The Untold Friendship Code Revealed

Social Skills For Aspergers

“It takes a long time to grow an old friend.”
- by John Leonard

Friendship requires a certain degree of social skills for people with Aspergers.

I have a dilemma. I’m an NT (neurotypical), not an Aspie. I imagine that if I were an NT born onto a planet populated by Aspergians, I would be considered very different.
Aspergians would say that I have shallow conversations and have some behaviors considered very non-sensical to the citizens of that planet.

So I offer this information as a counselor who has researched some ideas to help you, an Aspergers reader, crack the friendship code among NT’s. But I also think some of these principles may apply to relationships between Aspies as well.

Two of my coaches in this area of friendship are Michelle Garcia Winner and Dr. Pamela Crooke, authors of the book Socially Curious, Curiously Social: A Social Thinking Guidebook for Bright Teens & Young Adults.

Sometime last year, at a seminar I attended, they taught me the concept of the Friendship Pyramid. I found it an extremely helpful way to explain the concepts of friendship to some of my clients on the autism spectrum. Ms. Garcia Winner and Dr. Crooke developed this concept while actively working with groups of Aspies at their Social Thinking clinic. Those participants found it very helpful for thinking about friendships.

social skills for aspergers

Here Are The Levels of Friendship

Level 1: Friendly Greetings

This is the most basic level of greeting. As an Aspie, you may not be comfortable with this level of friendship, because it seems like small talk. Think of it as ants passing by each other on the trail: they touch antennas briefly and go on their way.

Just smiling and saying hello communicates that you notice the other person and are being friendly to them.

During the day, say hi to as many people as you’re comfortable greeting.  If you feel overwhelmed by doing that much, make a goal to say hello one or two times, or at least to smile non-verbally and acknowledge someone who says hello to you.

Level 2: Acquaintance

These are people you may have had little discussion with because of a) being in the same class, or b) working on the same project. Or, if you work at a job, it may be a co-worker you work next to or on a project with. These are people you go beyond saying hi to and carry on a small conversation for short periods of time. You don’t plan to be with these people: they are merely acquaintances who happen to start talking to you because you may be in line, sitting next to each other, etc, and you respond to their comments or questions, thus showing that you are interested in what they have to say.

If you think that there are some acquaintances you would like to know better, you might look them up on Facebook, and even send them a “friend” request. If someone regularly seems to be in the same classroom or other places as you, and they seem to say hi, or smile at you, you may want to join that person at a group project, or sit next to them in class.

Level 3: Possible Friendship

Possible friendship happens when you start to seek people to talk to them, but you meet up with them in the same general place that you met them. For example, in the course of going to band at school, you say hi to different band members. After learning to start a conversation and talking casually with Joe, who sits next to you in band practice, you learn that you both share a common interest in Pokémon. You may find out where this person “hangs out” before school starts and then meet up with them. A friendly greeting, and acquaintance, turns into possible friendship when you happen to see the person, ask to meet for lunch, or during a break, or after school.

Here are some suggestions from Ms. Garcia Winner and Dr. Crooke:

a) Connect with the person using Facebook
b) Seek the person out to work with on a classroom project.
c) Call or text the person about homework problems.
d) Go up to the person when he or she is standing with another person, even if you don’t know the other person

On this level of possible friendship, there is less effort because of the shared setting.

Level 4: Evolving Friendship

When a friendship goes from Possible to Evolving, it involves more effort on your part. You will have to develop the conversation skills to take you through the first three levels. And then you will need to make the effort to arrange to hang out during times outside of school or work time. Some Aspies are very uncomfortable with using the phone, but they have found that they are much more comfortable texting or using Facebook to start a text oriented conversation versus a verbal conversation. You can use some of the same suggestions from Level 3 to connect with evolving friends. Keep in mind the characteristics of a good friend, and notice whether the people you are becoming friends with meet that criteria.

