Adolescent Autistic Friendships

By Tony Attwood and Michelle Garnett

Typical adolescent friendships

Typical children go through four stages of friendship from pre-school to adolescence, with the fourth stage becoming apparent from around the age of 13. During the previous stage of friendship (9 to 13 years) there is usually a small core of close, same gender friends, but in stage four the number of friends, gender, and quality of friendship changes. There can be different friends for different needs, such as emotional comfort, humour and entertainment, or practical advice for schoolwork. A friend is defined in stage four as someone who ‘accepts me for who I am’ or ‘we think the same way about things.’ A friend provides a sense of personal identity, self-esteem, connectedness, and resonance with one’s own personality. There are less concrete and more abstract definitions of friendship, with what may be described as ‘autonomous inter-dependence’. The friendships are less possessive and exclusive, and conflict is resolved with self-reflection, compromise, and negotiation.

During the teenage years, friendships are often based on shared interests, such as academic achievements, mutual participation in sports and recreational activities, and passion for causes, such as climate change. There is a greater depth and breadth of self-disclosure, empathy, and sharing feelings and secrets. The teenager increasingly spends more time with friends than parents, and allegiance can be to friends and their value systems rather than to family. Peer group acceptance may be perceived as more important than the approval of parents.

When conflicts occur, friends will now use more effective repair mechanisms. Arguments can be less ‘heated’, with reduced confrontation and more disengagement, admission of mistakes and recognition that it is not simply a matter of winner and loser. A satisfactory resolution of interpersonal conflict between friends can strengthen the relationship. The friend is forgiven, and the conflict is put in perspective. These relationship qualities played out in typical adolescent friendships are the foundation of interpersonal skills for adult relationships.

Autistic friendships

In typical adolescents, the acquisition of friendship skills is based on an innate and evolving ability to make and keep friends that develops throughout childhood, in association with progressive changes in social reasoning and abilities modified through positive friendship experiences. Unfortunately, autistic children and adolescents are not as able to rely on intuitive abilities in social settings and must rely more on their general cognitive abilities to process social information. They often have had peer interactions which have been confusing, if not aversive. Due to relying on cognitive rather than intuitive abilities, autistic adolescents often have difficulty in friendship situations that have not been rehearsed or prepared for. They also have difficulty reading and following covert social rules and conventions. They may be criticized by peers for making social errors, often being labelled a ‘social retard’. Autistic adolescents have probably not had many opportunities for a friendship mentor – peer or adult – to provide guidance and constructive, positive feedback.

Thus, autistic adolescents work twice as hard intellectually at school than their peers, as they are learning both the academic and the social curriculum. As explained by an autistic teenager, ‘It takes all my brain power to be a friend.’ At the end of the school day, the autistic teenager has usually had more than enough social interaction, and desperately needs to relax in solitude to intellectually process the day’s social experiences. As far as the autistic teenager is concerned, friendships end at the school gate. They may resist parents’ suggestions to contact friends or engage in extra-curricular activities, local sports, and artistic activities such as drama. Parents may need to accept that their teenage son or daughter does not have the energy or motivation to socialize any more. If parents arrange social experiences, it is imperative that the experiences are brief, structured, supervised, successful, and, most importantly, voluntary.

Even when autistic adolescents are included in the activities and conversations of their peers at school, there may be an awareness that they are not popular. This is illustrated by two comments from autistic adults describing their teenage years: ‘I wasn’t rejected, but I did not feel completely included’, and, ‘I was supported and tolerated, but not liked.’ A common lament is feeling that others do not want to be around them – that they are perceived as a nuisance. Autistic adolescents often blame themselves, or the fact that they are autistic, for their peer rejection, and become anxious to avoid inadvertently violating their peer social hierarchy and expectations. A lack of genuine social acceptance by peers will obviously adversely affect the development of self-esteem, self-identity, and perception of autism.

Autistic adolescents can be increasingly aware of being socially naïve and making social faux pas. The worry about social incompetence and conspicuous errors can lead to the development of a social phobia and increased social withdrawal. An autistic teenager said that ‘I live in a constant state of performance anxiety over day-to-day social encounters.’ Aversive social experiences with peers can lead to the assumption that everyone is against them, and to misperceiving, or not recognising, friendly intentions when they do occur. This may be a contributary factor to becoming a recluse at home, and not wanting to leave the safe sanctuary of their bedroom.

The social performance anxiety can be especially acute at the end of the day, and before falling asleep, when the autistic teenager reviews the social experiences of school. He or she may now be very aware of what other people may think, and this can be a significant cause of anxiety: ‘I probably made a fool of myself’; or depression: ‘I always make mistakes and always will.’ There can be a conscious retreat into solitude: as an autistic adolescent said, ‘I’d rather just be alone, but I can’t handle the loneliness.’

