Color & Control:

What autistic girls wish their parents knew about friendship

By Jane Strauss

Females often go undiagnosed as being on the autism spectrum because their social development is different from that of males, which generally results in more social orientation, better imitation skills at a younger age, and earlier speech, of whatever kind, than their male counterparts.

In modern society—where doing things in groups seems to have become the norm—parent education, daycare, and early childhood programs lead to children being put into groups at ever-younger ages. The groupification results in challenges for any person who has sensory issues or does not like change. And those in charge of such programs, in my experience, are not very good at dealing with such folk, no matter how young.

It is no accident that autistic girls are more often labelled with depression or eating disorders than with their real neurodivergent natures. When, from early childhood, you live out of sync with social norms and expectations, it’s easy to feel as if you are alien, wrong, and bad. In such a situation, one would have to be catatonic not to be at least a little depressed.

As an autistic woman who has struggled through over five decades before being properly identified and who learned, through trial and error, about friends and friendship, there are a number of things I wish that my parents had known and had been able to teach me. These include: a) how to make friends, b) how to tell if people really are friends, c) how to deal with bullies and bullying (as I have learned that often institutions don’t do this effectively) and d) that it is okay not to live in herds. The one thing my parents tried to teach and seem to have done a reasonably good job of is Shakespeare’s old statement: “This above all, to thine own self be true.”

Realistic suggestions 
First, you might wish to take a long, hard look at yourself if your support systems seem inadequate and you are struggling. Autism does run in families, so far as we know. Until recently, many females skated under the radar, and you just might be one of them.  Clearly, getting support for yourself can be and is, in the long run, better for your children, whichever gender they may be. And as you learn to cope, you will become a better role model.

Second, realize that your daughter is an individual with her own strengths and weaknesses, and that she is not a smaller version of you. She may well be introverted and dislike being in large groups. The stress of dealing with noise, motion, and even flickering lights can result in an inability to cope and obvious withdrawal. Or, she may seem to do well, until she is at home, where she explodes. Remember, stress can cause a delayed response, bursting out once she is in a safe place.

If large groups seem to result in stress, put those off and preferentially deal with small groups. Yes, you can have play dates for your child, they just may be more low-key than you thought they “should” be. An hour or less interacting with a single child while the moms have coffee is perfectly fine as a play date.

A piece of old research I wish parents knew about is that kids on the spectrum are often more comfortable with playmates chronologically younger than themselves. That does make sense, if you look at the spectrum as a developmental delay relative to the mythic norms. Delay does not mean never developing; it does mean doing so more slowly than usual. This may change the nature of play dates, but your child’s time playing with a child two or three years younger than herself is still interaction, and may be more beneficial to both than pushing them to interact in a group of age mates.

I have come up with several skills and behaviours that I recommend, based upon my experience, which I have shared with younger spectrumites, and I respectfully suggest that parents would do well to know and consider and share these ideas:

1) Take part in activities you like, if possible, outside of your room. If you like gaming, do that. If social fear means you have to start online, by all means do, but COVID willing, look for gaming groups, conventions, clubs, and meet-ups, so that you can meet people in the real world. Take small steps, as it profits nothing if panic leads to lack of enjoyment.

2) Do not take part in something you do not like to do, just to meet people. An example might be a birthday party if noise or crowds are upsetting. I have found that doing those kinds of things leaves me unhappy and sets me up for failure. Think of it this way:
• If a child likes doing the activity, then you will be more likely to enjoy going.
• When he or she is comfortable they’ll more likely look happy, and people are more likely to approach a smiling child.
• Sometimes anxiety disappears when meeting people who share your interests.

3) Ask what they mean. There is nothing so sad as losing a potential friend through a misunderstanding. Remind your daughter that she may take something too literally. It is better to check on meanings than to be hurt without need. Similarly, if someone is meaning to be hurtful, it is best to know this before developing a friendship.

4) Getting to know someone does take time. Even if it feels to you as if you must become best friends within a week or two, this is not realistic. Slow down. Try to let the other person take the lead on getting together. It looks like stalking if you try to monopolize their time. 

5) When they are not being kind. Some youngsters may try to make themselves feel more important by putting others down. They may think it is funny to make you think they are friends and then behave in a nasty or exclusionary way. Role-playing or practicing ways to respond to bullying can be useful. Starting early on with books such as My Name Is Not Dummy, by Elizabeth Crary, can be helpful.

6) Be nice to people. You never know where friends may come from. Sometimes “popular” people may be imitating others or saying mean things about them behind their backs, saying that they are “just joking,” and you think that joining in will make you popular, too.

Try to find people who are kind to others, watch what they do, and copy them. In the long run they make the best friends and are models for how you can be a good friend, too. And being nice to your friends is a good start to keeping them over the long term.

Jane Strauss is the author of Sincerely, Your Autistic Child.

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