My seven-year-old son was recently diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. I am wondering if he will ever be able to develop true friendships. Marissa Prior, Georgia
This is a complicated question, Marissa! It is very hard work for young children with Asperger’s to make and keep friends. Because of sensory issues, anxiety, narrow fields of interest, pragmatic communication difficulties (even for highly verbal children), and trouble reading and understanding social cues, making and maintaining friendships is challenging. As children grow up and attend school, their desire for friendships seems to increase. At this point it’s important to try and understand from these children just what they think a friend is. Their understanding of friends might be very different from what our social world defines as true friendships. Once we know what they think, we can address their perceptions and misperceptions about friendship and help them develop the social thinking necessary to make being with peers more enjoyable.
With kids diagnosed with Asperger’s, reciprocity in relationships is difficult, the “back and forth” of play, conversation and inquisitiveness are amongst the many things that will need to be taught. Once children are at a developmental and emotional place to be open enough to this teaching they can become aware and adept at this essential aspect of friendship. In our experience, the way to teach this is by translating all of the abstract and “hidden” parts of social interaction into concrete bits of information that need to be practiced with peers who have similar social thinking issues. It’s a mistake to think that children with Asperger’s will “pick up” these skills from typical peers, because they won’t. They need to be taught explicitly and concretely how relationships work and what they can do to foster relationships. Then it’s practice, practice, practice. The motivation to do this varies from child to child, depending upon their willingness to experience the discomfort that comes with challenging their misperceptions about other people, the quality of their interactions with other children (have they been teased, bullied?) and how they feel about loneliness. Once a child or teen is ready to enter into friendships, they tend to seek out peers who share their focused interests so that they can relax and feel comfortable in the relationship.