Autistic Perspectives on Peer Interaction

Question: As a child, how did seeing a group of children your age make you feel? Did you feel like you wanted to be a part of the group but didn’t know how, or were you okay with not being a part of the group? I am asking because, as parents, we try a lot to increase social interaction of our kids, but I wonder if it causes them anxiety by any chance?

Spriha Modi: All of this has been true for me – I was always able to get along with different types of people, but as soon as group dynamics came into play I’d find myself on the outside – I’d often feel like I want to be a part of it, but couldn’t really get through to the group in a way that they’d understand – because I came across as different or odd, I’d often be on my own – sometimes I’d be part of a group but the other group members would have better connection with each other than with me – definitely caused anxiety and stress – over the years what I’ve learned is that social skills are important to develop, but forcing someone to socialize with others when others don’t see your value can act in unproductive ways – I now have a bunch of people I count on as my support system, and all of them see me for me which makes it easier to interact.

Preeti Dixit: Group dynamics were a mystery to me. I wanted to be a part of the group but didn’t know how. I always felt like I was on the outside looking in and could and it made me feel very lonely. I preferred one on one interactions to group interactions and had one or two close friends growing up but the moment it came to being a part of a group, I would freeze. It also caused me severe anxiety to be a part of the group because I was always the odd one out and made fun of by my peers, so I didn’t enjoy being part if a group even though I longed to belong.

Navin Israni: I have always wanted to be a part of a group ever since I was a kid. But now as an adult I realized that being in a crowded group is useless. I have been ignored at best and bullied at worst in crowded groups. I don’t want to be a part of a group. I want the feeling of belonging. If that feeling comes with a single person, it’s great. If it comes from a group, great. If you want your kid to be socially active, don’t assume they’re going to love being in groups. Let them be alone with a less number of friends if that’s what they prefer. An ideal situation would be a group that shares your child’s special interest. So if they like doing an activity, don’t push them into random groups. Encourage them to find groups where they can see, do, and learn from other kids engage in their special interests. Or better yet, find such groups for them. So they can figure out socializing on their own while getting that all important feeling of belonging.

Aalap Deboor: For me, seeing and mingling with a bunch of complete strangers as a kid was difficult. It still is. As more people have pointed out, identifying and playing to group dynamics is difficult. There’s always an unspoken leader in NT circles who sets the tone of communication, decides what’s ok and what’s not, and has their “inner circle” within the group to navigate the group’s power structure (I’ve noticed this happen in groups of kids as young as 7 or 8). I could to a certain extent make sense of this power dynamic, but never really understood the purpose of its existence. Often, an NT friend who’s more ‘themselves’ with you when it’s just the two of you will suddenly act differently amidst a group of other kids. They might probably ignore you or pretend they don’t know you too well. And this will catch you off guard but the friend is only playing to the new dynamics of the group they’re in. Often, being liked by the leader will mean you’re liked by everyone else. Other times, even if others like you and the leader doesn’t, you’ll have a hard time getting by. I find this is something that NTs adapt to very instinctively. Some of us might get it, too, but struggle to understand the reason why this is the way these things work. I still don’t get it, btw.

Question: Why do autistic children seem comfortable interacting with elders but not with peers?

Preeti Dixit: I personally think it’s because elders are patient with us, kind to us and accommodate us. I was very close with my grandfather growing up because he used to play with me the way I wanted and answered all my questions patiently. I felt safe and comfortable in his calm presence unlike in the presence of other children which I found very chaotic and overwhelming.

Navin Israni: Elders are not rushed in doing things. They go slow and prioritize comfort above anything else. This gives us a sense of comfort. If Autistics are rushed, they tend to get disoriented because we don’t get enough time to form our thoughts. That’s my theory.

Rishabh Birla: We have very formal clear communication with elders. There are no or less vague things (like metaphors etc), so it’s easier for us to understand and interact with them. I get along with elders as most of the topics are informational – like deep topics, less for emotional bonding. Some of the elders due to their maturity see us as we are. They are more kind and patient than peers. I was also close to my maternal grandfather. He was my best friend. Some elders also make me feel like I’m equal and included. I’m much more calm with elders as compared to peers.

Sweta Sukhani: For us, the major persistent feeling is feeling out of place… With people our age we constantly feel that. With elders since we are not supposed to belong, it helps take off that additional pressure.

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