Friendships pose unique challenges for women on the spectrum
Many autistic people have trouble making and keeping friends. This has led to the myth that they don’t want friends3. In reality, they long for friendships just like anyone else. But they face unique challenges in forming and maintaining them.
Our work reveals that they have difficulty responding to social conflict, understanding unspoken romantic innuendos and dealing with social anxiety. We need to develop interventions that help prepare them for these challenges.
Most of what we know about friendships in autism comes from studies in children, whose friendships are far less complex than those of adults. The few studies that examine relationships in autistic adults focus primarily on men.
We sought to understand how autistic women differ from neurotypical women in the challenges they face in forming and maintaining friendships, and the satisfaction they glean from the relationships. This understanding could point to specific strategies to help these girls and women navigate their social worlds.
We interviewed 15 autistic women and 15 neurotypical women, aged 20 to 40 and living in England, about friendships and other relationships. Our results are unpublished. The women are enrolled in a larger study exploring the social experiences of girls and women on the spectrum.
We asked open-ended questions such as “How do you choose your friends?” and “What is it about friends that is important to you?”
We found that autistic women tend to view friendships like neurotypical women do. They value the opportunity to share their thoughts and emotions with friends, responding with answers such as, “I can tell them anything at all and they listen.” They welcome the support that friendships provide, saying things like, “She’s always helping me a lot or I’m always helping her a lot.” They also appreciate the freedom to “be yourself” in a relationship, and say that friendships offer “a safe space.”
But we identified some important differences. Whereas neurotypical women tend to have large groups of friends, autistic women tend to have a few close, intense friendships. Sometimes these intense friendships became similar to a “special interest,” one woman told us. “My friends are all-consuming, the only thing you think about,” she said.
Women on the spectrum also differ from their neurotypical peers in how they respond to acts of social aggression, such as gossip or being suddenly cut off by a friend. Many of these women experience social anxiety as a result of such challenges, which causes them to limit socializing.
This anxiety can color how these women then approach all social interactions, regardless of whether they expect a conflict. For example, one woman said that because of her anxiety, she needs to keep her interactions with others brief. This can damage friendships over time.
Autistic women use the internet to maintain friendships more than typical women do, we found. Some women seem to rely on online messaging almost exclusively to keep in touch with friends. “That’s pretty much all my social life is, the internet,” one woman said.
Women on the spectrum reported romantic relationships of similar lengths and levels of seriousness as those of neurotypical women, and said these were the most important friendships in their lives. “My husband essentially became my special interest,” one autistic woman told us. “I wouldn’t really say that I have friends apart from my partner,” another said.
One woman described romantic partners as “the ready meal of friendships,” because a partner comes with his or her own social network. Taking on a partner’s friends can alleviate the stress and anxiety of making new friends, but it can also leave a person isolated if the romantic relationship ends. Although some neurotypical women also make their romantic partners the center of their social network, this tendency is marked among autistic women.
Autistic people sometimes have difficulty understanding the implied meaning of a conversation or their friends’ social expectations, which can strain friendships7. For example, one woman described an incident in which a friend asked, “Does this dress make me look fat?” “Don’t be silly,” she responded. “Your fat makes you look fat, not the dress.”
The difficulties women on the spectrum have understanding other people’s motivations could also leave them vulnerable to harm — particularly in romantic and sexual relationships. More so than typical individuals, these women tend to interpret statements literally and assume other people have good intentions. “I thought we really were just having a coffee, and that isn’t what he meant at all,” one woman told us. These tendencies could explain why these women reported higher levels of sexual assault to us than the neurotypical women did.
We were heartened to find that all the women in our study reported becoming more self-aware and self-assured with age. As a result, they were increasingly satisfied with their friends — perhaps because they had learned how to end harmful relationships and focus on genuine friendships. One autistic woman explained, “I am now more picky about who I spend time with and who I trust.” Perhaps targeted support early on can accelerate this natural process.
Liz Pellicano is director of the Centre for Research in Autism and Education at University College London. Felicity Sedgewick is a graduate student in her lab.
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I woke yesterday ready to start my day, or at least I thought I would be ready and yet I awoke in pain and could not start my day the way I had anticipated. It reminded me again of all I have to be thankful for.
Today, on the 4th of July, I am thankful that I am alive and living in a place where I can get out of my bed and leave my house without fear of being accosted by anyone, at least most of the time. Of course there is always a small risk, but he risk is very small where I live, compared to many others.
