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Friendship isn't so obvious when you're on the spectrum

It’s taken me most of my adult life to really understand friendship. Even then, I don’t feel like I really understand more than the most basic of concepts. I'm sure it’s easy for other people but for me, the lines between friend, acquaintance, user and colleague are all very blurred and I often can’t tell one from the other.

 In my early years, long before I understood what Asperger’s syndrome was, I used to think that my problems making friends were all down to my hearing loss. After all, I reasoned, If I couldn't hear people well enough to converse easily, then obviously my friend-making and friend-keeping skills would suffer. 

This would have been a great theory if I hadn't lived next door to a very popular boy with a much worse hearing issue than I had.

For the first ten years of my life, that boy next door was my only friend - except of course, for my dog. When he was on holidays, and that was quite often, I would simply play by myself.  I used to be a little jealous of my friend. After all, he had lots of other friends and I was a very small part of his circle. To me though, he was my only friend, my world. 

Sitting on the table with Spot

Eventually my parents moved house and due to our mutual hearing difficulties, telephone conversations were impossible. We separated and I went quite a while without any friends at all. 

School Friends

I didn't have friends at my primary school, I had parallel players. I was obsessed with Star Wars (it was 1978 after all) and I spent many lunchtimes playing with the figures with a "friend".  After a while though, he wanted to play trucks instead.  I didn't have trucks and I wasn't interested in trucks - my special interest was Star Wars. I never brought and trucks in and eventually we stopped playing together. 

I spent my last years of primary school wandering around and talking to the girls. I related better to them because they weren't interested in football or in bashing me up.

Not long afterwards, I changed schools.  I remember a boy coming up and talking to me during a soccer match.  I hated sports but it was mandatory, so I'd just try to find a spot that I though the ball would never go to and then I'd stand and daydream. I probably seemed lonely to others but I was always happy with my thoughts.

We weren't a great soccer team but it was good for friendships

Most of the time, if anyone came up to me during soccer, it was to shout at me for not doing anything. This time however, the boy just wanted to talk. At first I was afraid because after all, he was a much bigger kid than me but he didn't seem to be trying to bully me. 

I understood bullies really well but didn't understand friends.  

The next day at school he introduced me to a bunch of "nerdy" kids in other classes and told me to play handball with them at lunchtime.

Being a good kid, I did what I was asked. After a couple of years of playing with this friend and his other friends at lunchtime, our school put out a call for library monitors and I immediately signed up. After all, I loved books and I didn't really have anything else to do with my lunchtimes.  I’d been playing handball but really I’d just been letting them win all the time because that’s what I thought they wanted. It simply didn't occur to me that I was liked “as a friend”.

When these friends found out that I’d signed up to be a library monitor, they were very annoyed that I hadn't consulted them. Again, I simply didn't understand why. The very next day, they all signed up to be library monitors with me. 

Over the years, I've lost touch with a couple but mostly these guys are still my closest friends today, 26 years after leaving school. These guys are in my absolute trust zone.  Of course, I've met lots of other people in the workplace, in my neighbourhood, at university and on Facebook since then and each time I've been surprised to have been asked to go to places with them. I rarely do though because I always feel so uncertain.

It's not that I don't care for these people deeply, it's just that for me, the line between friend and colleague  is so unclear that I never know what I'm doing. I have no idea of what is and isn't appropriate or when someone is being nice to me because they like me - and not just for their own reasons.  

Having friends when you have Asperger's syndrome is like walking around in the dark and not knowing whether the next thing you bump into is going to be hard or soft - or whether it is going to shatter into a thousand pieces.


Anonymous said…
Thank you for this! This was most helpful in giving me even just a tiny peek into my son`s life!
Anonymous said…
you were lucky to get those friends...
even one friend is enough to sustain in this cruel world
Anonymous said…
I am looking for piece if mind. I have been dating a e wonderful man (46) for several months. I have been around many with autism and Asperger, so I am familiar with their manerrisms. I guess I am just looking for someone to talk to. I love him with all my heart and I have the patience of an angel, so there are no problems there.

