Creating Natural Supports For Those With Autism

Circles of Supports are important and need to be created.

Posted Jan 16, 2013

I need a circle of support to learn about life, and learning about how the rest of the world communicates to have social interaction. Nicely I need to be around neurotypical people in order to have opportunities to talk about things that people our age know from experience. Friends are a necessary part of everyone’s circle of support. New friends and new places are hard to find when you need a piece of technology to communicate.  - Jeremy Sicile-Kira

As my son has gotten older, my concerns of what would happen to him have increased. Jeremy is 24, loves painting and traveling. He also has autism, little verbal skill, and lots of sensory challenges and communicates by typing. Growing up, the only thing certain about Jeremy’s future was that he would live fully included in the community of his choosing, despite needing 24-hour supports.  

Ever since Jeremy could type he has made it clear he has wanted friends. Creating friendships when you have autism and require assistive technology to communicate is not that simple.  Often times parents comment on the lack of friends or natural supports that exist in the life of their  teen or young adult on the spectrum.  If a person has difficulties in initiating and  establishing social relationships and in communicating with others, it is likely that their circles of supports are small and that they need expanding. Jeremy and I discussed the importance of supports, each from our own perspective in  A Full Life with Autism (Macmillan, 2012).

Most of us have naturally been creating different circles of supports, since birth. We’ve been creating networks of people that connect with us on different levels—some that we are very close to, others that we are just acquainted with, some who are work colleagues we like but may not be particularly close to. Judith Snow, a woman with a significant disability, explains it further and has described four different circles of relationships that everyone has in their lives:

  • Circle of Intimacy: includes those with whom we share our secrets, have great intimacy and emotions. These are people, animals and for some, objects, that are so important to us that their absence would impact us in a major way. Family members are usually included here, but not always.
  • Circle of Friendship: includes those who are friends or relatives that we see occasionally for dinner or a movie, but are not our closest friends that we need to see on a regular basis.
  • Circle of Participation: includes the organizations or people you participate with in your life such as your job, your place of worship, schools, organizations—places where you participate and interact with people. This Circle contains people who may eventually be in circle two or even one.
  • Circle of Exchange: includes the people who are paid to be in our lives such as therapists, doctors, teachers, haircutter and so on.

Almost all neurotypicals or non-disabled people have a fair number of people in all four circles. However, those with disabilities and different abilities—including autism—have practically all the people they know clustered into the Circle of Intimacy and the Circle of Exchange. Having only connections on these two levels helps create the emotional and financial strain on the family that most of us parents of loved ones on the spectrum feel. What is needed is more connections to organizations and areas of interest (Circle of Participation) where there is the possibility of meeting people who eventually become friends (Circle of Friendship). This provides more quality of life for the individual by providing more relationships with people other than family and service provider.

In another blog post, I’ll describe some ideas for parents on expanding the Circles of Participation and Friendship for their loved one on the spectrum.