Monday, February 18, 2013

Autism and Friendship

Is friendship in Ryan's future?

Will Ryan ever have a friend? Does he care? These are questions I frequently ask myself. I see how hard his teacher and therapists work to get him to even notice other children… Like many with autism, Ryan’s social skills are impaired. To say they are lacking would imply this is simply a matter of learning etiquette. In his case, social skills were simply not there. Gesturing, waving, reading facial expression, understanding that another person has different thoughts that he has—conspicuously absent.

Ryan does notice adults now, so there has been some improvement. He is happy to see us when we get home from work. I think back to when he was just two years old and I had been away on a trip for nearly two weeks. I could hardly wait to get home to see him. Ryan was sitting on the floor playing with a toy when I came in and yelled his name, expecting him to get up and run to me. He simply looked up for a brief second and went back to what he was doing. Talk about a let-down.

Most of the time Ryan doesn’t really give other children a lot of thought that I can discern unless they’re holding a toy Ryan wants to play with. So Ryan’s teachers and therapists contrive scenarios that require Ryan to interact with other children.  

They take Ryan to the beach or to the classroom next door. They have him practice saying, “Hi” to the other children. I can’t say for sure, but Ryan seems to think it’s more trouble than it’s worth to wave. 

His au pair sets up playdates for him. I suspect he simply plays near the other child, but I hope the pathways in brain that make us social beings are being formed. 

I’ve read studies about children with autism and how they can go their whole lives without a true friend—and these articles focused on those with high-functioning autism. It saddens me that Ryan might miss out on one of life’s basic joys. Mom and Dad, and loving siblings are just not a substitute for friendship…although this truism may escape Ryan. Perhaps he’ll never know what he’s missing.  

Max from NBC's Parenthood
I’ve watched TV’s “Parenthood”, which features a character named Max who has Asperger’s. Max can be difficult, is obsessed with learning everything he can about insects, doesn't always understand appropriate social behavior, and certainly a bit quirky—but he is capable of communicating his wants, needs, interests and everyday thoughts. I don’t know if Ryan will ever attain this level of functioning that makes friendship more likely. I wonder if any of his peers will take on the effort to befriend him...sometimes it seems doubtful.

But you never know…

My friend has a son with severe autism. She has told me a number of times that my youngest daughter Meghan was an answer to her prayers because she sees past Beau’s autism to the wonderful boy that lurks beneath the surface. I’m proud my daughter took the time to get to know a special young man. Not everyone will even consider befriending an autistic person, believing they’re intellectually-impaired, or strange because some have repetitive behaviors. But Meghan and Beau are truly friends.

Ryan and Athena heading to the playground...

 I hope one day there will be someone like Meghan for my Ryan.


  1. I too constantly worry about Michael gaining friends, or actually keeping them. Michael (7- HFA) seems to be doing better than my step son(Dale 22- Aspergers) Dale has never had a friend, unless I set up a "playdate". He never keeps in contact with his one and only friend, he is not socially capable of doing so. We have been working with Michael a long time on this, and he wants playdates like his twin sister. The problem we have is when we actually get a child to come over our house, he locks himself in our bedroom, has a melt down or two or needs "quiet time". Right now the children we invite over just go and play with Mikayla (Michael's twin sister). Michael really wants friends, he is trying. I understand your worries, I'm sure a lot of moms with autistic children also feel the same way.

  2. Thanks for your is something that weighs heavily on me. With autism prevalence as it is, I have several neighbors with autistic children who are young teens and I see how much they want to have friends and can just imagine that being Ryan one day. Good luck with your children...