Why Do Friendships Fade for So Many Autism Spectrum Parents?

Friends in conflict Many of us have close friendships that we value. Unfortunately, there is often a pattern of decline in friendships after a diagnosis of autism. Through the work I’ve done with people in therapy and my own experience of raising a child on the autism spectrum, I have found that there are several reasons for this.

A Diagnosis Changes Relationships

I often caution parents new to the diagnosis that their lives are about to completely change. After an autism diagnosis, almost nothing remains the same. Parents typically enter a grieving process while trying to navigate new doctor and therapy schedules. Maintaining friendships often becomes the least of their concerns.

Autism also has a way of weeding out “friends” who were never all that supportive in the first place. People who are overly dependent, toxic people, or those who simply drain tend to go by the wayside. You no longer have time or patience for drama. Those who don’t understand or empathize with your grief process may become angry that you don’t have time for them or accuse you of changing. “You’re just not the same person,” they might say. “I miss the old Sally.”

Sally represents myriad autism moms, especially, who continue to share the same story: “My friends just don’t get it.”

There is a “get it” factor in parenting kids with autism spectrum issues. Those who get it become part of your inner circle. Those who don’t are weeded out, often through no particular fault of their own.

Time and Energy Are Precious

Autism takes a great amount of time and energy as a parent. This is perhaps the biggest obstacle to maintaining friendships. If you work, even part-time, the challenge becomes greater. Children on the spectrum tend to miss more school than the average child due to associated health issues. Their sleep hygiene tends to be poor or more irregular. Children with autism often need constant supervision to ensure they don’t get hurt or run away. It can be overwhelming.

If you have other children in the household, it can be a struggle to maintain a balance of time with them and your child on the spectrum. There never seems to be enough of you to go around.

If there is a spouse or significant other, there is the additional challenge of nurturing that relationship.

At the end of the day, you might be so exhausted that the last thing you want to do is get on the phone to call (or return a call from) a friend.

There is a “get it” factor in parenting kids with autism spectrum issues. Those who get it become part of your inner circle. Those who don’t are weeded out, often through no particular fault of their own.

Assumptions Can Get in the Way

There are assumptions that we make about others that may or may not be true. One of the most prevalent is that people are judging us. Many autism parents’ homes are unkempt at best, and some are embarrassed to invite others into their chaos. Right or wrong, healthy or not, this is a reality for many spectrum moms in my community. Also, many children with autism don’t adapt well to others in their physical space, so some parents don’t invite others over for that reason.

Of course, parents may also assume that others don’t want to be friends anymore because it’s too much of a hassle. Let’s face it: When friends call and I can’t call back; when they invite me to events and I keep declining; when I finally do make plans but back out at the last minute, these things do not serve friendships. It may begin to appear as if I don’t want to engage, even if this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Another common assumption is that other parents don’t want their kids to socialize with children on the spectrum. This is sometimes untrue, but not universally.

The Importance of Letting It Go

So what’s the solution? Is there one? I think the answer varies from person to person, family to family. The guilt associated with not being able to call others back or return favors tends to eat away at the people I’ve encountered in therapy. My advice to them is the same as the advice I received while in my counseling internship. One day while I was agonizing over feeling like a bad friend, my then-supervisor (now someone I call a friend) said, “Janeen, you have enough BS and ‘have-tos’ in your life. Let this go.”

And that was it. I had permission to let it go, and so I did.

There aren’t many people I call “friend.” There are only two I call in crises who can talk me off my ledge. After almost 18 years of parenting a child with special needs, I have come to know what’s truly important in life. My inability to return a phone call, and all of the guilt that accompanies it, is at the bottom of the list.

If you’re the parent of a child on the spectrum, I hope it’s at the bottom of your list as well.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Janeen Herskovitz, MA, LMHC, Autism Spectrum Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Jade

    June 16th, 2015 at 10:33 AM

    Once you have a child and you find out that this is going to be a child who demands so much of your time and energy some parents may feel like they do not have anything left over for their friends. I mean this is understandable. You want to be able to give every last thing that you have to your kids, so at the end of the day there could be a feeling of being worn thin and that there is nothing left to give to anyone else.

