A UNIQUE experiment to help people with autism across Europe make friends using Facebook has been given a boost in Oxford.

Thirty people with the condition from Slovenia, Romania and Estonia visited the city last week as part of an Oxford Brookes University project to help them form friendships online.

Psychologist Johnny Lawson said the Autism Connections Europe (ACE) project was examining whether it was easier for people with autism to use the internet to meet people, before then seeing them face to face.

The group have been talking to each other online for the past two years, and have now started meeting at regular intervals to see if they can cement their friendships.

He said: “In all sorts of ways, friendship brings all sorts of psychological benefits.

“It can be difficult for these guys to create friendships because of their problems with social interaction and social communication.”

Over the past two years, the group have met each other online, before going on trips to meet in person.

Dr Lawson, who is based at the Headington university, said: “It is the first time anything like this has been tried.

“We know that people on the autistic spectrum find face-to-face interaction quite difficult.

“Online, they do not have to deal with the complicated stuff like facial expressions.

“We took measurements at the beginning of the project and we are not yet sure what the data will tell us, but there is lots of other evidence to suggest it is working.

“Some of the communications from parents suggest it seems to have made a real difference.

“If you see them, they treat each other like old friends.”

A four day event at the university last weekend included trips and tours for the 30 participants. There was even a punting trip down the River Cherwell.

Dr Lawson said: “Autistic people think in a different way and that event is about trying to get people to understand that.

“I have been working in this field for 12 years now and in my experience pretty much none of the interventions work.

“If your aim is to make life better for them it’s for the rest of us to understand the condition.”