Ditch the Cliques: 7 Great Ways Neurodiverse Youth Can Make Friends and Find Their Tribe

by Tressa W. Mitchell | Updated May 15, 2024

School or neighborhood cliques can be tough for a neurodiverse teen or pre-teen to overcome. And this isn’t just limited to youth with significant social challenges. Even the most socially adept among these kids may still feel like an outsider separated by a invisible barrier between them and their peers who are connecting and having fun – without them.

As a parent of a neurodiverse (ND) youth with ADHD, on the Autism Spectrum, or with other neurodifferences, it may break your heart to watch your child struggle to connect, only to be rebuffed or ignored. I know because I’ve felt the powerlessness and frustration, too, while desperately wishing I could intervene and tell cliquish kids to be more kind and inclusive.

The solution often recommended for this scenario is social and emotional skills coaching. This is an excellent plan when kids lack the skill sets to make and keep friendships. But what if your youth has done all in their power to befriend others in their school or neighborhood only to find they are being still being shut out by cliques? Where else can your ND youth go to make friends?

What are cliques?

By definition, cliques are groups of people with shared attitudes, interests, or other similarities who often spend a great deal of time together. While this behavior has the effect of creating extremely close friendships, if unchecked these tight-fitting circles may potentially socially wall off others from the group.

If your ND youth struggles to integrate where there is a group dynamic that’s exclusive, it may be time to think outside the social bubble. While friendship is important for socio-emotional development, there is no rule that says your youth has to curate friends from within their school or neighborhood.

In fact, if cliques dominate the landscape, and your ND youth continually feel left out despite their best efforts to adapt and connect, it may be wise in the long run to find friends outside these contexts.

Go Where Your Kids Can Be Themselves

Friendships often bloom in natural settings, where youth are at ease with each other and where there are shared interests. Think of places where your youth feels most at home. If they are happier hanging out with cousins living nearby, the kids in Grandma’s neighborhood, or the teens at your church, for example, cultivate those opportunities.

Casual visits or inviting kids who genuinely like and get along with your youth to come to your home are simple ways to help them build friendships without the added anxiety of trying to fit in.

If these options are not practical for your youth, you could discuss the possibility of trying a different setting altogether. Some families have found greater social growth for their ND kids by switching over to a public charter school or homeschooling environment.

Charter Schools. Charter schools are typically smaller in size, which may make it easier to make friends and become part of the school culture. Although there’s no guarantee a given school will be the one where your ND youth will find their tribe, you may be able optimize your search for an appropriate charter school by checking parent and student reviews on sites like greatschools.org or www.niche.com. Be aware that reviews on these sites are opinions only and may not fully reflect the overall school culture.

Once you’ve selected a few prospective charter schools in your area, you can network through people you know to meet parents of kids enrolled in those schools. You can also talk with people in your neighborhood’s social media community about the student culture at these schools. If possible, schedule a tour of a school to observe the atmosphere yourself.

Homeschooling. Homeschooling is another path that some parents of ND kids have chosen in order to create a better social climate for their kids. One advantage in homeschooling is the variety of education formats and extra-curricular opportunities that give parents the flexibility of tailoring the social experience to their youths’ needs.

For instance, if a child with ADHD learns better in person, they could learn together with other youth in a homeschool coop and add on a social sport or a YMCA homeschool enrichment class. Likewise, a teen with anxiety who takes online K-12 or dual-credit college classes can get out of the house to socialize by way of a music class or joining a local Scouts Venturing crew. The options are unlimited.

To assess whether homeschooling is a suitable social alternative, you can start by locating a local homeschool community to ask questions and introduce yourself to other parents who have ND youth. Homeschool.com and The Homeschool Mom both have searchable lists of homeschool support groups and coops that can help guide your search for local homeschool resources.

Look to Their Interests

No matter the education setting, if your ND youth feels isolated and needs ideas for connecting with more people, it may be worthwhile to take an inventory of their interests and research options, then build a list of local resources where like-minded youth may congregate.

If your youth feels uncomfortable meeting new people in unfamiliar settings, though, it’s okay to go at their own pace. Moreover, if a given activity is a social dead end, it’s fine to try something else. It may take a few forays into the unknown until your youth finds their social niche.

Some types of pro-social pursuits your ND youth may enjoy include recreational activities, youth development programs, faith-based youth groups, and team-based educational programs. Let’s take a more detailed look at these options.

Recreational activities. Quite often parents will enroll ND kids in recreational activities like dance or soccer, in hopes that being part of a team or class will help them make friends or improve their outlook on life.

It’s no secret that participating in sports can help youth advance social skills and provide a sense of belonging. In fact, 2018 University of Texas and Aspen Institute survey of youth in sports bears out that team sports have clear psychosocial benefits. 1

One thing to note, however, is that not all ND youth are eager to engage in social sports. Though reasons for reticence are often complex, among key findings are the worries that a high number of autistic kids have in regards to bullying and other adverse social interactions. Due to this and other factors, some of these youth may be less likely to participate in sports and other physical activities. 2

If your youth is having great difficulty engaging in a particular social sport or is clearly not loving it, rather than pushing, why not try something else? If the pressure of a high-energy team sport isn’t helping them grow socially, they could try something less demanding, such as a golf or archery class. If dance class is an awkward experience, perhaps your youth would enjoy a running club instead?

There are a host of other activities and clubs that can meet the social needs of ND youth. Some activities are more ubiquitous and neurodivergent-friendly, while other activities may require time to locate or pull together because they are so specialized in nature. What’s most important is finding activities that fit your youth’s personality and needs.

Youth development programs. Joining a youth development program is one easy way for ND youth to meet people. Girl Scouts of America, Boy Scouts of America, and 4-H are among the largest youth organizations in the United States, with chapters in most every state. Though these groups vary from each other in structure, they all boast neurodivergent-friendly programs with opportunities to develop a wide variety of skills and explore special interests.

For parents who are looking for something different from the larger youth organizations, there are also “non-aligned” scouting groups, which lean more heavily into focuses such as faith, diversity, or patriotism.

Some of these include American Heritage Girls, Camp Fire, Frontier Girls, Pathfinders, Spiral Scouts, and Awana; as well as Calvanist Cadet Corps, Trail Life USA, Outdoor Service Guides, Pioneer Clubs, and Royal Rangers. Though fewer in number, these groups may be an attractive option for parents who want their children to meet youth who share similar values.

Faith-based youth groups. For parents who want their ND youth to have a religious foundation in solidarity with other kids, a faith-based youth group may be another option to explore. Many religious organizations have active youth ministries. These organizations typically offer social opportunities ranging from weekly activities and service projects to faith education classes.

To find a youth group affiliated with your religious tradition, try contacting a church, mosque, synagogue, or temple near you. A few resources include:

Team-based youth educational programs. If your youth is inquisitive, creative, and up for a challenge, a team-based youth educational program may be an ideal way to make friends with similar interests. International programs such as Destination Imagination, FIRST Robotics, and Math League provide opportunities for ND kids to collaborate with other kids while building knowledge and skillsets in a specific area of learning. Here is a snapshot of these programs.

  • Destination Imagination. If your youth is open to meeting and collaborating with other kids, Destination Imagination (DI) may be worth a look. Destination Imagination is a global, team-based organization that offers creative project competitions rooted in Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math (STEAM). Each team solves a specific Technical, Scientific, Fine Arts, Improvisational, Engineering, Service-Learning challenge, as well as Instant Challenges. Teams may be formed in almost any environment, from public school, homeschool coops, STEAM/STEM clubs, and community groups. Check out the DI website to find an affiliate program near you or learn how to start your own team. 
  • FIRST Robotics Programs offer youth the opportunity to collaborate as they engineer, build, and code robots for exhibition at a competitive tournament. Charged with following specific rules with only certain resources, students compete first at the local level for the chance to qualify for regional events and the FIRST Championships, as well as a shot at university scholarships. The program offers FIRST Lego League, with age-based divisions for kids ages 4 through 16; FIRST Tech Challenge for 7th to 12th graders; and FIRST Robotics Competition. To help your youth find a team or to learn how to start a team, check out the First Robotics website.
  • Math League. Young math enthusiasts may enjoy teaming up to compete in Math League, a global organization which runs math contests for third through 12th graders. This academically oriented program provides opportunities for students to associate with others as they prepare for contests throughout the year. Math League also offers classes, where they can meet other youth as they learn to problem-solve for both the individual and team-based components of the competition. School teams have no more than four students per elementary or middle school-level and up to six students for high school-level teams – which may be just right for youth who prefer small groups.

This is just a short list of activities where neurodiverse youth may meet kids with similar interests and goals. An online search of these types of activities will likely yield more possibilities to explore.

Remember, you know your child best. As with all activities, the suitability of each option will largely be dependent upon your youth’s abilities, interests, and willingness to participate.


The bottom line: when school or neighborhood cliques exist, your neurodiverse youth doesn’t have to be left out in the cold. There is a myriad of social options that exist outside self-limiting groups. By looking for environments where your offspring feels most at ease and social groups and activities that align with their interests, you can help your help your youth grow beyond the status quo.

Additional Resources:
  1. Bowers, M. & Solomon, J. “Psychosocial Survey Component Report.” Healthy Sport Index. The Aspen Institute. Accessed 4/20/2024. https://healthysportindex.com/report/psychosocial-report/ ↩︎
  2. Arnell, S., Jerlinder, K., & Lundgvist, L (2017). “Perceptions of Physical Activity Participation Among Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Conceptual Model of Conditional Participation.” Journal of Autism Developmental Disorders. National Library of Medicine. Accessed 4/20/2024. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5889777/

Tressa W. Mitchell
Tressa is the editor of Neurodiverse Family. A mom of five neurodiverse kids, Tressa believes in the power of connection and strengths-based parenting. She has a background in public relations, content writing and social media management.

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