  • Matthew

    June 16th, 2015 at 3:33 PM

    There unfortunately are people who cannot deal with the unique set of experiences that having a child with autism can bring, so the thought of being friends with someone who lives with that and faces those challenges every day is too much for them. They would rather walk away from the friendship over being a part of a support system fro those parents. It is a very selfish move, but hey, I would rather just not have them in my life if that’s how they really feel.

  • Cason

    June 17th, 2015 at 7:45 AM

    There are some people who just don’t get the amount of time and energy that you may have to spend with your child if they are indeed on the autism spectrum. This is usually going to be a child who demands a lot from the parents, not because they are being selfish, but just because their needs are different than those of other children. There are some people who can handle this and maintain their relationships, while there are others who will struggle with being moved down on your priority list.

  • janeen

    June 17th, 2015 at 10:11 AM

    Jade, I couldn’t agree more. Thank you for your input.

  • janeen

    June 17th, 2015 at 10:12 AM

    Matthew, that’s a good point. Lots of people just can’t handle that kind of discomfort. Better to not have them draining your energy.

  • janeen

    June 17th, 2015 at 10:18 AM

    Cason, so true. The time and energy is tremendous. The ones who can handle it and stick around are keepers. ‘Low maintenance’ people who don’t leave guilt trips on my voicemail remain ideal friends. :)

  • Corinne A

    June 17th, 2015 at 2:40 PM

    It can go both ways.

    Sometimes the parents of an autistic child pull away because they are afraid and think that others will think that it is something that they have done to cause this.

    I think that all of us here know that this is some irrational thought but for others this is truly what they think and rather than always feel that someone is judging them they would rather pull away and distance themselves.

  • Lyn

    June 17th, 2015 at 7:37 PM

    Some parents push others away too- both family & friends. Having a child with a disability doesn’t mean knowing every thing about the disability- & what others may know or understand could be quite different. Learning to have advice or suggestions while correctly informing people when they are out of line still needs to be done tactfully. Being clear about what is helpful allows friends & family to know where the boundaries are too.

  • Brooke

    June 18th, 2015 at 10:31 AM

    A good friend that you would actually want to keep in your life would never be the person who will leave you high and dry nor will they be the person who will allow you to let them go either. They are going to be there through good times and bad, and even when you want them to step back and go away, they will always find a way to let you know that they are not going anywhere.
    They will always have your back and be there for you.

  • Janeen

    June 21st, 2015 at 4:06 PM

    Brooke, thanks for your wise words. Being there for someone who is grieving and stressed beyond their capacity takes patience on the part of the friend and an ability to see that it’s not about them.

  • janeen

    June 18th, 2015 at 1:17 PM

    Corinne A. so true. Thanks for that reminder.

  • janeen

    June 18th, 2015 at 1:20 PM

    Lyn, Iove what you said. Especially considering the cyclical grief cycle parents experience. They (myself included, as an AS parent) will keep people at arm’s length out of fear or shame. Informing others tactfully, as you mentioned, is crucial in order to maintain relationships.

  • Kylie

    June 18th, 2015 at 2:24 PM

    Whist I agree with what you are saying, as a person who has been trying so hard to support a friend with autistic children, it is so, so hard to be a constant bashing board for them.
    My friend posted this article on her timeline as a direct swipe at me. I have been there for her, listened to her cry, scream, lose the plot for over 8 years, but any support I give means nothing because it has reached the point where her anger at autism and grieving is affecting my family directly.
    So I have to stand back and deal with my own problems, and now I am being hated on because I “have no idea”. I did everything I could, but it is never good enough.
    articles like this are good, but don’t hate on the people who are trying to help you and are not “good enough”. The diagnosis never stopped me from caring and trying to understand, but I’m only human also.

  • Janeen

    June 21st, 2015 at 4:01 PM

    Kylie, thanks for sharing. Sounds like a very difficult situation for everyone involved.

