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I am an Autistic person,not a person with autism. I am also not Aspergers. The diagnosis isn't even in the DSM anymore, and yes, I agree with the consolidation of all autistic spectrum stuff under one umbrella. I have other issues with the DSM.

I don't like Autism Speaks. I'm Disabled, not differently abled, and I am an Autistic activist. Self-advocate is true, but incomplete.

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Thursday, June 7, 2018

Assigned "friends" and unintended lessons

I often hear about things like "assigned friends" and "friends of the day" in disability contexts. It creeps me the heck out.

Essentially, a student who is presumed to be abled is assigned, in some fashion, to a classmate who is presumed to be disabled, is new to the class when no one else is, or is presumed to "need help with social skills." Sometimes this means the person is assigned to be their partner (or in their group) for any partner and group activities that happen that day. Sometimes it means the person is assigned to sit with them at lunch, or play with them at recess. Sometimes it means the person is assigned to assist with some disability-related task (which makes me wonder if saving money on aides and services is part of the rationale here.) Sometimes it's a combination of these things.

I've actually been both the assigned friend and the person to whom friends are assigned, at different points. Neither was good. I learned things from both that were ... probably not what I was supposed to learn from either. Or at least, not what the teachers would have claimed I was supposed to learn. So, in no particular order, here's some things I learned that they probably didn't mean to teach me this way.

  • School bullies, like all other abusers, know how to be sneaky. Do I think the teachers meant to assign my bully to be my friend? Or me to be my bully's friend? No on both counts. (Yeah, the kid I was assigned to the one time I was the presumed abled kid in this equation was also a bully. Disabled people aren't immune to being bullies ourselves.) But it happened, because bullies know how to be sneaky. And yes, I had a bully who requested that she be "assigned" to me as a friend in order to get and stay closer.

  • Playing alone at recess isn't an option. These "friends" tended to get assigned more after I had been playing alone on the swings or alone looking for (and finding!) four leaf clovers at recess. Or running laps around the field. Yes, really. I ran laps around the field alone at recess for most of fourth grade, because my actual friends a year below me didn't have recess at the same time I did anymore. This got me assigned so-called friends in my own grade a few times. The assigned friends were not usually people I had common interests with and were often people who bullied me when the teachers couldn't see. I did have one actual friend in my grade, but he was never my "assigned" friend.
  • Since "friends" are the people who are basically assigned to put up with me, anyone who's spending time with me is probably just putting up with me. They don't actually like me. Yes, this is a factor in my social anxiety. I'm not alone in learning this lesson about friendships, and teaching indistinguishability as a goal can teach this lesson too.
  • I don't get to decide for myself who my friends are. "Friends" are whoever I'm told to be friends with, or whoever is told to be friends with me. So not only do I not get to decide who I'd like to be friends with (not the kids who would ever get assigned as friends, by the way), but I also don't get to decide who I'd rather avoid.
Teachers don't think about the effects of further singling out the "weird" kids. Or they don't care. Look, if you are 1)  assigning kids to be closer to their bullies and 2) pointing out who the weird kid was at the same time, you either don't know or don't care that this is going to make the bullying worse. Those are the options. I am giving you the benefit of the doubt when I assume you don't know.
So, are these the lessons you want to teach?


  1. I'm much older than you. I have no memory of school policies such as you describe. Perhaps I am fortunate to have attended school back in the good old days before the assigned friends intervention was invented.

    I must say, though, that I have at times expressed the idea that maybe friendless children should be thought of, by the "system", if you will,
    at-risk (of career failure in adult life, because in the world we unfortunately live in, the lack of such failure requires "networking"). It's always been a mixed feeling on my part, as I thought maybe the friendless (such as myself) could have benefited from extra attention, or at least an acknowledgement on the part of the system that we exist, that we face challenges, etc. But that idea has always been tempered by the fact that watching shows like Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil has taught me that intervention is a dirty word.

    I remember in one of Vonnegut's novels something about a government program to assign people to families, as a pulic policy strategy against nepotism or something. I liked the idea as social commentary, but figured he meant it only as a joke. Since I've always subscribed to the idea behind Rawls' "veil of ignorance," it would seem that whether one has a rich aunt or uncle or other relative who maybe can help one's career by pulling strings is contingent on blind luck, whether persons are assigned to families by the stork (by being born) or by some human agency. But I like the idea of redistribution of social capital. I like even more the idea of a meritocracy in which communication skills aren't a prerequisite for getting to use skills other than communication skills, or even getting any paid employment. But I see that as ridiculously utopian compared to the status quo we have.

    To address your parting questions: Are these lessons we want to teach? I'm not entirely sure. Looking back on my "career" as just a temp, sometimes I wonder if some of the temp assignments I've worked might have lasted longer, or even have led to a JWB (job with bennies) had I not been the one worker doing lunch breaks alone, maybe not even leaving my desk. If the purpose of school is to prepare students for work, then maybe social interventions are in order for the, take your pick, asocial or socially awkward.

  2. Wow. This practice sounds awful. Having spent most of my recesses alone in elementary school, I'd have hated it even more if my bully (or even someone else I was completely unable to talk to) had been told to hover around me :( Better to be alone than in bad company...


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