I am a communicator and I am a very affectionate person, yes you are probably getting the picture now.He can not keep any eye contact with me, and I feel as though sometimes he doesn't hear a word I am saying, and then bring it up later like I never said anything, but at times he will start talking and go on and on. He also sometimes will just say mean things with no reason. I know he is not mean but he just seems to have no sensor.

We have certain meals on the same day every week, there is a lot of repetition with certain things.

I Love this man and just want to understand him more. I am almost 100% sure he has Aspergers but to approach him on this matter may not be an option.

Now that I have rambled on. Do you have any suggestions.
Suse said…
Oh my goodness this sounds like my son! Thanks for the insight Gavin.
Unknown said…
Thank you for this my son and I had a heart to heart about how he sits alone (out of choice) at lunch in middle school. I am going to let him read this and maybe your words will resonate better with him than mine.
Anonymous said…
Great article, shows how 'broad' ASD spectrum is. My little girl is 8, diagnosed with Aspergers and is one of the most popular girls in school. Only 2 or 3 of her friends parents know that she has Aspergers, and none of the kids at all are on to any 'differences' (except when she plays netball, one of the girls complains that she doesn't look at her, to communicate she is ready to catch the ball). On the other hand, I am not Aspergers but I am so much more contented with a very small social group of close friends as opposed to a huge social circle with very superficial interactions. I think many people (Both 'on the spectrum' or not) struggle to define relationships/friendships and some would say colleagues were friends, others not, so it is a blurry area and one that I don't think many really have a great understanding about -there's room for social error 'across the board' I think. I also think people should consider themselves socially successful if they can name one or two really close friends -a good sign you are 'ok'
Gordon said…
Thank you gavin. I could have written this myself. That line about colleagues or friends is perhaps the crux of it. The way I judge it is whether their association with me is conditional on something I am doing for them. Like the handball playing it can be a difficult judgement call. I am marrying (for the second time) next year and there is nobody to be my best man. At 46 years old I have no friends. I would quite like friends, but not having them is not upsetting me greatly. Its more of a problem for other people.
Anonymous said…
Oh my gosh I wish I had friends like this in elementary school - they all signed up to be library monitors with you! I do have life long friends beginning from junior year of high school though and I am so lucky to have them.
Enaa said… bro and i are both asperger...and other things...
now i'm a doctor...
i had friends...i think... it was weird but i simply mimiced how others behaved and cut out the bits that caused surprise...hahahah
my bro never really had friends....
that was always mor painful for my mum that for me...or my bro....
we really are totally perfectly happy left alone...
Anonymous said…
This post is invaluable (does this word truly makes sense?). Your experiences are so very similar to my own. I have 4 sons, one diagnosed 'Aspie' ( a phrase I am new to, until discovering this web site); 1, who should be diagnosed pure blood Aspie; 1 who is most definitely autistic spectrum and 1 who is only 7 but close to the diagnosis label which he so definitely doesn't is too obvious. I myself, have had many differing diagnoses, much medication and yet reading help 'manuals' on Autistic Spectrum has lead to finding inner content for my own idiosyncratic personality much easier to achieve. This post/ web site is far better than any help the SE England NHS health authorities have ever offered our family. The comments also so insightful both for myself and as a parent. Thank you.
H said…
I have just recently discovered that my daughter's difficulty with friends is because of her Aspergers. It was hard to accept for me. But now that I realize she's fine with it I'm the one that needs to let it go. Also there are a few friends in her life that she has clung to and if I get retrospective about it, she met those friends during major changes in her life. I believe this has something to do with helping her cope. I was not aware of her Aspergers at the time. Now it makes perfect sense why these particular kids are so important to her when she doesn't otherwise care to have friends at all.
H said…
I have just recently discovered that my daughter's difficulty with friends is because of her Aspergers. It was hard to accept for me. But now that I realize she's fine with it I'm the one that needs to let it go. Also there are a few friends in her life that she has clung to and if I get retrospective about it, she met those friends during major changes in her life. I believe this has something to do with helping her cope. I was not aware of her Aspergers at the time. Now it makes perfect sense why these particular kids are so important to her when she doesn't otherwise care to have friends at all.
First of all, thank you for this blog! I'm soon 29 and got a diagnosis for Aspergers about a month ago, and it's so refreshing to read about the syndrome from a person who actually has it.

