How We Need People
Parents often tell me one of their goals for therapy for their child is making friends. Having friends is sometimes the ultimate end of such a goal, but when asked, parents can usually identify what they want to have friends to do for their child (i.e., why do they need friends?). Parents usually want one or both of two primary experiences for their children: association and affiliation.
This is the classic role of friendship. We want someone to get to know and someone interested in getting to know us. We want a relationship that is constantly increasing in depth through knowledge of the other. We represent this desire semantically and categorically when discussing the difference between acquaintances, friends, and best friends. Best friends are obviously an idea and can also only be one: the one that knows me the best. The point is that there is a drive in us to be known. We want someone to take an interest in us. We want this person not to be repelled by what they see below the surface but intrigued. We want that feeling to be mutual as well. I want to be as interested in someone as they are in me.
This is best described as being a part of a group. I noticed that some of my clients rarely name friends individually but can talk about hanging out with "the guys" or with their friends. They may also hang out with just one individual but know little about the person, including their name. Affiliations might shift over time, but associations with the group are much more stable. Drive for association seems to be related to achieving an identity, perceived or actual safety, or even a predictable set of behavioral expectations. I recall the first time I had to commute for work, feeling a certain connection with all the other drivers on the road. We were all going to work for the same reasons and at the same time. I would see them again at the end of the day. I felt a part of something.
When parents describe the friendship goal, I always ask my clients what they would like. While no one would ever turn down someone taking a true interest in them (I can easily demonstrate this in therapy in about 60 seconds), many of my autistic clients are more likely to imagine and desire associative friendships than affiliative friendships. Indeed, many cannot imagine how a person can form affiliative friendships or even why they might want to go to all the effort. On the other hand, they report associative friendships make a lot of sense, and the work to achieve them seems more conceivable and achievable.
Many of my clients achieve the affiliative need through parents, teachers, and siblings. Many of these people also don't expect the affiliative effort to be reciprocated, which is probably why the relationship works for my clients. In fact, I know plenty of people who seem to have very little drive for affiliative friendships, being completely content to have the need to be known fulfilled by their parents. I also see no problem emotionally with satisfying this need in this way, even if there are some functional limitations.
Associative friendships are not at all secondary to affiliative friendships because they represent basic social and emotional needs. There is safety in groups, which we call communities. I also think it's easier to learn the norms of smaller, specialized groups than society as a whole. Since all people need associative friendships, there are many opportunities to create such friendships. Churches, temples, organizations, clubs, and specialty groups (e.g., military veterans) can be the platform to achieve associative friendships.