How can I help an autistic guy navigate "Facebook friends"?
July 2, 2010 12:46 PM   Subscribe

My brother, who is a young adult with autism and other mental disabilities, got himself banned from Facebook because he was bugging "friends" of his friends. I need help explaining the unwritten rules of social networking, and creating some basic guidelines for him to follow when he tries Facebook again. (Much more inside.)

My brother his high-functioning and able to live on his own with assistance only in budgeting and that sort of thing. He has a full-time job that he likes, and hobbies he enjoys. If not for his other mental disabilities (ADHD, learning disabilities), he would probably be considered Asberger's or close to that end of the spectrum -- he's actually quite outgoing and enjoys being social one on one or in small groups. However, his emotional development and social skills level are probably closer to an early teen's than a twentysomethings, and are where his autism shows most. He doesn't understand the nuances of interpersonal relations, misses nonverbal cues and isn't aware of how others perceive him or react to his idiosyncrasies.

Because of his disabilities, he has some trouble making friends. He's very sweet, but can get very repetitive in conversation. There are a couple topics that he'll talk about for hours, but he's willing to talk about other things too -- just not as easily. His reading and writing skills are poor, so he has trouble expressing himself clearly in print. Despite this, he loved to use Facebook to keep in touch with people. He even created his own group to talk about food, a topic I didn't even know he was interested in. He was trying to use Facebook as a way to expand his social circle.

Unfortunately, the the broad definition of the word "friend" on Facebook got him in trouble. Despite repeated explanations, he didn't understand that the people listed as "friends" weren't always someone close -- they could be just an acquaintance or someone from high school that his friends don't actually talk to anymore. All he could see was that his friends had other friends, and he tried to meet some of them -- which he did by repeatedly messaging them and in some cases calling them if their phone number was listed, whether he'd met them in person or not.

A complicating factor is that in addition to wanting more friends in general, I'm pretty sure he wants a girlfriend. He won't admit it to me, but it's pretty clear from his status updates and the messages he was sending to the friends-of-friends and former classmates he was contacting -- who were almost exclusively female. (Not to mention all the sketchy dating sites he keeps joining.) No doubt enough of them saw his poorly written messages as harassment and reported him, leading to his banination.

I really want to help him get back on Facebook -- it's a valuable way to keep him connected to friends and family. But I need help developing some guidelines for him to make sure he doesn't get himself kicked off again.
• How can I explain the vagaries of "Facebook friend"?
• What points should I lay out to help him determine when it's OK to contact a person?
• How can I explain to him how to get to know an acquaintance or a friend of a friend better without scaring them or seeming like he's harassing them? (Which I recognize is a much larger issue than just Facebook.)

Your advice and any resources, online or off, are greatly appreciated.
posted by me3dia to Human Relations (21 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I think rule # 1 should be no phone calls, maybe even no personal messaging, unless specifically invited to do so.
posted by Think_Long at 12:51 PM on July 2, 2010

Best answer: The Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships: Decoding Social Mysteries Through the Unique Perspectives of Autism by Temple Grandin and Sean Barron might be helpful for you (or your brother, if his reading skills are up to it). I found some of the perspectives surprising but I don't know much about autism so I couldn't say whether the book is radical or mainstream. Grandin provides some fairly concrete rules for interacting with other people, which might be the most useful part for you and your brother.
posted by Quietgal at 1:00 PM on July 2, 2010 [10 favorites]

Would it be helpful to give him some questions that he just has to remember yes/no's in order to proceed?
Like this:

Have I met this person in real life? Yes.
Did we have a nice conversation? Yes.
Then: OK to send friend request

Has this person responded to my friend request? Yes.
Then: OK to send a message.

Has this person responded to several of my previous messages? Yes.
Then: OK to send another message.

Has this person called me before? Yes.
Have we spoken on the phone several times?
Then: OK to call.
posted by amethysts at 1:01 PM on July 2, 2010 [4 favorites]

Here is my personal explanation. There are honors that people might receive, such as being knighted by the Queen, which does not mean getting a suit of armour and a horse, just a title, or being presented with a key to a city, although there is no acutal lock which is opened by that key. So, being a "friend" in facebook can also be a purely honorary condition, distinct from the way the word friend is normally used.

