends who help her by checking that she has eaten or locked her doors.

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Age at interview: 28
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 3
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I’ve got a close group of friends on the internet forum I go on. And, who I also talk to on MSM who kind like prompt me to do things in the evening, so at 6 o’clock someone will say, “Have you eaten yet?” And I’ll say, “No, I’m going to eat in a minute.” Or, “Yes, I’ve eaten.” They’ll say, you know, before I go to stuff and things like that, you know, “Have you shut all your windows? Have you locked all your doors?” So they kind of prompt me to do things. And they keep me occupied. They talk to me on like MSM and stuff like that. 

 

And that’s been fine making friendships?

 

I wouldn’t say it’s fine. Locally I don’t really have any friends that I socialise with. Obviously there’s people that go to the same day service as me and when we go out and do social things. We all get together and we all talk and stuff. But they’re not people that I would see outside my day service probably because we’ve all got completely different needs and for us to try and meet up on our own would be very weird and very confusing and probably very hard for all of us. The majority of my friendships are always net based. They’re people… you know, I mean they’re people that I talk to on MSN or I talk to on the phone or things like that, but I don’t really have any local face to face friends apart from may one or two. Probably one.

 

Would you want more face to face friends or is the internet fine for you?

 

The internet’s fine, but it would be nice to have local friends to an extend because then when you’re bored on the weekends and stuff you know, you could go round to someone’s house and have a cup of tea or they’d come round to your house and have a cup of tea. That’s what friends do isn’t it? Social friends.

 

 

Richard has various friends that he plays games and watches television with.

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Age at interview: 22
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 2
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And what about, you say, you’ve talked about your friends. Are these friends you live with or are these friends from outside where you live?
 
Friends I mentioned earlier are the ones I live with. I have other friends who I’ve known for longer who don’t live with me. 
 
Do you see them often?
 
Sometimes. 
 
Are these friends from school?
 
Some of them are friends from school. Some of them are friends from college. A lot of them are friends who did not go to the same school as me and are friends of my parent… their parents are friends with my parents.
 
And what sort of things do you like doing with your friends?
 
Playing games, watching telly, ordering takeaway and anything else I cannot think of off the top of my head.
 
 

Sam finds a lot of people 'banal' but found having a friend at university made a 'massive...

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Age at interview: 26
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 24
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However, I did meet one friend at university who is probably my best friend. I’ve known her for seven years now. And that really made a massive difference, because I hadn’t had one person I could actually talk to. Who I could sit there for an hour or two or longer and have a one to one conversation with, for many years. And quite simply the benefit that that brings is worth more than having twenty or thirty friends who you can socialise with and spend time with but actually can’t really talk to as such, just be in social environments with. And so that was probably, probably the reason I enjoyed university, was because I actually managed to meet someone who actually I could connect with and be friends with. So …

One woman had friends from the village she grew up in and friends she’d made through her local Asperger support group. Another man, similarly had “loads of friends” from the youth club he attends with other young people with Asperger syndrome. Other people said that their friends were similar to them; “all misfits” was how one person described his friends over the years. 

 

Ian finds it easier to make friends with autistic people as they think the same.

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Age at interview: 22
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 8
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 Why do you think that is?
 
Because, only because they’re a similar personality to me. You know what I mean. I don’t find it that hard to make friends with people without problems. It’s just I find it a little bit difficult to mix in the environment or be like them, if you know what I mean. It’s quite … [laughs] quite hard. 
 
Can you explain, in what way is it hard, because I find that difficult to understand?
 
…understand, okay. Like you know, because I think it’s like, you know, because, it’s the way they talk to each other that I find difficult to adapt to that. You know, it’s like because if I talk the way I do and stuff, you know. And obviously all my friends who are autistic talk very similarly, you know what I mean we always have a good conversation and we always think the same. With them I say, I say, they don’t think the same as I do and I find it a bit difficult to adapt with them. You know, but … I do, I try my best, but you know, there’s a limit you can do isn’t there really, at the end of the day.
 