The autistic teenager typically has fewer friends, and meets with friends less often at school and for a shorter duration, compared to peers. They can express feelings of deep loneliness and melancholy. Being isolated and not having friends also makes the adolescent vulnerable to being teased and bullied. The ‘predators’ at high school target someone who is alone, vulnerable and less likely to be protected by peers. Having more friends can mean having fewer enemies, being protected, and having someone to repair or refute derogatory comments and restore a sense of trust.

Peer acceptance and friendships can also benefit the autistic teenager in terms of providing a second opinion regarding the motives and intentions of others, thus preventing that sense of paranoia. Friends can provide an effective emotional monitoring and repair mechanism, especially for emotions such as anxiety, anger, and depression. If a typical teenager is sad, close friends will cheer them up, or if angry, calm them down and prevent them from getting into trouble. Friends can also offer guidance on what is appropriate social behaviour, helping develop a positive self-image and greater self-confidence.

Typical adolescents can easily identify their friendship ‘family’, and achieve a sense of connection and belonging to a friendship group with shared interests and values. Autistic adolescents, on the other hand, often yearn for a sense of connection, but usually experience rejection from popular friendship groups. However, they may be accepted by marginalised teenage groups that engage in activities and interests that tend to cause concern for parents – exploration of alcohol and drug use, sexuality and eating disorders, for example. The friendship family ‘adopts’ the autistic teenager, who acquires a new intense interest and may accumulate knowledge from the Internet that is valued by the group.

When a friendship does occur, one of the difficulties for autistic adolescents is knowing how to maintain that friendship. They may struggle with the unspoken rules, such as how often to make contact using social media; what are appropriate topics of reciprocal conversations on mutual interests; what might be suitable empathic comments and gestures; and how should they be generous or tolerant about disagreements. Autistic teenagers can tend to be ‘black or white’ in their concept of friendship, such that when a friend makes a transgression of a friendship expectation or ‘rule’, the autistic teenager may coldly end the friendship rather than seek reconciliation. Sometimes, when the neurotypical friend ends the relationship, the autistic adolescent can experience considerable emotional distress, especially when not knowing exactly why the friendship ended; they may experience a deep sense of betrayal.

One of the characteristics of autism is alexithymia, that is, a difficulty communicating inner thoughts and feelings in a conversation. This reciprocal disclosure is one of the core components of adolescent friendships, especially for girls, but extremely difficult for autistic teenagers who can be perceived as ‘shallow. This combines with another difficulty associated with autism, that is knowing how to respond empathically to a friend’s disclosure, and thus they may be perceived by peers as emotionally ‘cold’.

Autistic friendships for girls

The challenges in developing friendships for autistic adolescents described in the previous section can be applicable to both autistic boys and girls. However, we are increasingly recognising how autistic girls may have a different way of adapting to their autism when they make friends. At some stage during the primary or elementary school years, an autistic girl will start to recognise she is different to her peers in terms of social abilities, interests, and sensory sensitivity. She may then develop compensatory and camouflaging strategies to make and keep friends.

The autistic girl may not understand or feel comfortable engaging in the complex friendship dynamics of other girls, which often include gossip, relational bullying, judgements and ‘white lies. In contrast, typical boys’ social interactions are much simpler, and the autistic girl may share the boys’ interests in sports, science, computer games, construction toys, logic and adventure. The autistic girl thus becomes a tomboy, a compensatory mechanism for autism which can continue into the adolescent years, as she does not share her gender peers’ interest in fashion, or romantic feelings towards popular male heroes.

Another strategy is to acquire social inclusion with female peers by observing peer social interactions, analysing their behaviour, seeking social rules and conventions, and imitating the gestures, speech, persona, and interests of socially successful girls. She creates a social ‘mask’ and becomes an expert mimic. As a teenage girl said, ‘Why go to all the effort of figuring out what normal is when you can just copy it?’

When acting with friends she is briefly ‘cured’ of autism, but there is only a surface sociability; her lack of real social identity, and constant acting of socialising with peers can be a source of performance anxiety, cognitive and emotional exhaustion, and ultimately depression. The characteristics of autism are supressed at high school, so her social difficulties are not noticed by teachers; however, the supressed stress is often released at home. She becomes a chameleon, or ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ character.

Camouflaging autism by being an accomplished actor who has ‘learned the script’ enables the girl to acquire social acceptance and inclusion by her peers. She mimics appropriate social gestures, facial expressions and female prosody. However, this in turn may delay the identification of two of the central characteristics of autism, namely deficits in both social and emotional reciprocity, and the appropriate use of non-verbal communication. As one teenage autistic girl said, ‘I have done such a great job at pretending to be normal that nobody really believes I have autism.’