This is incidental to your question, but the word that you spelled "Asberger's" is really Aspergers.

Most people that you encounter on the internet - much as you are now encountering me, by way of this answer - are not seeking a direct contact. If, however, you find me deeply fascinating and want to meet me, you can try getting to know me better by means of the site that we are already using (in this case, metafilter). The next level of connnection would be for me to give you my personal email address (which I might or might not wish to do). If you want to actually phone me you can ask if I would like to be phoned by you. It is always presumptuous to think that an internet based connection is an invitation to a telephone or other personal connection. Remember that unwanted phone calls are much more annoying than unwanted email or posted messages. Phone calls interrupt what we are doing (unless we let the answering machine pick them up for us) unlike email, which awaits our convenience. Meeting someone in person is an even greater degree of connection and people are understandably careful about who they wish to meet.

The only way to get to know people better is to discuss matters that interest both of you. Really good friends generally have many different areas of mutual interest. My best friends are people with whom I can discuss almost anything. But even if I only discuss one topic with someone, the discussion can still be interesting.

I am not really sure that your brother should return to facebook. He can keep in touch with friends and family by means of email. If he wants to talk to all his friends and family at once, that too can be done by a mass emailing. Perfectly workable.
posted by grizzled at 1:04 PM on July 2, 2010

Response by poster: I think a checklist would be useful; he seems to do pretty well following directions formatted that way. Whether he's able to apply checklist logic to the nuances of social interaction is something we'd have to see.
posted by me3dia at 1:06 PM on July 2, 2010

To elaborate a little: the book doesn't deal with Facebook (although Grandin often says how much more complicated the internet has made socializing), but she discusses how the word "friend" is used loosely to cover anyone from coworker to casual acquaintance to actual friend, and how confusing that can be - and how to figure out what kind of friend a person is. This is certainly applicable to Facebook as well as the real world, although Facebook friends probably slant heavily to the casual acquaintance type.
posted by Quietgal at 1:09 PM on July 2, 2010

Response by poster: @Quietgal Thanks for the book recommendation; I'll look into it.

@grizzled Limiting my brother to email would mean never hearing from him by email. He avoids using it because his writing skills are very poor. He tends to only write one or two sentences at a time, and they're pretty broken. Facebook (and Twitter, which he's also tried with some success) is great for one or two sentences.

PS: Thanks for the correction on Aspergers. I should have copyedited before posting.
posted by me3dia at 1:13 PM on July 2, 2010

I agree that your brother should probably not return to Facebook unless he gets professional help acclimating to the way it works. Does he have a therapist or social worker? That could be the starting point for you to discuss your concerns. A professional could be assess whether he has the capacity to learn to use Facebook responsibly.

E-mail like grizzled said seems like a fair alternative. Besides, everyone has a slightly different understanding of "friends" and "friends of friends" and so forth. I find it confusing to figure out what it all means, so I just don't use Facebook at all. For someone with your brother's challenges, and for someone who has already been banned by Facebook for bothering other users, it might be better to start over in a more controlled environment, like e-mail with groups or something.
posted by vincele at 1:14 PM on July 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is tricky because social skills are what eludes those with autism and facebook is all about various aspects socializing. I Googled "autism support groups" and there are many for those with an autistic family member or for those that work with autism. They deal with this daily and may have some good suggestions.

Part of autism is taking things literally, so, to him "friend" = a real friend. Help him understand that the term "friend" in the context of facebook is just a phrased that can mean something very different.

Once you come up with some "rules" go over and over them until he understands them. Be consistent and never waiver so make sure these can be hard and fast "rules". Let him watch you as you interact on facebook and explain what you are doing and why. Role play with him and help guide him through the maze of social relationships in person and on line.

He is lucky to have such a caring brother to help him with this.
posted by Flacka at 1:19 PM on July 2, 2010

Response by poster: Another aspect of email: It leaves little opportunity for meeting new people. That's one of my brother's goals with Facebook, and I think it's a valuable one.

