How to #BeAFriend to a young person with autism

Victoria Mitchell, a student social worker training at Brunel University, was on placement at Friendship Works for six months. During her time here, she spent some time researching autism and how to befriend and support a child affected by it. We are sharing her findings as part of our #BeAFriend campaign.

This blog presents the reader with a guide on how to befriend a person with autism and to make them feel more comfortable and included within a society that often leaves them out.

The young people Friendship Works support have often had a very difficult start in life. This can make coping with emotions and forming bonds with others difficult. Some the children we support are also on the autistic spectrum, which can further exacerbate these difficulties. People on the autistic spectrum generally struggle to communicate their own feelings or to understand the emotions of others. They find it more difficult to pick up and interpret non-verbal clues that most of us use to understand the world around us.

Many young people with autism struggle to make friends because they don’t always know how to interact with those around them. Many tasks and elements of everyday life that others find easy can be difficult and frustrating for children and young people with autistic traits.

A very important objective of Friendship Works mentoring service is to provide a child with a friendship mentor who will support their social and emotional development.  Our hope is that a safe, supportive friendship between a child and their mentor will lead to an increased ability to understand, manage and express feelings, to show empathy and to make and maintain positive relationships and attachments to others.  For mentors matched with a child on the autistic spectrum, it can be more challenging to support development in this area, but it is even more crucial.

You don’t need to have any specialist training to befriend a child with autism, but can be helpful to think about the best way to build that friendship.

Think about it this way: What if you had to learn social rules that everyone else seemed to already know? What if you consistently had to work at understanding any emotions, even if this understanding did not help? What if you did not know what to do when you were feeling empathetic, embarrassed, or jealous? What if you had to constantly struggle to figure out how those around you felt and thought, even if they directly told you?

Many of the questions above are issues that people with autism may struggle with on a daily basis. Many autistic people would love to have friends and to be included, but they may not know how. Here are some ideas that may be useful to you when befriending a person with autism and forming with them a lasting friendship and bond:

1)      Take the initiative to include him/her. They may desperately want to be included but may not know how to ask to do an activity. Be specific about suggestions. Give them options that they can thoroughly understand so that they have the opportunity to make informed decisions.

2)      Find common interests with them. It is easier to share or talk about something you both like to do. They may need this common interest to hold onto throughout their friendship with you. This can act as a tool for them to access when they feel awkward with silence, under pressure or not sure about how to socially interact with those around them.

3)      Be persistent while being patient. It may take more time for a person with autism to respond than it does for others. This does not mean that they are not interested in you or the activity you are doing, so please do not feel disheartened.

4)      Communicate very clearly. Try to speak at a reasonable speed and volume. Use short sentences, gestures, pictures, and facial expressions. All of these may help them better understand what you are communicating. Try to speak literally. They may not understand common figures of speech, such as ‘it’s raining cats and dogs!’ They may not understand that it is just a figure of speech, and may become very frustrated.

5)      Remember that they may suffer from sensory sensitivity. They may feel uncomfortable in certain situations or crowds. Ask them if they are okay. Sometimes, they just need a break. This does not necessarily mean they want to end the activity, so do not automatically assume that.

6)      Give them feedback. If they do or say something that you feel is inappropriate, it is okay to say so nicely. However, it is best to give suggestions on the right thing to do. Simply stating that it is not okay to do something is not enough. You could suggest something they could do in the future to help them better understand the situation and their actions.

I hope you have found this blog useful. If you are interested in becoming a friend to a young person with autism, please visit the Volunteer section for more information. We would love to hear from you and greatly appreciate your interest in becoming a mentor.

Some content of this blog, and the above list have been adapted from information on these sites: