"I'm not his project" – Why "buddy programs" are not helpful to kids with Asperger's/higher-verbal ASD

I want to preface this article by stating that I have no problem with programs such as Best Buddies. Best Buddies is a great program that is needed.  It provides students with disabilities the opportunity to enjoy typical teenager activities with their neurotypical peers.  I do not believe that “buddy programs” are helpful for individuals who present with Asperger’s or higher-verbal autism as it can provide them with a false understanding of friendships and can make it difficult to put their buddy relationship into a relevant context.
Yesterday I was privileged to experience a profound moment in a group I facilitate with two high school students. Both of these boys are diagnosed with Asperger’s.  They are both very bright, articulate, and have a great sense of humor.  Like many people diagnosed with Asperger’s and higher-verbal autism they can be naive when it comes to navigating the social world.  This includes understanding others’ intentions.  In order to protect their privacy I’ll refer to them as “Greg” and “Josh”. 
I have found that kids diagnosed with Asperger’s or higher-verbal autism who participate in a “buddy program” in their school often cannot put the context of their relationship with their “buddy” into a proper context.  The reason for this is because people on the spectrum have what is called context blindness, meaning they struggle with putting things in a relevant context.  Context blindness is subject that fascinates me and also makes it challenging to teach social thinking skills to people on the spectrum. 
I had been working with Greg individually for several months when I suggested to his mother that she pull him out of the Best Buddies program at his school.  While I imagine that many people would think this is a horrible idea because it could be construed as denying Greg an opportunity to socialize with his neurotypical peers I knew that Greg had the capacity to cultivate friendships on his own, it was just going to be a work in progress.  I explained to Greg’s mother that being in Best Buddies clouded his understanding of the context of friendships and understanding others’ intentions.  Greg’s mother agreed to pull him out of the program, to the dismay of the autism team at his school.  
Like other kids on the spectrum I’ve worked with who are in the program, Greg considered whatever student was assigned to him that year as his “friend”.   
Several months later Greg’s mother asked to speak with me alone after a session.  She told me that Greg’s “buddy” from the program whom I’ll refer to as Mike was still initiating social outings with him on an occasional basis.  Greg’s mother said “I feel like Mike is only spending time with Greg so he can write his college essay about him“.    I told her that if Greg enjoyed spending time with this boy despite not being in the program I would leave it alone for the time being. 
Greg and Josh have developed a friendship outside of our group which I was thrilled to hear as this is the reason I wanted to bring them together.  During my groups I allow kids to play with Legos, toss a ball around etc.  Boys can often be their most authentic and talk about learn the best while working with their hands.  As the three of us were talking and the two of them played with Legos Greg had mentioned that Mike had invited himself to come to the movie.  I asked both of them how they felt about Mike coming with them.  Greg explained to me that his mother had told him that she felt Mike’s intention was to spend time with him so he could write his college essay about him. I asked him what his thoughts were about this.
What Greg said next was profound, “I think my Mom is right about what she said.  Last time I hung out with Mike he got a call from one of his friends.  He said to his friend, I’m doing Best Buddies right now, I’ll call you later.   Why couldn’t he just say I’m hanging out with Greg?  Why did he have to say I’m doing Best Buddies?  I feel like he’s making me his project and I’m not his project just because I have Asperger’s“.   I was taken aback by Greg’s statement and decided not to say anything because I wanted to allow Josh to respond.  Josh responded, “Yeah, just because we have Asperger’s doesn’t mean we can’t make friends on our own“. 
I collected my thoughts for a few moments before I responded.  I told them that they are correct, they can make friends on their own as evidenced by them spending time with each other outside of group.  I emphasized to Greg and Josh that their choice to spend time together outside of group was their decision.  It was not suggested by me or initiated by their parents.    This moment of clarity for both Greg and Josh led to a very productive discussion about how their brains may make it difficult for them to initially understand others intentions and the importance of trying to understanding others intentions.  
While I fully support students who present with more significant challenges participating in buddy programs, I do believe they can do a disservice to students who present like Greg and Josh, and there are many of them.   While I understand that many parents and professionals like the idea of kids like Greg and Josh spending time with neurotypical peers in a recreational setting they are not learning about the context of the relationships they may develop through buddy programs.  I believe that spending recreational time with peers whom they have a greater chance of developing a genuine friendship with needs to take precedence.
Ryan Wexelblatt, LCSW is the Director of Center for ADHD in Bryn Mawr, PA and Linwood, NJ.  Learn more about the social learning groups and programs Ryan facilitates at: www.centeradhd.com
Center for ADHD will become Ride the Wave Counseling in July 2018. 

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