What is Friendship?

There’s a book that Oliver and I are quite fond of called The Survival Guide for Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders (And Their Parents). We found it in the book shop at the Ontario Science Centre in 2012 and have found it a useful, funny, insightful book.

My favourite part of the book is the section called “What is Friendship?” that starts out like this:

That may seem like an easy question … but it’s more complicated than you think. Kids who have autism spectrum disorders don’t always understand the difference between a friend and an acquaintance.

So, what is the difference, anyway?

An acquaintance is someone you see on a regular basis but may not know well. You might know the person’s name and recognize his or her face. You might say hi to the person or make “small talk” by saying stuff like “How are you?” or “What’s new?” Acquaintances may include: classmates, kids in higher and lower grades at school, neighbors, and teammates (if you’re on a team). Kids who go to your place of worship, community center, or park are also acquaintances. So are adults you recognize — your parents’ friends or people they work with, a librarian or coach, and neighbors.

An acquaintance is someone you might see almost every day or a few times a week. That person might be nice to you. That person might speak with you briefly. He or she may even hang out with you for short periods of time. But it’s usually not friendship. Friendship is bigger — and better.

The most important piece is togetherness. A friend wants to spend time with you. He or she will call you on the phone and invite you over. You’ll spend time together in places other than school.

I like this description because it is, in essence, a simple reverse engineering of friendship: here’s what it is, here’s what it isn’t.

For someone like me to whom social skills don’t come naturally, this sort of plain explanation is a big help; I only wish I could find a resource that would go even deeper, in similarly simple terms.  Sort of like how I was able to get a helpful answer to the question “I don’t understand mingling, can you explain it to me?” last fall at Alibis for Interaction.

I’m turning 48 years old next week. In those years, if I hew closely to the definition in this book, I’ve had perhaps less than a half dozen people I would count as friends – “a really kindred spirit to whom I can confide my inmost soul,” as Anne would say. Friendship is hard, both naturally, and especially if it appears like a mysterious dark art that’s only occasionally available to people who mostly aren’t you.  And extra-especially hard if you’re almost 50 years old and living in a place where most everyone became friends in kindergarten.

But the hopeful thing — and the reason that passage in the book was so helpful to me — is the realization that, despite the dark mystery, there are, in fact, some rules. Or at least some guidelines. Chief among which, perhaps, is that if that friends don’t fall from trees, and that you have to make an effort to cultivate them – like they say, “He or she will call you on the phone and invite you over,” which means, presumably, that you should be calling he or she up from time to time to invite them over.

I’m often struck with how incredibly lucky it was that Catherine and Oliver and I ended up together, neuro-atypical as we all are, by times. If Oliver can lead me to realizations like this, and I can return the favour by helping him decrypt socials things that I managed to figure out on my own, perhaps there is hope for us yet!


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