“How do you deal with feeling like you have no friends? I usually don’t bother with trying making small talk, but the isolation makes me depressed and I want to figure out why I have no friends.” – Derek
Making genuine connections with people is challenging enough, but it can be especially hard with Aspergers. Although each person’s experience of Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) is different, there are some common social challenges that come with the territory. If you have AS and are finding it hard to make friends, this article can help you understand why.
Emotional awareness is a common challenge for people with AS, essentially making it difficult to read things like social cues (e.g. body language) and facial expressions. This can make it difficult to understand how someone is feeling, or what they are thinking, unless they explicitly tell you.
So much of human communication is non-verbal and based on the assumption that others can easily tell what we mean or what we want. For people with AS, this can feel like starting a movie halfway through: you see that something’s going on, but you’re not always sure why it’s happening, what it means, or what you should do about it.
This can also make it difficult to tell when somebody is interested in you or considers you a friend, as opposed to just someone they hang out with sometimes. All these things can pose some challenges for relationships with neurotypical people. It may not occur to them to always tell you exactly how they feel, because they assume you can read the signs.
It can help to work specifically on improving your social skills.
People with AS can also struggle with identifying, predicting, and relating to emotions. This is commonly called mind-blindness. How it plays out in everyday life is that people’s reactions can catch you completely off guard – especially when that reaction is highly emotional.
Alternatively, you might be able to (intellectually) understand why the reaction took place, while being unable to really empathize with the emotion behind it.
In other words, you might be able to rationally understand someone’s crisis, but not be able to relate to their despair. As empathy is highly valued quality in personal relationships, this can make it harder to form a connection. Particularly during hard times, people tend to expect that their friends will feel with them (empathy) or at least for them (sympathy). When this quality seems to be missing, it can be difficult to establish trust, and to convince someone that you genuinely care about their well-being.
It can help to make it a habit thinking about how you would feel if what happened to someone else would happen to you.
As I mentioned above, people with AS can experience emotional detachment and/or struggle to interpret social cues. Both issues can lead to major miscommunications that make it difficult to sustain friendships past the early stages.
You may find yourself in situations where a neurotypical person expects certain behaviors or reactions from you and feels hurt or disappointed when that doesn’t happen. Alternatively, people in your social circle can easily misinterpret your reactions, viewing them as negative or inappropriate for the situation.
Perhaps worst of all, people might think you are incapable of feeling anything at all and fail to see that you just express yourself in different ways. Any one of these scenarios can create situations where you and your potential friends can’t seem to get on the same page, and eventually just stop trying.
If you feel uncertain about how to express certain emotions, it can be helpful to explain to someone that you feel for them but don’t quite know how to express those feelings:
“I understand that this is hard for you. I’m not always good at expressing feelings, but I want you to know that I’m here for you.”
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Dealing with people is a learned skill, like any other. However, individuals with AS tend to have to work harder to pick up certain social behaviors and skills. For instance, during conversations, you may find it hard to keep an appropriate distance, show an interest in others, allow others to speak, practice active listening, or make eye contact.
These are some of the main behavioral cues that make people feel comfortable when speaking to somebody new. While neurotypical people are often socialized to adopt this behavior without a second thought, you may need to make a conscious decision to do one or all of these things each time you meet someone.
Remind yourself that everyone’s different and have different strengths in life. Even if socializing might be easier for a neurotypical person, you can still become good at it. In fact, many people with Aspergers have learned social skills simply by reading about it and practicing.
If someone seems upset about something you did, you can explain to them that even if something you did came off as a bit weird to them, you still have the best of intentions.
People tend to be understanding if you help them understand how you work. People also tend to like someone who shows that they like them.
There’s much more to language than words, but people aren’t equally attuned to things like slang, sarcasm, and different types of humor. AS can make it harder to catch on when it comes to non-literal statements and meanings. As a result, things like deadpan humor or irony might not be immediately obvious to you. You may take things literally and feel like people don’t get your humor – or that you don’t get theirs.
Almost 40% of young people on the autism spectrum struggle with clinical anxiety or an anxiety disorder. For someone who has AS and social anxiety, the combination of policing your behavior and dealing with strangers (or large groups) can feel completely overwhelming. When faced with this frustration, some people with AS get discouraged and go through social withdrawal.
Don’t be too hard on yourself. You don’t have to try to optimize your behavior every time. It’s better to socialize and make mistakes than to not socialize.
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One common characteristic of AS is having highly specific or “unusual” interests. Conversations or interactions outside of your passion(s) may not hold your attention, and you might struggle to stay engaged. Moreover, it might not occur to you to make a point of asking people about themselves or asking follow-up questions. From a stranger’s perspective, all the above can give the impression that you want to dominate the conversation or have no real interest in getting to know them.
It is not uncommon for people with AS to struggle with two-way conversations. When you’re discussing your favorite subjects, it’s easy to begin to “talk at” someone without even realizing it. Add in the difficulty of processing social cues, and perhaps not noticing when it’s time to slow down or change the subject.
In cases like these, people may want to get to know you more, but not know how to move the conversation in that direction. This can create some missed opportunities to turn once-off meetings into something more.
Here’s some advice on how to make conversation.
Some researchers have found that people with AS find it easier to engage with people a lot older or younger than themselves. It may be that these different age groups have a greater supply of certain qualities that suit your needs. For instance, a young adult with AS might find that older adults have more patience and maturity. This would understandably make it easier for them to understand you and your challenges.
Since we are usually taught to socialize in our own age groups, it’s natural to look for friends among our peers. But, if you’re struggling to find acceptance in that space, be open to making friends with people of different ages.
One of the hardest things you might deal with is the frustration of wanting to connect and feeling like you can’t. Unlike other people with many other pervasive developmental disorders, individuals with AS usually have the desire to interact. Unfortunately, social ties can seem so complicated and unpredictable that they sometimes feel impossible to maintain.
Thankfully, there are things you can do to not only feel better, but also turn your social life around. Many Asperger’s and Autism organizations have information, tips, and resources for people on the spectrum, their families and friends. If you need help, consider the following:
- The Asperger / Autism Network (AANE) provides information, support, and a sense of community for people dealing with autism spectrum disorder. They are also hosting several online meetups for people in need of social engagement and support during the quarantine. There are sessions available for teens, as well as adults.
- If you’re looking for more direct assistance, the Autism Spectrum Coalition has a directory where you can search for organizations and resources near you.
- The Autism Society also has a national helpline you can call for more information about services available in your area, at 800-328-8476.
- We have many more tips in our main guide on what to do if you have no friends.
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