Friendships refer to a special type of peer relationship which involves closeness and trust, mutual affection, companionship and preference, interactions over time and reciprocity.

Micah Mazurek, 2017

Why is friendship important?

In children and young people, a friend promotes positive social, cognitive and emotional development and is associated with an increased sense of wellbeing. Having a friend increases a sense of belonging to school and more positive perceptions of school. It is linked to stronger academic performance.

Friendship and autistic learners

An autistic person can be a friend who is loyal, reliable and has sense of humour. They may well enjoy sharing information about common interests.

Many autistic learners, however, report greater loneliness than their peers. Autistic learners tend to have fewer friends than their peers, experience less closeness in those friendships and have briefer friendships. They tend to get together less often with their friends and have less shared activities.

The social skills involved in making and maintaining friends are complicated. They develop as a result of our interactions with others throughout our childhood, and continue to develop as adults. Lack of friends or involvement with peers lessens the opportunities to observe and practise the skills required. This in turn can make it more difficult to develop friendships. 

Some autistic learners can appear withdrawn and solitary. This may be through choice but it does not necessarily mean they do not want a friend; sometimes they just don’t know how to go about it in a successful way. They may be motivated to “fit in” with the crowd and have a desire for friendship but lack knowledge and experience of the incremental and complex way in which friendships develop.

Some autistic learners may have a focus on developing friendships but don’t understand some of the unwritten rules of social interaction. They may not understand that friends sometimes want to be with others and might react quite rudely, become distressed or end the friendship if their friend goes and plays with someone else. Wanting to have a friend, they can misinterpret kindness for friendship and may become attached to someone who does not consider them a friend. Inflexibility of thought and a lack of appreciation of another’s feelings may result in rejection by peers.

Children and young people may develop friendships based on similar interests. However we sometimes expect, or are keen for autistic learners to make friends through participating in clubs or other team or group social activities. This can work best when based on the child or young person’s interests or motivations, is well planned, time limited (then built up) and well supported.

It is important to provide opportunities to practice the skills and understanding of what is involved in friendships in naturally occurring situations and environments. For most autistic learners, teaching skills out of context is less likely to be successful.

Factors for practitioners to consider
  • Interpret and explain social situations, for example:
    • Using Social Stories (remember that rote learning or scripts for social skills are not useful unless transferred, reinforced and practised within realistic experiences)
    • A buddy as a role model, remember they will require guidance
    • A young person may relate better to a senior pupil rather than someone in same year group.
  • Teach and remind about expected interactions in many different contexts
    • Practice, initially with an adult, games which can be played with peers
    • Introduce current playground ‘terminology’.
  • Encourage and model opening lines of conversations and how to end them.
  • Help recognise the consequences of words or actions towards others
    • It may help to reflect on their own response to a similar situation or give clear explanation of how someone else might feel or respond. It is usually less useful to question; ’How do you think …felt when you did that?’
    • Help distinguish between teasing and bullying, and when and how to ask for help
    • Role play (or use puppets or toys) to act out a situation
    • Use Comic Strip Conversations to encourage compromise or better ways to resolve an issue  
    • Identify a quiet or ‘safe’ area
  • Support learners to know when and how to remove themselves from stressful situations, especially less structured situations such as the playground, dining area etc.​
  • ​​Consider developing a Circle of Friends