A non-MeFi friend just suggested (on my Facebook link to this question, ironically) looking at FAQs on social networks for children to see how they explain what's appropriate and safe. Thought that was a good tip.
posted by me3dia at 1:22 PM on July 2, 2010

Sorry, just as I posted I see you wrote that e-mail doesn't work for him. (One-two sentence e-mails sound great to me, but if it doesn't work for you guys, it doesn't work.) Anyway, could the issue be girls rather than Facebook itself? Have you talked to him about dating and interacting with women, or is there someone around to do that? I'd still get his therapist/doctor/social worker involved, or whoever provides mental health care for him.
posted by vincele at 1:25 PM on July 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Interesting discussion. It is true that you can meet new people more easily through facebook than by emailing people you already know (although if you want to, you can ask the people you already know if they can recommend someone else for you to meet). I don't really think that a person who writes only one or two sentences at a time is therefore better suited to facebook than to email; it is just as easy to email one or two sentences as it is to post them on facebook. But I will say that there are lots of internet sites on which one can encounter people. Sometimes this happens quite unexpectedly. I recently (and under a different name) answered 12,000 questions on a site called, and several people who used that site wanted to have further discussions with me, and some of them still email me after I have stopped going to that site (people whom I chose to give my address). Metafilter is probably too demanding for your brother, but isn't. He could ask questions even if he isn't prepared to answer any. And there are many other interesting sites. It doesn't just have to be facebook or nothing.
posted by grizzled at 1:33 PM on July 2, 2010

Response by poster: I'm definitely open to using other social networks or websites with him -- but I'm afraid the misunderstandings of social cues will remain and continue to cause problems for him. I also am pretty sure he'll use Facebook whether I help him do it or not. We've explained to him over and over why Internet dating sites (especially the sketchy, spammy ones he keeps trying to use) are ill-suited to his particular case, but he signs up for them anyway. I want to help him not get banned when he tries again.

He is indeed joining social groups for autism spectrum folks; there are a couple here in Chicago he's attended, and he likes them. But he's also very computer-focused (as in he's on it all the time, mostly playing Sims or Red Alert and surfing the web) so I want to be able to give him resources to be socially successful online.
posted by me3dia at 1:40 PM on July 2, 2010

Whether he's able to apply checklist logic to the nuances of social interaction is something we'd have to see.
I would think that writing out a checklist for him would remove the nuances for him.... But I am not an expert by any means. I would always defer to Temple Grandin.
posted by amethysts at 1:46 PM on July 2, 2010

Relationship Development Intervention (RDI) is oriented to addressing the underlying skills required to navigate the challenges faced by this problem. Here's The The RDI Book and the URL for the Connections Center responsible for RDI. I know this doesn't directly address your Facebook challenge, but reading the book might give you some perspective into what is involved here (full disclosure: I am an RDI(tm) certified consultant; IANYRDICC; I am not taking clients).
posted by kch at 3:29 PM on July 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm FB friends with a woman who saw me give a talk a while back. We have a few mutual friends, and we did briefly say hi after the event, so I accepted her friend request. Then she messaged me and commented on my wall a lot, and was generally pretty tone-deaf and weird. But: her About Me section states that she has a lot of learning disabilities and mental health issues and is doing her best to take it all one day at a time and further her education despite these challenges, which is pretty admirable. When I read that, I realized the rules were different with her, and started to feel very tolerant of her comments. I delete the occasional one if the tone is really off and I don't want it on my wall, but otherwise I find I usually find her sweet and charming now that I know she sees social interactions through a different lens than I do. I'll even go out of my way to comment on her page once in a while, because she seems to appreciate it. It may be different with your brother, since it's easier for men to seem threatening; but depending on how he sees himself, maybe putting a sort of "disclaimer" on his About Me might help?
posted by pseudostrabismus at 4:12 PM on July 2, 2010 [4 favorites]

Best answer: It leaves little opportunity for meeting new people. That's one of my brother's goals with Facebook, and I think it's a valuable one.

