This Special Needs Sibling Developed A New App To Help Autistic Individuals Like Her Brother Make Authentic Friendships

“One of the biggest challenges I have faced as a special needs sibling is watching my brother battle depression and anger due to the fact that he is aware of his differences.”

making authentic friendships app

By PJ Feinstein

A 2013 study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders found that young adults with autism spectrum disorder are more likely to be socially isolated. According to the year-long research, half of the study participants never received phone calls from friends, 40% didn’t get together with friends, and nearly 30% had no social contact at all. 

"Difficulty navigating the terrain of friendships and social interaction is a hallmark feature of autism," says Paul T. Shattuck, PhD, associate professor at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis, who led the research. "Nonetheless, many people with autism do indeed have a social appetite. They yearn for connection with others. We need better ways of supporting positive social connection and of preventing social isolation."

Juliana Fetherman hopes her new app, Making Authentic Friendships, will be one of those “better ways.” Seeing firsthand how hard it’s been for her autistic brother, Michael, to make friends, the recent MBA graduate decided to start a business that would help him “feel more ‘normal’ and less lonely,” she says.

Social programs frequently make Michael, 20, feel uncomfortable because they tend to group together people of varying abilities, explains Juliana. That’s why the goal of Making Authentic Friendships is to pair similarly-functioning individuals. “The app is meant to match people based on their abilities,” she says. “That way they are on a similar playing field and the friendship is authentic because they can relate to each other.” 

The beta version of Making Authentic Friendships will launch this month as an interactive web application that looks and feels like an app. Taking into consideration the feedback they receive, Juliana estimates it will take six months or so to develop the apps for iOS and Android devices.

Before developing Making Authentic Friendships, Juliana, 23, worked throughout high school and college raising awareness and money for special needs-related causes. She credits Michael for being a constant source of inspiration, although it wasn’t always easy growing up with a younger brother on the autism spectrum.

“One of the biggest challenges I have faced as a special needs sibling is watching my brother battle depression and anger due to the fact that he is aware of his differences,” says Juliana. “It breaks my heart to see him not be able to have the ‘normal’ things I have.” 

Juliana wishes people understood that her brother has the biggest heart and “wouldn’t intentionally hurt a fly” even though he frequently acts out in public. She says he’s always very upset and apologetic after his outbursts.

For others with an autistic brother or sister, Juliana offers the following advice: “Advocate for your siblings and people like them. Oftentimes, people with special needs are overlooked/don’t have a voice. It is important that you have a voice on their behalf. It will make the world a better place.”

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PJ Feinstein