  • Ramon Q

    June 23rd, 2016 at 2:11 AM

    Kylie, imagine a world where your most important dreams are cancelled and are replaced by coping and hoping. A world where the expectations of a great tomorrow and the corresponding empowering feelings that come with it are replaced by the fear of the what if. That is the life of a parent with a kid with autism, specially if the kids have a severe condition. Now imagine a world where there is no rest or no worry free zone. That is the life of most parents of kids with autism.
    While the average parent plans to provide their kids tools during 18-21 years that should make them independent individuals, the parent of a kid with autism many times has to face the question of how their kid is going to make it 30, 40, 50 years after they are gone.
    If someone says to you, you have no idea, trust me, you don’t. No disrespect intended, It is just a fact. I am a man, and I have no idea what it feels like to be pregnant, It is the truth, it is a fact, same thing.
    I hope you get time to pray for your friend and their family and to thank God that you are in the group of the people that “have no idea”, trust me you should look up to the heavens and feel blessed that you were not given the experience to “have an idea”…

    Blessings to you!

  • Lisa

    April 6th, 2018 at 7:43 PM

    This is so very true. As a single parent of a teenage boy with autism I truly never have any peace. I worry about his future and how he will be cared for after I am gone. Maintaing my previous friendships has basically become non existent. My time and effort has been solely been spent on him and his needs. Unfortunately having and sustaining friendships had become difficult.

  • Elizabeth

    December 31st, 2019 at 6:27 PM

    Imagine being one of the many adult autistics who will read this and know that their parent sees them as an intolerable burden that was thrust upon them in place of a different child whom they could have loved. That is what you’re saying to every autistic person who reads this. Like me.

  • JOANN H.

    June 25th, 2016 at 10:33 AM

    Kylie, sounds like your friend is stuck in a complex and prolonged grief reaction. We need to know what we can and should expect from a friend and what requires professional intervention. Unfortunately, as the mother of a child on the spectrum, I know that we don’t always have the ability to step back and be objective about our own adjustment. Sometimes the grief just absorbs you. I hope she gets help. However, it sounds like you have been hurt by this and need some support, yourself. As a therapist, I know that sometimes you lash out at those who are the most supportive, perhaps because you know they will stick by you. However, I also have been trained to know that sometimes the helper needs help, too.

  • Misplaced

    August 27th, 2017 at 7:12 PM

    Comments like this are good too… When properly placed… Like on your friends post… Here’s why.. This particular article is for parents who are actually living this life.. If YOU NEED A SUPPORT GROUP for friends with friends with Autism… Then that would be an appropriate me place for you to go.. But seeing as how you literally came to OUR SAFE PLACE to bash on Autism parents and how we may be at fault for your toxic friendship I am going to go ahead and safely assume you actually are the toxic person in that relationship. My ex friend also thought she had been “supportive” also. Supportive to me is not what supportive is to her. So maybe you should really think about what you have done or not done here. It sounds like that friendship needed to end for both of you.. But as for us… When we say LET IT GO… We mean let the people go that DON’T get that we can’t drag out autistic kids to sit at their house and look at all their furniture. Or teach our autistic kids to ride bikes on their streets because they don’t want to leave their house.. So instead they want us to pack up our autistic screaming children and bikes and drag them banging their head on car window on the way over because she is so selfish she needs us to come to her… Cuz…her turn.. That’s what you people don’t get.. An adult throwing a tantrum cuz “but I came to your house last time” is not an adult.. Supportive also does not mean telling your friend you stand 100% firm that thru need to discipline the kid so they don’t us their autism. To manipulate and get their way! My autistic son didn’t even know his name six months ago.. He has 95% sensory disorder.. He doesn’t know he’s autistic and if people knew anything about autism they would know… Automatics don’t manipukate! They are honest! They don’t understand manipukation.. So while you are prob ly already bothered by reading this I am sure this is exactly the kind of crap you got sick of with your friend and exactly how you aren’t the supportive person you think you are. You literally came on an autistic parent support page just to tell us all about ourselves.. My guess… You are exactly the toxic person we need to be given permission to let go… Better yet… Send away. Especially if you are the kind of person who thinks disciplining an autistic child is to tie him to a freaking toilet until he goes potty.. Or MAKE HIM do things that are torture demo his senses! I can’t even begin to tell you how many ignorant people there are that we encounter on a daily basis… But the fact that you thought it would be helpful to come on a special needs page and tell us how we may be to blame for something YOU are on the end of… I’m going to stand pretty firm that ueah… Her swipe at you was right on the money.. You are exactly the toxic person WE DON’T NEED