It is a valuable goal, but Facebook may simply not be the right venue for it. I know basically nobody on Facebook who isn't annoyed by the number of friends they already have -- everyone has people they barely know, people they wish they didn't know, etc, on their flist. Almost nobody that I know has any interest in using Facebook to meet new people, not even friends of friends. It's one thing to add that guy you met once at a party, quite another thing to add that guy your friend met once at a party just because you both commented on the same status update. And if the guy your friend met at a party also has social issues, well, that just makes it that much less likely to go well.

It's possible to make friends on FB via some of the active pages and groups, but Facebook's community functions are kind of sucktastic, so it'll be a bit of a trial to even find and participate in those groups.

If he wants to make new online friends, he'd probably be better off finding some non-Facebook community sites where people who share his interests gather to talk about those things. If there's a local component to the communities he joins, they may have local real world meetups, as well, where he can meet people in groups and in public.

While it's not super-common, I've also found some groups to be welcoming to the socially challenged. I'm in a few different groups and there are 3 or 4 people with various physical and mental challenges who participate regularly in those groups, and are actively welcomed. It's not true of every meetup group, but it is true of some.
posted by jacquilynne at 11:10 PM on July 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

If online gaming addiction is not a threat, I'd recommend looking into Second Life. I know there are Asperger's groups there, but have no direct reference. Virtual Ability surely would be a welcoming community - both in assisting with this specific task of addressing socializing in internet space and referring to other resources.

Further, most SecondLifer avatars have facebook accounts, and friending rules there are well... much more open than in "real life" (although on the other hand, that can bring more confusion).
posted by Jurate at 11:36 AM on July 4, 2010

If he's interested in meeting new people, the two of you attending Meetup events would be a much better way IMO. I'm not autistic but I have about as much trouble making friends. ;) Meetup has been a great way for my boyfriend and I to meet new people.
posted by jesirose at 7:01 AM on July 16, 2010

Seems like there are some great suggestions here. I am a teacher of young children with autism, and I really like the yes/no checklist idea for an older person. I think it might also be helpful to your brother if you could model for him how to apply whatever rules or systems you come up with.

First, you might go over the rules on paper, then the two of you can practice together. It sounds simple, but this step is critical and often overlooked! This will allow him to generalize his new knowledge of how facebook 'friendships' work with you there to answer any questions that come up, provide clarification if necessary, and ensure his success. Finally, he can take over for himself.

If your brother runs into a situation later that doesn't quite fit the rules you've come up with, he can either call you or make a note for himself to ask you about it at a time you two set up for him to check in with you.

It seems to me it would be sad for your brother to be cut off from something that provides him with an opportunity for socializing. I can see how facebook's casual use of the word friend would be very confusing for a person with autism. It sounds like your brother just needs some more clarification and teaching.

You could also try a social story, which is another method for making social rules explicit. More info about that here:
posted by anodyne99 at 5:28 PM on July 16, 2010

"IANYSLP" (I am not *your* speech-language pathologist) but it does happen to be my day job. I think it is important to realize that Asperger's Syndrome/Autism is pervasive throughout a person's life, not just online. If he's having trouble online I'm sure he has trouble in real life. Just focusing on one area isn't going to get at the root of the problem. Generalization of skills is incredibly hard for most people on the spectrum.

It is admirable that you want to help your brother, however I would not encourage you to take this on yourself. If he had a toothache, would you offer to drill his tooth? Of course not, you'd take him to a dentist. Perhaps a professional that can address all of his social skill needs would be better suited for dealing with issues like these.

Michele Garcia-Winner ( has some wonderful resources for you and your brother. She has some nice books and resources that help the layperson understand Autism and social skills.

Maybe you can find a local speech pathologist who can provide some therapy for your brother? There are SLPs who offer adult group therapy to talk about exactly this kind of thing. Perhaps your brother would benefit from this, if he's open to it? You can always go to to find local speech pathologists, or contact an Autism advocacy group such as Autism Speaks ( or The Autism Society ( for information.

Best of luck!
(this is not medical advice, just friendly advice! :)
posted by absquatulate at 6:34 PM on July 29, 2010

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