I wanted to comment on this post because the sentence "the lines between friend, acquaintance, user and colleague are all very blurred and I often can’t tell one from the other" hit me strong. I've never noticed, but if I had to make these distinctions, I would approach it from the perspective of "amount, and location of exposure" and "probable agenda", but what is lacking from all that is the feeling of the thing. It's scary to notice that a conversation with a person one calls a close friend actually doesn't feel much different from one had with a stranger in a park. The only reason why I might consider the friend a special case is that I feel more at ease with him, which is now perhaps explained by it being easier to process the situation with a person I already know, but it's not some magical friendship-feel of the thing.

I've always been considered a social person who, in a group, notices and takes care of everyone. The first part is explained by me learning social skills from early on and continuing to do so. Even now I can find a dozen books on conversational skills, reading body language and empathy in my apartment, some of them bought some fifteen years ago, others just months before today.

But it's eerie to think that the second part, noticing everyone equally (which is one reason why I've been called empathetic) might actually be partly because people in different "categories" just don't feel any different from each other, no more or less scary than anyone else.

Unknown said…
Thank you for this!

You should certainly consider yourself lucky to have held on to so many friends from your school years. I only made it out with one, who I, too, was never really sure was my friend or not. But he told me enough times over the years he thought I was cool, and he always called me and thought of things to say (mostly about Consumer Reports, I kid you not), and I thought he was quirky and cool, so here we are!

As an Aspie, this posts also reminds me of one time in elementary school when a 'friend' of mine called me on the telephone. (I, like you, had no way of labeling her in my mind and didn't really think about her.) I was alarmed when my mom handed me the phone -- "Why is Lauren calling me??" I wondered in fear and disbelief. I took the phone, and heard her say, "Hi, how are you?"
I replied, "I'm fine. [a pause] So why did you call?"
Nowadays, I imagine she was flustered at my response, but all I remember are her words. "Oh, I just called to talk."
"Why would you do that??" I demanded. "What do you want to talk about? You have nothing to say! Don't call if you have nothing to say; that's a waste of time!"
I can only imagine she hung up the phone soon after, and I don't remember her calling me again. My young Aspie brain just didn't understand what a 'friend' was, or what they did, or, -least of all!- that Lauren was my friend and was showing that by calling me, just because.

Let the Aspies in your life know that, even if they don't feel it, if someone else is reaching out to them for apparently no reason at all, they are probably a friend :)
Dan said…
Mel Ingram said:

"Let the Aspies in your life know that, even if they don't feel it, if someone else is reaching out to them for apparently no reason at all, they are probably a friend :)"

It would be nice, and simplify things greatly, if they would do this.

For my part I am never sure of how to characterise people who I interact with. Are they chatting with me and smiling because they are being polite? Or do they actually like me? It seems altogether too weird to ask them "are we friends?" or "what do you actually think of me?", and especially with people I'm going to be working with or seeing again I don't want them to think I'm some sort of weirdo, so I tend to affect a sort of vague geniality, and probably seem a little distant.

It would be nice if people would come out and say "I'd like to be your friend". They so rarely seem to do it.
Unknown said…
I'm a highschooler that deals with aspergers. I approximately have a total of zero friends at the moment, which is not entirely of my own choosing.Its just that the little social ques and nuances are so unbelievably difficult to master. Sometimes I hate being an aspergian ; just feels like more trouble than it's worth.

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