“Making friends is a mystery to me”
Defining what a friend was concerned a few people. Richard quoted his wife as saying he had no friends, but he does have friends on the internet: “People that have gone through the same kind of thing, the same kind of experiences and they tend to be people I can relate more to”. Laurie had a lot of professional counselling because she hasn't been able to go and let off steam with a friend over a cup of coffee like most people. To her, making friends is a mystery (see ‘Communication and interaction’).
 

Susie thinks Oliver has a lot of friends but he finds defining friends difficult.

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Age at interview: 27
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 25
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Oliver' Well I do make friends but I find it very hard to make them, or define what is a friend?
 
Susie' I think you hide it quite well though. Like, you might feel that it’s difficult, but you don’t come across like that. So maybe you’ve just learnt to deal with it.
 
Oliver' I think I have.
 
Susie' Because I don’t think people notice at all. I think people find you quite friendly.
 
Oliver' Hm. I think it’s something I have learnt, and learnt to deal with being in social situation. I think it’s mainly from actually may be working in hotels and having to approach people on a day to day basis and be as friendly and outgoing as possible. I think this has helped me in a lot ways, on at least a conversive level, on a social level. I can talk about things, but it’s only just recently I’ve learned how to make conversation with people. Because I’d normally… if I was talking to someone, I’d normally try and steer the conversation around to something I wanted to talk about. And it normally would work, and if not I’d leave the conversation really. But it’s you, you keep saying why don’t I ask you questions and things like this and it’s realising that’s how people actually make conversation. 
 
Susie' Yes [laughs].

Oliver' By asking each other questions.
 
Susie' Yes, that’d the thing you’ve got to learn to do.
 
Oliver' Yes.
 
Susie' I’m not saying you need to learn to do it, but that’s something you just learn isn’t it?
 
Oliver' Yes. But I know realised why you had to do it before. I was… back onto friends, I have made, I guess you could consider them friends, made two or three at university. But I only normally see them at university. I don’t really socialise with them outside. Strange enough one of them had a childhood diagnosis of autism and the other one I think he’s probably a little bit in the middle. You wouldn’t consider he’s got… he just seems a bit, not quite normal. And [um] I think this is why we kind of mesh really. Because to see, to see us together, you wouldn’t think that we could actually be friends from… I know that sounds weird. Because they’ve very introverted, they’re very shy people, but we get along really well. We do have a lot to talk about with each other.
 
 

It took Simon a while to learn what a friend was and explains how he finds it hard to trust people.

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Age at interview: 22
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 5
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But school, and other matters besides college were really, really hard. Because I went to mainstream school, I didn’t go to sort of specialist schools or anything like that. And it was really, really hard. Because part, part of autism is we have a very sort of strange sort of social system. We find it really hard to trust people and we don’t necessarily like making, find making friends incredibly difficult. Mostly because we’re scared or we don’t know how to make friends, it’s sort of something that doesn’t really develop enough. And when it does we usually tend to go with only a selected few people that we call friends or even use the friend term lightly, it takes a while for us to sort of get to that level, you know, of making a friend really, and sometimes, because we’re like that, because we’re so insecure most of the time and find it hard to sort of socialise with people we tend to get called loners and stuff like that and sort of, they think we’re strange because I was just not talking to anyone, on his own most of the time, and partly just because how complex our social system is really. 
 
To me, a friend is, you know, someone you can trust and obviously once again we have a lot of trust… find it hard to trust people, and sometimes when I was little, I didn’t even know what a friend was, at all. I had no idea what a friend is, it was like, oh made friend, I’m like, “what’s a friend?” and until people actually told me what it meant, actually showed me, because sometimes with words, it’s like people tell us a word like a friend you know, like emotions, like love and stuff. We need to actually see, physically see it in front of us and then someone to tell us that’s what it is. And that can be incredibly difficult emotionally, especially you know, because we’re always insecure about, you know, basically we don’t want other people to worry about us. And we find it so hard just to, sort of say that, look, you know, this is worrying me and stuff, because we feel like the backlash and stuff. And sometimes we don’t even know how we’re feeling half the time. 
 