I am thankful that I have access to medications which can help me, doctors–hat although I may consider them to be idiots much of the time–are likely much better than what many of the people in other countries have access to. Even some in the country where I live cannot see a doctor because they cannot afford insurance and do not live in a state where there is expanded Medicaid and therefore cannot get insurance if they do not qualify or meet certain criteria.
I am thankful to be alive today, because I know how close I came to not being alive just in the past few years; and I know that in the next several years I may again come close to not being alive but I have access to Doctors, hospitals and medication that will likely help me to avoid that outcome. I know this because I received that news yesterday I am still processing this information now and until I do process it, I will be unable to sleep.
I am not the type to wallow in self-pity or cry and whine about things. This is not a death sentence, but there is a long story behind this and in time I will make sure to tell all of you the story. I am not contagious and this has nothing to do with my lifestyle or past history choices. But I must first inform all of my family and this will happen soon, after that I can go into more details and then maybe even some of you will be able to help me through this one. I am in what you would call shell shock I suppose. It is really surreal to have a diagnosis like this. It was surreal to me to get a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder which I received just 6 months ago roughly. Not like the family or others didn’t know that I wasn’t a bit “off” or “odd” or “strange” or as some others called me “batshit” or “nuts” or my least favorite word “crazy”. I honestly think “batshit” was the funniest one of all, that one cracked me up. I always considered myself to be a rather intelligent ditz. I could always come across as rather ditzy but I seemed to be able to keep up intelligence wise anyway. My IQ was not lacking at least it wasn’t back in the day. a few years ago it took a bit of a hit and my cognitive ability suffered. So I am in slow motion now, which is really okay by me.
So another thing I am thankful for is the ability to realize that regardless of diagnosis, I am still me and no diagnosis defines me, I define who I am. I do not react, I act. The things I live by are these:
- Honesty is import always, So be honest with yourself and others at all times. It has cost me a few jobs, sorry to say. So try to be tactful when you do it. I am rather blunt.
- Act and don’t react. Always take time to think before you speak and think before you do, that way when someone does something or when you read something or hear something you are acting on it, rather than reacting to it. This will create a much better result in the end, at least from my experience.
- Forgive when it feels right to forgive – It is okay to forgive someone who you hold near and dear to your heart. Humans make mistakes at times and because they are dear to you, you should forgive them. It is when they continue to make the exact same mistake over and over again repeatedly without care for your suffering that they are not someone who should be in your close family/friends circle. It may be time to look and see if that relationship is toxic to you, love should not hurt you repeatedly over and over and over again. When you forgive someone, you let hate out of your heart, but that does not mean that you forgot what they did, it also does not mean you harbor that memory in your heart. It is a fine line there to walk. Understanding that line takes balance, and that balance is where you will find yourself the right perspective. When it feels wrong it is wrong, always trust your instincts.
- Believe in yourself – Don’t ever let anyone convince you that you cannot believe in yourself or in your instincts. For many years I was told that I could not trust my mind, that I should not listen to myself because I was “crazy”. They were not correct. My Doctors now and for the past few years have been affirming that I am indeed not crazy and that I need to listen to my instincts and trust my own judgement and my mind, that they are sound and I am smart. I do believe I like these Doctors a lot more than the other ones.
So on this July 4th, as I get ready to celebrate with my children and most of my grandchildren I am thankful for the opportunity to share those things that I live my life by with all of you. I hope that some of those things help some of you. Being Autistic means that I live by a set of rules, they are excessively important to me, my oldest son, although not diagnosed is Autistic also and his son is diagnosed and is Autistic. My oldest son, his first goal on his IEP (Individualized Education Plan) in school was to learn Empathy. His only empathy was for cats. My daughter and my youngest son both have Bi-Polar type 1, although my youngest son was originally diagnosed with Schizoaffective disorder at the age of 15 and his first goal with his IEP in school was at the age of 4, it was to be able to make eye contact. He has not been evaluated as of yet for Autism. All of my children and I have ADHD. It is a hoot when we all get together. It will be a great July 4th, I hope all of you will have a terrific one as well. Be safe and Happy.
Do you agree or disagree? You fill in your answer please leave me a comment. So… Arrogance, a dish best served with ………. and you would tell me what you think.
I would love to hear your opinions. I have heard many about autism and how we are viewed on this topic. I also understand that each of us is different. I would love to hear from all of you. Leave me a comment let me know what you think it should be…..