Social isolation and loneliness are a current focus of research, linking a number of physical and psychological symptoms, including heart disease and depression. It is clear that having friends and being socially connected have far-reaching positive effects. However, friendship doesn’t come easily for all people and is commonly considered to be especially complicated among autistic people.
Last year in Asheville, NC, the topic of the fourth annual Autism and the Pursuit of Happiness Conference was “relationships”. Jade McWilliams (autistic activist and advocate) and I (autism professional and ally) being close friends ourselves, were curious. We decided to get information about friendship directly from as many autistic and non-autistic teens and adults as we could before the conference.
We developed a twenty-item questionnaire and distributed it thoroughly in the local Asheville, NC community and online through email contacts and social media. We invited groups of people connected through autism – individuals, families, friends – and people whose lives were mostly untouched by autism, to respond to the questionnaire. We wanted to get answers directly from as many people as possible about their views and experiences with friends. We tried to cover a broad range of issues about where, when, who, and how people made friends; if they had friends; how many friends, online vs. in-person friendships, how do you know if someone is a friend and more. We kept it brief enough to be completed within five minutes, so as to encourage participation. Due to the fact that we planned to present our findings at the upcoming conference, we limited the responses to a six-week period of time. We received 275 responses from (self-identified) autistic people, and 444 responses from (self-identified) non-autistic people. Many respondents submitted written comments at the end. In this article, I am going to discuss one particular question and related responses.
We asked this question: “Do you know (is it clear to you) if a “friend” is a true friend?
Most of the 444 respondents (91.9 % (blue) who identified themselves as not autistic indicated that yes, they usually can tell if someone is a true friend or not. Only 6.3% (orange) of this group indicated that they didn’t know or aren’t sure, and an exceedingly small percentage, 2% (red) said that they usually could not tell if someone was a true friend or not.
Of the 275 autistic respondents, only 25.9% (blue) answered that they usually can tell if someone is a true friend. A larger group, 39.4% (orange) indicated that they don’t know, or aren’t sure, and the remaining 34.7% (red) indicated that they usually could not tell if someone was a true friend.
“I never know when one is truly my friend or not, so I try to just enjoy the time I get with someone before they hurt me or I annoy them,” was a written comment by one of the autistic respondents. It represented a common sentiment expressed by many others in their written comments.
Our survey found that most autistic respondents were very aware that they had trouble discerning whether someone was a true friend. I believe that teachers, therapists, and parents have unintentionally muddied the waters when they refer to everyone in the classroom or school as “friends”. There you have it – the word “friend” is used so widely and generally; it offers no specific assistance for autistic children who need accurate information. The truth is…not all classmates or all people in the same environment are real friends. Not being able to tell if someone is a real friend makes it more possible that a person will eventually – and repeatedly – find themselves in unsafe situations.
We received many comments from non-autistic people about how they know someone is a true friend. A sampling of written explanations included the following:
“Friends are like family.”
“Friendship is something I feel from the heart…We may have many similarities or differences, it does not really matter, just that my heart says, “friend”. I am rarely disappointed in the outcome. “
“A true friend is like sunshine on a cloudy day.”
These comments are beautiful and poetic, but they offer no guidelines to know if someone is a real friend or not. Being the teacher that I am, it was clear to me that there needs to be some way, like a screening tool, which could be used by a teen or adult when wondering about a particular person at work or somewhere else in their life.
Consequently, I produced a 5-item checklist – The Friendship Quality Checklist – to help teens and adults think about – and analyze whether someone is a true friend. After we presented this checklist at the conference, an autistic woman who was the keynote speaker that year exclaimed that she wished she had this tool to refer to when dealing recently with a “supposed” friend – and encouraged me to distribute it to help others.
I invite you, autistic and not autistic, to try this out when thinking about people in your life and let me know if it holds true. Does it help you clarify a relationship that you have wondered about? Does it help you identify true friends from others? Were there particular aspects that were most helpful? Was it not helpful at all? I invite you to contact me with your comments after using this checklist, via my website catherinefaherty.com.
The Friendship Quality Checklist* Is this person a real friend?
Why use this checklist? You may want to refer to this checklist if you are concerned about a relationship with someone at work, or somewhere else in your life. This checklist may help you figure out whether a person is “a real friend”. You are to read this checklist when you are alone, or with a trusted person, a safe person whom you trust completely. (It is not meant to be read with the “friend” you are wondering about.)
Directions: Check the box if your answer is “yes”. If you check all five boxes, then the chances are good that the person is really a friend. If you aren’t sure about one or more of them, or if there are boxes that aren’t checked as “yes”, then it may indicate that the person may not be a “real” friend – or that you need some help figuring it out. You may choose to show this checklist to a trusted person (someone different than the person in question) for help.
- You are connected. Do you spend time with this person on a regular basis? “Regular basis” could be daily, weekly, monthly, or perhaps once or twice per year. It can be in person, or online.
- You feel an inner spark of happiness. Do you enjoy being with this person? Does it feel good to you, when you are together, in person or online? Are you happy when you are together? Some people describe this feeling as “an inner spark of happiness”.
- This relationship is sustainable and reciprocal. Do you have healthy and equal power in this relationship? Are you 100% safe (emotionally, intellectually, physically)? Do you feel safe with this person?
- This relationship inspires acceptance. Are you comfortable “being yourself” when you are with this person? Are you comfortable with “who this person is”?
- This relationship is life-changing, in a good way. Does this relationship improve the quality of your life – makes your life better in some way?
*Everyone…individuals, teachers, parents, therapists, bloggers: You are welcome to use this checklist for your personal use. If you want to publish or share it in any form (hard copy or electronic) please contact me first for permission.Thank you, Catherine Faherty