Some people found making friends got easier as they grew older and learnt more about social rules. John L finds he is better at doing things it if he doing them with or for someone else. He enjoys cooking for his friends.
 

In his last year at school James found that he had made friends without realising it at the time.

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Age at interview: 22
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 12
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And it was just such a really great year. I did a lot of coaching and stuff and I started doing a lot of work, you know working in the base, actually helping other people in the base and that was so great because I felt like I had received a lot of help and the idea that I could even help someone who was going through the same thing that I was going through was amazing because I knew how difficult it is and how stressful it could be. So that was quite a lot of confidence building.
 
And at the end of the year we would have like a school prom and it is quite, it is quite an American thing I think but I think a lot of people have it now. And like they have all these like silly awards and stuff like that and there is award for like Prom King and Prom Queen, Jester and all these sorts of silly things. And Prom King I mean it is just basically a blatant popularity test, a popularity contest and basically I won Prom King and so like I was quite surprised at the time to be honest with you but I sort of thought, it just sort of shows you how much people can sort of think you would never make any friends and you would never really be that popular and you know it wasn’t… all of a sudden that sort of thing happened and people sort of and people sort of, it makes people sit up and take notice a bit about that , that idea that thinking happens, the idea that people with Asperger syndrome are like capable of making friends socially. I think it is just a bit of a learning process and you need to learn certain things, you need to learn certain rules and all of a sudden if that sort of thing happens that can be made possible. 
 
I also won the most outstanding pupil of the year award and that was just, you know, amazing the idea that that could happen, it was just like incredible that it was just that everyone never thought it could ever happen. It was just so surprising that I ever did. You know like, and I always remember that, it is just it got presented to me in front of a lot of our school, it was a big assembly sort of thing and the teacher made a speech and he was really, really nice about me. Said a lot of complimentary things and and I was probably really, really surprised and probably that was quite hard to do, as I got quite emotional at the time things like that but I was really pleased and couldn’t believe it.
 

Catherine has learnt how to 'sit about with people' from Neil and is amazed she can now do that.

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Sex: Male
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Catherine' Yes. I mean basically I had loads of pen pals. They were the only friends that I had, so, you know, I kind of, I was scared, but I felt more comfortable about meeting him in person, because obviously we knew everything about each other from writing to each other, but I was just terribly phobic of, I mean I couldn’t kind of go into a restaurant. I couldn’t, I couldn’t hang with people. Like now, it is only through Neil that I have learnt how to just have friends and sit about with people, and talk to people, hang out with people. How to do anything socially basically is through Neil helping me, because I just, I was a wreck before. I didn’t have any friends, I didn’t go out the house. You know, the only people I saw were my Mum and Dad basically. And that was it.
 
Neil' Because yes, you know, the first, you know, times we met each other and were say like hanging out with my friends and just, there is just so much difference like how she was then and now. Just even things like eating in front of other people, or talking to people or just, it is completely different. And obviously I didn’t know it was Asperger's. I just thought, oh I can understand somebody being   anxious, because I have got a lot of anxiety problems, and I was just thinking, oh well, okay, then we will, you know, helping you sort that out, because that was the only way I could relate to it.
Others found that a distance grew between themselves and their peers as they reached adolescence. 
 

Mary gets on better with people older or younger than her. She thinks this is because she is less...

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Age at interview: 22
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 21
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You said you think it’s easier to make friends or be with people who are older or younger. It’s more difficult with your peer group?
 
Yes.
 
Why do you think that is? 
 
I think, maybe because peer group are kind of more focussed on... it’s very difficult to say really, but I think, how can I put it? It’s like people who are older than me are, they’re kind of more, I find it easier to relate to them, maybe because I’m very old and young at the same time [laughs]. I mean I do lots of, I don’t really do things that people my own age group really do. I’m not really that interested in fashion or kind of I don’t know, just like what’s fashionable, what’s in the, what’s the latest, you know, things like music. I mean I like music, but I tend to choose more my own type of music. So, I’m not really that interested in people my own age, and what they’re interested in. So that’s when I say, like I feel old in that level. People who are older than me, you know, are just kind of… just maybe they don’t talk so much about, maybe it’s more like small talk, maybe people my age are more small talk based. I don’t know, more gossiping which I don’t get. People younger than me, I can relate to more, because they’re, because they’re, on the hand I think I’m quite immature in other respects as well. So people younger than me I can relate to as well in that sense, their sense of humour and stuff like that.
 
