Moving Forward When Your ASD Child Loses His Only Friend
Losing a Friend Can Be Devastating
Listening to Your Child Can Be the Biggest Piece in Finding Solutions
It seemed to happen at least once a year in elementary school. My son would come home in tears telling me that his one friend had deserted him. It was devastating and difficult for my high-functioning, autistic child to understand. Other parents of typical children would tell me that it was a part of growing up, that their own children experienced the same thing. But parents of ASD kids know that it’s not the same. My son would spend days refusing to go to school and nights crying over a lost friend. Many ASD children only connect with one friend at a time so when that friend is gone, they can become depressed and lonely. Here are a few steps that parents can take to help their child through the loss, and hopefully find a new friend.
Investigate: The first step to take when your ASD child tells you that he lost his friend is to figure out what happened. Sometimes simple misunderstandings can lead to a break in friendship. I can remember my son losing a friend because he laughed at an inappropriate time and his friend thought he was being mean. This confused my son who cannot discern emotions from facial expressions. Once I talked to his friend’s mother and explained, we were able to get the boys back together. Other times the investigation may lead to a dead end. Especially as children head into middle school, the problems are not always that simple. Children begin to volley for acceptance and sometimes that means being a part of a new group and leaving behind old friends. I have also found that my son’s perceptions are not always accurate and that he may believe that he has no friends when he really does. Let the information lead you in either helping to mend the friendship or helping your child move on.
Listen: In your child’s time of crisis, find time to listen. Even if you discover that his side of the story is not accurate, let him tell you without reaction. Allowing your child to vent and release his emotions will help with the internal anxiety that he feels. Let him know that you understand and that it’s okay to feel angry or sad. By being a good listener, you may find new clues to what went wrong in the friendship and be able to better handle the situation. Try not to volunteer solutions right away. I have found that my child is not open to solutions when consumed with sadness or anger. Wait for the storm to pass even if it takes several days. Above all, validate his feelings and help him understand that he are not alone.
Action: In many cases, once I had all the information, I could put a plan into action. If I felt that there was a simple misunderstanding, I would plan an event for the two boys, either an afternoon of bowling or an ice cream outing. This gave them an opportunity to start over and me a chance to talk openly about ASD. I have always found that once my son’s friends understood a little more about autism, they were able to process my son’s actions better. But there are times when mending a friendship is not possible and finding new friends can be difficult. ASD children are sometimes wary of new friendships because they are afraid of losing them. Talk to your child’s teacher. They have insight into the relationships going on in the classroom. The teacher may be able to encourage a new friendship or help you find a good match to encourage outside of school. The social worker can also help. Suggest the formation of a small group to help bring compatible children together. They can play games or talk about their interests in this setting. Once your child comes home talking about a new friend, make a play date. I always get to know the other parents and help them understand autism. My son has had the same friend now for six years and they are like brothers. I attribute their success on the common interests that they have and his friend’s willingness to accept my son as he is. These friends are rare but they do exist.
As parents of ASD children, our job is a tough one. One of the biggest issues that we face is our children’s friendships. It takes so much energy to get to the heart of problems and then more energy to help solve them. I worry about my son being alone or depressed as he gets older, or falling into the wrong crowd in his desperation to have friends. But, to this point, we’ve done okay and even in high school, he’s keeping on track. He has two good friends and that’s enough. They are the kind of friends who will be there no matter what and who will not judge. How many of us can say we have even one friend like that?