Question from a mother: How is your social life? My autistic son is struggling
By most people’s standards, my social life is seemingly nonexistent. I only have a few online friends left who message me a few times per year, and I lost my last physical friend a few months ago.
And yet I am not struggling. It was a bit painful losing a best friend, but I honestly have so much to do that I don’t have much time to maintain social relationships anyway.
I also keep my social life small so that it is manageable; I wouldn’t be able to keep up with too many social components.
As a kid, my tendency was to sit alone to draw or read. My parents felt it was important for me to be social, however; to engage with others and maintain friendships. They were probably right.
But I didn’t have much care for it myself. My parents often told me—practically forced me—to call one of my friends and go do something with them. I did, but it was never voluntary. Effectively I required guidance to maintain my friendships.
Without that guidance, not much would be happening in the social domain.
As I hit puberty, however, I started engaging with other people more. I had school friends, I had a friend I would often go to after school, I had friends I would go out with every weekend, and I would talk online with a myriad of people from all over the world.
Only part of this concerned social engagement, however. I really enjoyed exchanging knowledge and ideas with others. That is still what I like to do most today. No social engagement is necessary for that, although it does make engagement, in general, more smooth.
Often people would engage with me because they liked me, which often had something to do with my eccentricities, which may have been cultivated by getting plenty of alone-time. In other words, if social life is not deemed to be required for an autistic person, it may be conducive to just let them do what they want to do; perhaps later in life, they want to seek out engagement with others themselves.
Friends without expectations
Over the years friends have come and gone for various reasons, which I suppose is only natural, and partially a matter of circumstances. Some friends I kept for quite some years, which may be because they understood me pretty well, and were thus more forgiving of some of my proclivities.
For example, they would come to understand that I am not very likely to call them. But if they call me, I can be an excellent friend. Also, their friends would tend to perceive me as an oddball and had a hard time understanding my behavior, but once they hung out with me for a while they always indicated liking me. In other words, people just have to look beyond the eccentricities, and learn what a person is about.
Despite my lack of social motivation, people would come to appreciate me for being me, and staying true to being me without being influenced by others.
I have to wonder to what degree your son actually struggles, and to what degree you just perceive him to struggle. Does he report social challenges, or is he just not socially motivated?
From a neurotypical perspective it can seem that an autistic person is struggling, but struggling with what exactly?
- Are there struggles in making and maintaining relationships?
- Or are there struggles with trying to adhere to a neurotypical framework of social engagement?
So the underlying question is, what does your son want? What are his motivations? Does he have challenges living up to the social expectations of others, or does he want to engage socially but is unable to do so?
In my experience it tends to be a mix of both, however, I am quite sure my parents were a lot more concerned with my social life than I was. No, I didn’t want to be friendless, but I didn’t really want to maintain a lot of relationships, either. Realistically, I did just fine drawing and reading on my own. In fact, 80% of the time it was what I preferred.
I just wasn’t interested in social engagement to a degree others were.
There is a so-called social motivation theory of autism, which posits that social motivation deficits play an essential role in autism. Studies have confirmed this theory:The social motivation theory of autism
We conclude that ASD can be construed as an extreme case of diminished social motivation and, as such, provides a powerful model to understand humans’ intrinsic drive to seek acceptance and avoid rejection.
A lot of autistic people will also have social anxiety. This ought to be addressed in order to improve the quality of life. But in my experience, my lack of social motivation has never been an issue. I’ve practiced social skills and came to understand social and societal expectations better, as well as social conventions. Understanding social situations is in my best interest, but I never felt like I needed to work on my motivation.
It may be true that I would have had a richer social life—which may have had a positive influence on my professional life—if I had spent more time cultivating it, but my lack of motivation I perceive as a fact rather than a problem. I have my frustrations when it comes to my professional life, but I am still working on it, and I enjoy the progress I am making.
Note that while others are engaged in small talk, I am doing things that I deem a lot more important than social engagement.
People might say I am “in my own little world”, which has some validity. That’s how I like it.
First, establish if your son is genuinely struggling, or from your perspective isn’t engaging enough socially. If it’s the latter, there may not be a genuine problem, as the lack of social motivation is inherent to autism, so you may have to change how you view autism, and acknowledge your son’s motivations and desires. His social life may remain small, but perhaps that is just how he likes it.
But it may be the case that although your son does not struggle, the lack of social engagement and the cultivation of social life is likely to be detrimental to his well-being in the future.
With a richer social life, he can get the support that he may require from friends, he will come to improve his social skills through engaging with others, he may be more likely to find a job, and in general, a richer social life can be conducive both to his personal and professional life.
All of this considered, it may be a good idea to offer your son some guidance, and—as my parents did—tell him to call his friends now and then, or more or less force him into certain social situations so he may—with guidance if necessary—acquire more social skills, or improve upon them.
Natalie used to give her son social challenges. For example, when going to a social gathering, a challenge could be to interact with others and focus on asking questions for 30 minutes in total. As such, with each social gathering, they would focus on practicing a different social skill.
As a result, the kid has a much richer social life than I did (and do), his social skills are superior to mine, and he doesn’t have the same anxiety engaging with others as I have. Truth be told I am probably more autistic than he is, so you may not have the same success with every autistic; on the other hand, he may just have practiced his social skills to a degree he only appears to be less autistic. It’s near-impossible to know which it is without forcing him through the diagnostic process.
Either way, I am quite certain that if my parents didn’t offer some guidance and forced me into certain social situations, I would be worse off today; I would likely have become even more of a recluse, and with more obvious autism symptomatology.
If however your son struggles with his lack of social motivation—meaning he wants a richer social life in principle but lacks the motivation to establish/maintain it—then perhaps pharmacological treatment is worth considering.
For example, by administering oxytocin—a hormone that plays a role in social bonding—social behavior can be promoted in autistic people:Promoting social behavior with oxytocin in high-functioning autism spectrum disorders
Under oxytocin, patients respond more strongly to others and exhibit more appropriate social behavior and affect, suggesting a therapeutic potential of oxytocin through its action on a core dimension of autism.
Lastly, it may be conducive for your son to find a partner who is more engaged socially. That’s what happened to me. Even though Natalie is autistic herself, she acts as my social buffer, and we compensate for each other’s deficits.
She has engagement with people covered, so I can focus on the research. The same goes for the design studio I worked for; my colleagues operated the phones and had contact with clients, so I could focus solely on design—which is exactly what I wanted. I may have missed out on practicing social skills, but perhaps social engagement is better left to those who like it and are good at it, so I can cultivate other skills.
Perhaps we should all focus more on cultivating our gifts, rather than trying to keep up with others in areas where we show deficits.