“I want to find friends who really want to hang out with me. Not just people who are nice, but people who make me feel like an integral part of their group.”
Parents, teachers, and administrators teach kindness and inclusion in formal and informal ways. They encourage social interactions via playdates and birthday invites extended to entire classes or sports teams. They also might encourage the sharing of toys or lunch items. Schools also implement anti-bullying programs that administer negative consequences for harassment or exclusivity and positive rewards for inclusive actions. These are all positive steps to building a foundation for an inclusive experience.
But it’s not enough to be added to a list of invitees or able to survive the school hallways without being harassed. Friendships don’t magically form in the absence of bullying. Although society can learn to accommodate Autistic people to make them more comfortable in social situations, this doesn’t necessarily facilitate the formation of friendships. Meaningful social interaction is more nuanced and requires regular substantive engagement. Below are some suggestions for finding “real” friends based on recommendations from Autistic people who have navigated the social scene in schools.
How to determine if your friends are “real”
- You’ve been asked to share your contact information. Someone might ask for your cell phone number or email address, for example. The alternative (less desirable situation) might be finding out that a group chat has already existed for a while and then having to ask to be added to it. It’s nice to be invited to a group chat rather than having to ask to join and watch your “friends” hesitate as they consider if you are worthy of entering their ongoing conversation.
- There is a balanced conversation. A good conversation balance has discussion initiated by both people somewhat equally. If you have to start the conversation all the time, then you might start to feel like the other person doesn’t enjoy being able to contact you as much as a real friend would. There should be a willingness to communicate without the feeling that one has to respond only in order to satisfy the other person.
- Your friends have asked you about ways they can be accommodating. Real friends will be interested in making accommodations that will make you more likely to spend time with them. They might ask you about accommodations ahead of time or make plans they know you are more likely to feel comfortable with because they have taken the time to get to know you and your needs/preferences.
- You’ve been invited to activities or just to hang out. Sometimes it’s unclear if you are being invited to activities or if you are just an add-on. Below is an example from an Autistic teenager: I remember when some of my friends were making plans to go to the mall. This was in our group chat of 18 people. I kept asking around, mainly because I didn’t know if I was invited to come with them or if I would have disrupted their vibe. At least let me know if I’m specifically invited next time! If you’re going to invite someone, especially someone like me who may not relate to everyone else that well, please send them a direct message. That way they know they were specifically invited.
How/Where to find “real” friends
- Gatherings of shared interests. Mutual interests bring people together because they provide a common ground for connection, a sense of belonging, and opportunities to learn and build friendships.
- Classes in school. You will possibly have many different groups of people you meet with on a regular basis at school. These people will naturally share many common experiences and workloads. You will have people to talk to about assignments, tests, classwork, due dates, and studying.
- Mutual connections. Another way to meet potential friends is through mutual connections. People who know you might be able to introduce you to others whom they think you will get along well with.
- Organized school/social events. School dances, football games, basketball games, retreats, etc. These events have a lot of different people who attend and they offer you some levels of freedom since there isn’t a structured schedule and most of the attendees can socialize whenever and with whomever they choose.
- Online communities. The internet has made it easier than ever to connect with people from all over the world. This has led to a proliferation of online communities, where people can find others with similar interests and shared experiences. While there are some risks associated with online interactions, there are also many opportunities to connect with positive and supportive people who can provide a sense of belonging and support for people who may feel isolated or marginalized.
Feeling included is essential for many people. A sense of belonging arises when you can freely express yourself without fear of interrupting something seemingly more important. People yearn for a space where their words are valued and not perceived as a waste of time. The ability to engage in meaningful conversations without being dismissed or overlooked makes people feel welcomed and accepted. This isn’t juvenile attention-seeking behavior, but rather a desire to be treated with respect and consideration, fostering an environment where all voices are heard and appreciated. Creating such an inclusive atmosphere is a powerful way to build connection, understanding, and empathy among individuals, ultimately leading to stronger relationships and a more harmonious community. If you are on the search for “real” friends, hopefully you can continue to have the stamina and support system to take advantage of new social opportunities and keep making yourself available to forming new friendships.