Knowing how to interact with friends was something several people found difficult. 
 

Mark says he tends to approach people with a 'level of emotional detachment'.

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Age at interview: 27
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 26
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Well I think sort of particularly friendships I wouldn’t say I have necessarily overly had an enormous problem in making friends but usually sort of you get friends to a point. I remember, you know, a quite irritating, a very good friend of mine, because at one point she had sort of said I was her best friend, and you know my response was, “I think you are probably about my fourth best friend” which, you know, I was just sort of being blunt and honest, but you know wasn’t terribly nice, but I think, you know, I have always found that sort of level of emotional detachment, you know, yes I really like you as a person, but if you fell off the face of the earth tomorrow, would I be upset? I am not terribly sure I would be. I would like to think I would but I am not completely sure. And I think, you know, that if nothing else does put up a barrier. You know, if nothing else, if you can’t be sure.
 

As a child, Mary was very clingy and obsessive about friendships.

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Age at interview: 22
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 21
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I had one friend in my peer group but that friendship only, only lasted, well I mean it kept on, it kept on stopping and starting, so we were friends for you know, like a few, you know, a few weeks and we would break up and then get back together again. And I also was very possessive and quite sort of clingy because I didn’t like it when anyone else would start talking to her. That really irritated me. So I think it’s more me, then her, who actually broke it up. So... and often when I wasn’t friends with her, then I’d play with a girl a few years younger than me, or I’d just basically be really annoying because I was just fed up with not having any friends or anything. So I just… I think I annoyed quite a few people. Just was quite childish; kind of running around, just being really stupid. I didn’t really have much self awareness, because I used to go up to people and just tap them on their backs and stuff and ask them really silly questions and just run off. And I think I’ve matured quite a lot since then. 

 

I’m not interested in that any more. That sort of withered away. But that was all through adolescence was particularly extreme, and I mean, when I started secondary school, I actually made a friend on the first day. And I was really pleased, really happy, but that friendship didn’t last long at all. The girl told me that I was too clingy, you know, that followed her around too much. She said, “I don’t want to be friends with you anymore.” And I was really upset about that because I remember, you know, I saw her walking off with another girl. This was before she told me she didn’t want to be friends with me anymore, and I saw her walking with another girl and I was actually, and this was on a like residential in year seven, and I was actually, you know, I mean I remember actually sort of crying seeing her walk off with this other girl because I just didn’t want her talking to anyone else. If she was my friend I didn’t want her talking to anyone talking to anyone else at all. Then I just got very possessed with people, like obsessed with them. 

So yes, and then I had another friendship, a brief friendship, with a girl who said, who offered to be best friends with me, but then that one also ended. She told me I didn’t speak enough. So then I thought okay so to make friends with people I have to speak a lot. So I started to speak all the time, and, just you know, I mean I made, there was another girl who I briefly had a friendship with, but then she started to move out into a group, and I couldn’t deal with groups. And sometimes she said, “You know you can come and, you can come and join the group, you know, come and join us.” And I did. But they were all talking and I didn’t know what to do, because they all were friends with one another. 

 

 

 

The social side of friendships was appreciated by some people, even if they had not been successful in making any. One woman said, “I would really like to have a proper friend, as in like someone you could see regularly, that you can share and disclose everything, you know, and you feel 100% comfortable with”. Simon became depressed when his friends left college and he had to start the new college year on his own.
 
A couple of people had mixed feelings about friendships or didn’t want friends. Martin found people largely “irritating” while Christopher said he “ached for companionship” while at the same time not really wanting friends.


 

 

Last reviewed July 2016.
Last updated July 2016.

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