Remember that just because you don’t share exactly the same mutual interests you can’t still be friends. For example, let’s say that your friend enjoys one type of video game, and you enjoy another. You both enjoy gaming, just not the same game. But you can work to be interested in your friend’s game, and maybe your friend will show the same interest in yours. Think about things your evolving friend likes to do, and suggest that you both do that sometime outside of school (like hanging out at your house playing video games, or going to see a movie)

Level 5: Bonded Friendship

Bonded friends develop over the course of time. They have gone through the previous four levels and have gotten pretty comfortable with each other. They look out for each other, and go out of their way to make sure things are okay for that person. At this level of friendship, one of the expectations (even though it’s not spoken out loud), is that you make plans to hang out together outside of “expected” structured times, like school.

This friendship level is very similar to Level 4, but a bit more frequent and intense. Again, here are some examples from Ms. Garcia Winner and Dr. Crooke:

a) Consistently seek out the person to hang out together, meeting him or her in the same place during lunch or break
b) Post nice stuff on the person’s Facebook wall, etc.
c) Arrange to talk or get together after school, or just hang out.
d) Talk more personally about your life and your emotions with this person (what makes you frustrated, happy, and so one).

At the very top of the friendship pyramid is a Very Close Friend.

Another interesting friend, not shown on the pyramid, is the On Again, and Off Again Friend. This is a type of friend that you may have gone from level 3 through 5 with, maybe even become a very close friend with, but it may not last forever. Maybe a person moves away, or develops different interests, or meets other friends and spends more time with them. It’s very key to understand that this is very normal of many friendships. If you can think flexibly about friends in this way, it will be easier for you to tolerate one of your friends spending less time with you from time to time. Remember that some of your friendships may ‘fade out’ at different times. Then later, you may be back at the acquaintance phase and end up working up the ladder again. It’s normal.

Next week, I want to talk about how Dating fits into this model, and some specific steps you can do to grow in both friendship and dating.

Here Are Two Interesting Resources I Found While Researching This Article:

Alex Plank and Liz Laugeson

This is a videotaped interview between Alex Plank, founder of Wrong Planet, and Liz Laugeson of UCLA’s PEERS program.  I wrote about my enthusiasm for this program and the resulting manual.

Video from Teresa Bolick, Ph.D. – The Development of True Friendship in Individuals on the Autism Spectrum

This video is an NT psychologist’s presentation about friendship.  She is the author of Asperger Syndrome and Adolescence: Helping Preteens and Teens Get Ready for the Real World and Asperger Syndrome and Young Children: Building Skills for the Real World.

photo credit: sundaykofax

Please give me your thoughts and experiences about this article below! 


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About Stephen Borgman

 I'm Steve Borgman.  I'm a licensed clinical professional counselor and blogger committed to bringing you hope, understanding, and solutions that you can apply to your life immediately.
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Hi Stephen,

this information is very interesting and helps me understand people with ASD more.

Social interaction for me is a bit of a challenge since I grew up very isolated.
So I feel socially challenged and prefere the comfortzone of being a recluse.
My youngest son is a bit like that too he is now 21 and I am really glad that he has started a welding course at Unitec.
The pyramid seems a very good example.
Thank you for sharing this great information.

Stephen Borgman
Stephen Borgman

Yorinda, thanks for stopping by! I really appreciate you sharing your input and experience. I'm so excited for your son. I hope he does well in his course. This pyramid, I've found, it a great example for individuals on and off of the autism spectrum.

marc van der linden
marc van der linden

Great post, Steve!

I have a dilemma too. I'm not sure I'm an asperger or I have another kind of autism. I believe I'm not, although I had a lot of symptoms when I was a child. Several of my family members have the symptoms as well and my 9 years old god child is diagnosed as asperger.

I'm not sure what I can do with this knowledge - it seems it does not influences my life in any way.

But I'm very sure that I would have had this clear list with levels of friendship about 15 years ago, it would not have cost me 10 years of personal development to truly understand and apply the concept of friendship.

Thanks for sharing this post!

Stephen Borgman
Stephen Borgman

Marc, thanks for stopping by and sharing. This pyramid of friendship might seem known to a lot of us, even without Aspergers, but I think it's helpful to both NT's and Aspies alike. You might be interested in taking the online quiz by Wired magazine to see how you score on their informal Aspergers quiz. That would only be a first step to a formal diagnosis.


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