  • Misplaced

    August 27th, 2017 at 7:16 PM

    Typos….. So they don’t *use* their autism to manipulate us

  • Misplaced

    August 27th, 2017 at 7:19 PM

    Autistics.. Dang autocorrect.. Not automatics

  • Elizabeth

    December 31st, 2019 at 6:34 PM

    Autistic parent = parent who is autistic
    Parent of an autistic child = parent of an autistic child
    Autism parent = allistic (non-autistic) parent making their autistic child’s diagnosis all about themselves, as if they are the one most affected by autism

  • georgia

    June 20th, 2015 at 2:01 PM

    Most of us want things to always and forever be easy. This is definitely never going to be an easy relationship to navigate.

  • Janeen

    June 21st, 2015 at 3:59 PM

    Georgia, well stated. I couldn’t agree more.

  • Melody

    June 24th, 2016 at 4:56 PM

    I think that one of the challenges for me in maintaining friendships with people who have “typical” children was biting my tongue when listening to them complain about their child talking too much(my son is non verbal) or how they were going to juggle all the birthday parties their child was invited to, or all the sports and extra curricular their children were in. I was so envious of their “normal” chaotic lives and they had no idea how good they had it!!

  • JOANN H.

    June 25th, 2016 at 10:21 AM

    I’ll never forget an experience I had many years ago. My daughter who is on the autism spectrum, and at the time, very impaired, was 8 and I was doing an internship in pre-school special education. I had just returned from an intense morning in my field placement, having worked with a non’verbal pre-schooler, just on making eye-contact. As I got out of my car in my driveway, my next-door neighbor came running across the lawn, visibly upset. I was alarmed and asked her what the problem was. She said that she had just purchased a dust-ruffle for her bed and it was so short that the wheels on the bottom of the bed showed. She was worried that her husband would be upset when he got home. Mind you, he was not violent or an abuser, just a little “old world”. I gathered my wits about me and consoled her, giving her some suggestions to remedy her “problem”. That was when I knew that, except for other parents and some professionals who treated severely disabled children, I was really alone.

  • Jo

    August 10th, 2016 at 12:47 AM

    I’ve been tremendously lucky – my very close friends have remained. Others have fallen by the wayside. No, I don’t have time for energy drainers and having my boy means I filter those people out more quickly than I would have done previously. I’m a bit sad that we don’t get invited to play dates or parties but, since we are all a bit anti-social, that’s probably a blessing! :)
    When my boy left mainstream school – I said to the parents and children “don’t ignore us, do say hello if you see us on the street.” Some even manage it!

  • Susan

    July 25th, 2019 at 8:29 AM

    I have been a friend to a woman with a son with extremely serious epilepsy for over 20 years. I try so hard to be a good friend, always be there for her. But it’s hard to be in a one sided friendship for so long. Yes I know her life is difficult beyond anything I can imagine. She’s said most of her friends have drifted away and I understand why. I love and care deeply about my friend, but I have needs too. I’m tired of her cancelling plans, and always doing things on her schedule, and worrying about her when she takes days to answer a text or phone call. I don’t know what the solution is, but please understand that your friends are doing the best they can.

  • Mom

    August 3rd, 2019 at 8:56 PM

    This would be a nice thing to post on facebook for others to see and understand a little bit, but, I would never want my son to see this and feel bad. :/

  • Elizabeth

    December 31st, 2019 at 6:38 PM

    Thank you for considering your child’s feelings in this. As an autistic adult and mother of an autistic child, I am relieved to see finally that someone actually thought about that.

  • Lisa

    November 28th, 2019 at 3:15 PM

    Hi there, after reading these comments, they have made me cry. I have a child with autism. Its so true, all your hopes for the future end up gone. I spend all day worrying when I’m gone. Everyday brings more struggles. Only today were the police at his Dads door. Our child constantly lies. Its so hard and draining.

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