What makes a friendship? Sesame Street makes it sound so easy. You swing on the swing together, you play chase together, and then you are friends! Some people need to join in the fun at their own pace, but everyone does want to join in the fun. Beautiful and true. If you are in preschool.
Sam is a teenager. By the time kids reach middle school, the nature of friendship has started to change. Swings and chase have been replaced by sports, clubs, movies and (for girls, at least) interminable conversations about relationships. What then? How do other kids form a friendship with a child who only wants to relay facts about an obscure topic?
This is a difficult subject for me to write about, because friendship and loneliness weigh heavily on Sam’s mind these days. When she is hurting, I am hurting too, so it’s hard. More than that, however, I worry about her capacity to ever form mature friendships. That is a difficult fear to stare in the face. Writing has the power to reify our shadowy ruminations, and some of those ruminations we’d prefer not to own. But this blog is about honesty, so here goes.
On Halloween Sam had a friend spend the night. This girl, also autistic, has reciprocated sleepovers with Sam a couple of times a year for six or seven years. The sleepovers are a bit odd to me, because Sam walks off to pet her cats, and the other girl sits on the couch, looking into space. I either suggest that Sam return to her friend, or I suggest that the other girl follow Sam to her room with the cats. I encourage the two to play board games and they always comply, but neither one of them initiates any activity other than petting the cats. They’ve referred to each other as best friends for years. They attend the same high school, and according to the resource teachers, they periodically greet each other. They almost never engage in a conversation.
After this sleepover, Sam curled up in bed, exhausted from the sleepover and the frenetic activity of Kelly and the three friends who spent the night with her for Halloween. Sam lamented, “It’s hard when you and your friend don’t have anything in common anymore.” Sam was dismayed that she had tried to show the other girl pictures of dresses from the nineteenth century, and the other girl was not interested. Truthfully, I don’t know that the two girls ever had that much in common, and I think the real issue was the contrast between Sam and Kelly’s sleepovers. After an intense candy swap, Kelly and her friends talked late into the night. In the morning they sat down to a raucous breakfast involving a lot of whipped cream, and then someone had the idea to play a game; the four decided to play Apples to Apples. Sam and her friend played Scrabble silently, per my suggestion, while Kelly and her friends easily and volubly enjoyed each other’s company. I doubt Sam would want such a fast-paced engagement, but I think she realized that her own sleepover did not include such laughter. She eventually screamed at Kelly for laughing at her, even though Kelly was focused on her own activity. Clearly she was distressed about something; I suspect it was jealousy of her sister.
Later that morning, with Sam curled up in bed, we talked about her explosion toward Kelly. That’s when she blurted out that she didn’t feel like she and the other girl were friends anymore, that she didn’t know whom to call a friend. I suggested to Sam that she text Tony, a boy from school. Tony, who also has autism, graduated in June and now attends college. He had been very helpful to Sam when she started high school, and they had even gone to lunch and a museum earlier this summer. Maybe she’d like to ask him how college is going? She responded that she would text him, because she wondered how long he traveled each day to reach his new school. Take a deep breath, Barb.
I asked Sam whether she was more interested in the length of Tony’s train ride or his experience in college. She answered, “The train trip.” I wanted to shake her. I wanted to scream, “No wonder you don’t have friends! Stop complaining about being lonely. If all you want is a train schedule, look on the Internet!”
I did not say any of that, but I did tell her that a report on the duration of a train trip is not a friendship; it’s a piece of information. If she is really more interested in the logistics of his ride into the city than in his perceptions of college, then perhaps a friendship with Tony is not something she wants. Sam said that she does want to be Tony’s friend, and she will ask him about college. It’s been two weeks now, and she has not contacted him.
The thing is, what is a friendship if someone is instructing you on how to “appear to be” interested in your companion, even though you aren’t? I understand how this strategy might be beneficial at a lunch table, but lunch table talk does not constitute a friendship. If Sam learns to feign an interest in other people she will be more socially adept, but she won’t feel the warmth of a genuine connection.
We have tried many venues that could lead to friendships. Sam participated in math club and swam on a team in middle school. Her freshman year of high school she joined the Jewish club, the evangelical Christian club, the cultural diversity club, the chemistry club, and the knitting club. By half way through the year only one of these clubs was still meeting, and she did not rejoin that as a sophomore. Sophomore year she tried the swim team but only attended practice sporadically. The one activity she finally agreed to join was an improv comedy class for high school students with ASD. She enjoyed it and will take part again when it restarts in January, but she is not looking forward to reuniting with any of the other students. She’s not dreading it; she’s just neutral. They are merely other participants. Every summer she attends a wonderful camp in Wisconsin for kids with social communication challenges (read: autism). Her cabin mates have been the same for four years. The counselors report to me that she is friendly, considerate and enthusiastic, but “she doesn’t seem to really connect with anyone.” On the long drive home she provides a full report of every camper and counselor’s pets. Once the pet report is finished, she has nothing left to tell me about the other campers.
One of Sam’s therapists says we need to teach her about friendship. Her other therapist thinks she claims to care most about logistics because she’s afraid of intimacy with people outside of the family. Maybe one or both of them are right. I don’t know. I guess for me the biggest challenge is that I don’t understand what friendship means for her. For me it’s a connection of mutual trust, encouragement and camaraderie that feels integral to my soul. For Sam right now it seems like it’s finding out the names of each other’s pets. If another student has a pet and is also a vegetarian, that’s a bonus. Yet it never leads to a connection outside of the class assignment that led them to speak in the first place.
I think it would be okay with me if Sam were okay with this, but she says she’s lonely. I tell her that other people in the world are passionate about nineteenth century clothing, as evidenced by the websites, and that she will find these people when she’s not constrained by high school. But she’s met many vegetarians and many people who love their pets. She feels connected to their pets, not them. Why will people with a passion for historical costuming be any different? Will she care about getting to know the people or about getting to know their clothing?
I wish I understood what she wants and what she needs. I always worry about imputing to her my own needs and desires, sort of like a neurotypical-morphism (akin to anthropomorphism) that may reflect a lack of imagination on my part. In those moments I think that she will eventually build successful friendships even if I’m flummoxed by the idea that they could be satisfying. Yet I also watch and listen to her after Kelly’s friends leave, and I know she’s not satisfied with what she has. I wish I knew how to help her find what she wants. I wish I knew what she wants.