The Social Component of School for Autists

Mette Harrison
4 min readJun 11, 2023

Most of my childhood, I had one friend or zero friends at school. I had lots of siblings, but honestly tended to prefer reading books, often in the furnace room or up in a tree, to avoid being interrupted by other kids or by my parents wanting to offer me chores to do. Lack of friends was one of the reasons that I was always the last on anyone’s list of people to ask to be on a team for sports in P.E. class, and also why unless the sport was playing jacks, I was never asked to participate in sports with other kids during recess, I was also horribly uncoordinated and utterly uninterested in sports (unlike now).

Despite all this, I don’t remember my parents ever asking about my social learning tasks at school. They didn’t ask if I had friends or if I was being bullied. I had internalized early, from bullying at home, that the best way to deal with this kind of attention was to completely ignore it and to deny the bullies any response. Eventually, they tended to lose interest in me, and, I suppose, find someone else who offered more of a payoff.

When I became a parent, however, asking about social skills was the first (and often the only) question I asked of teachers of my own children. I already knew that they were smart and capable. I’d seen their homework come home and we worked on it together until they were old enough to tell me to go away and leave them alone. I had a couple of social kids, and even though I was aware of this, I still asked the same questions because I didn’t worry about their academic progress at all. I only worried about whether or not they had friends and were being bullied.

Teachers were always surprised at these questions. I gathered that parents of children who were doing well academically often just wanted to hear about those kinds of successes. I rarely found a teacher who seemed to be paying the kind of close attention that I was interested in, as an autistic parent. They were used to kids who figured out social tasks on their own, and they tended to see school as a purely academic exercise. I did not.

I quizzed my kids often about their social interactions, but I admit, I did not give them the kinds of lessons on making friends that I now wish that I had been able to do. The truth is, I still don’t really know how to make a list for that kind of thing. Of course, I can suggest that they walk up to strangers and make eye contact, that they introduce themselves, ask the other person’s name, and then proceed to ask boring questions about their job, education, or where they grew up. (Forgive me for calling these boring questions, but they feel that way to me because when I have conversations, I’m mostly interested in something that will make the other person talk passionately about their interests, as I would if they asked me “interesting” questions.)

The problem with these kinds of rote, memorized scripts is that they are acutely painful for autistic children, as well as for autistic adults. I’m not sure that they ever feel “natural” or more than stiff and awkward. You tend to find your people, even if you’re autistic. It took until I was in 11th grade, but I did finally find a group of nerdy, bordering on autistic teens in a high school of two thousand. We did nerdy things together, on occasion, and sometimes did group dates in various organizations of male and female partnerships. We took a lot of the same classes, and I remember fondly going out for a giant trough of ice cream (40 scoops) which we all ate out of together after passing the AP Calculus test (yes, there was a 100% passing rate) and then watching a movie about the AP Calculus test.

I remember arguing with my father once in my early high school years about how inefficient school was for my academic learning. Anything any of the teachers had to offer me could be presented in a text format, which I could read and digest in half or a third of the time that classes took. My father, autist though he was, was aware of the fact that there were parts of school that weren’t about me acquiring information I could easily regurgitate on multiple-choice tests (though this is still one of my superpowers). I find corporate meetings to be similarly wastes of time, and have to remind myself, as my father did, that there are other things going on besides the information at hand.

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Mette Harrison

Autist, Ironman Worlds triathlete, Writer, Right-Brained