An autistic teenage girl can be overly sensitive to conflict between her female friends and take on the role of peacemaker. In a friendship group there can be several contradictory opinions and egos, and an autistic adolescent will have difficulty processing several conversations and feel uncomfortable being watched by several peers. An autistic teenage girl may prefer single close friendships, but have difficulty determining who would be an appropriate choice for a friend.

When a one-on-one friendship does occur, there can be concerns about the degree of intensity of the girl’s engagement with just one person. She can be overly controlling and possessive, and the one female friend becomes the sole focus of her social life. This interpersonal dynamic may shorten the duration of the friendship, which is ultimately broken by the neurotypical friend. The friendship may also be broken by the autistic teenager, who has a rigid conceptualization of what a friend should do and say. There is a limited ability to understand an alternative perspective, and to manage disagreements and conflict with re-appraisal, compromise, and forgiveness. Thus, there may be a total rejection of the relationship without having considered any relationship repair mechanisms.

During earlier childhood, young autistic girls may observe, analyse and consequently adopt the conversations and interests of their peers – fashion such as pink, frilly clothes, toys such as Barbie dolls, and the current popular films and tv shows. As these interests and preferences of their peers evolve, during adolescence, there is a continued determination by girls to stay abreast of this ‘currency’ of female friendship. However, as adolescence progresses, there may be a recognition by young autistic females that they do not feel as though they are a genuine member of the friendship group. They are exhausted after socializing with their peers, and spend considerable time engaged in a social ‘autopsy’, analysing their social abilities and fearing that they will be discovered as a fake. Social invitations may diminish, and there is a growing realization that this strategy of acting and camouflaging may never really work; there is an increasing feeling of alienation from peers, and a sense of not being true to the real self. The ‘pendulum’ can then swing the other way, such that the girl begins to despise femininity and defy social and gender conventions. She may become determined to join marginalised peers who are less judgemental and more accepting of someone who is ‘eccentric’.

Resources and programmes on friendship

We would not anticipate that an autistic adolescent could quickly and easily acquire the friendship abilities of their peers. However, there are strategies and programmes that can be used by parents, teachers, and therapists to improve friendship experiences, abilities, and confidence.

An autistic friend

Friendship is often based on two people sharing the same interests, beliefs, and values. We have observed that sometimes the most enjoyable and long-lasting friendships for an autistic adolescent is with another autistic adolescent. They have found each other. This may have been by chance, both being conspicuously on the periphery of friendship groups, or by design or circumstances.

In high school, there may be the opportunity to join interest groups at lunchtime or after school, shared interest topics such as science-fiction films, Japanese anime and manga, science or mathematics projects, and robotics and computer programming may be just some of the more popular topics. Friendships may then develop that are relatively safe from criticism and based on mutual interests. Another source of friendship can be two autistic students who are talented in similar areas, such as art and drawing, or music, who can then share ideas and techniques with each other.

Friendships with autistic adolescents may be achieved out of school hours by attending events such as Comic Book, Cosplay, and fan conventions, meeting like-minded peers. We have run many autistic adolescent groups on themes such as emotion regulation, building resilience to bullying, being the authentic self, and the dating game. We have found that many participants developed friendships during and beyond the group sessions.

Animals as friends

Animals provide unconditional acceptance. The family or personal dog is always delighted to see you, despite the day’s disappointments and exhaustion. The horse seems to understand you and wants to be your companion. The cat jumps on your lap, and purrs with delight in your company. Pets, and animals in general, can be effective and successful substitutes for human friends, and a menagerie becomes a substitute ‘family’. Animals identify with, and feel relaxed in the company of, a non-predator (the autistic adolescent), and pets can be a source of comfort and reassurance. A special interest in, and natural understanding of, animals can become the basis of a successful career. We have also found that autistic adolescents are often more able to perceive, and have compassion for, the perspective of animals than they are that of humans, with a greater sense of trust and mutual understanding.

Internet friends

An autistic adolescent may have achieved an advanced level of expertise on multi-player games and is genuinely admired by fellow gamers, who actively seek the autistic adolescent as a member of their team. They are accepted and valued because of their knowledge rather than their social persona and appearance.  This status and appreciation can be a rare and intoxicating experience. One of the advantages of this form of entertainment and friendship is that autistic adolescents have a greater eloquence in disclosing and expressing thoughts and feelings through typing rather than face-to-face conversation.  In social gatherings at school, the adolescent is expected to be able to listen to and process the other person’s speech, often against a background of other conversations, to immediately reply, and simultaneously analyse non-verbal cues such as gestures, facial expression, and tone of voice. However, when using the computer screen, the person can concentrate on social exchange without being overwhelmed by so many sensory experiences and social signals.

The Internet provides an opportunity to meet like-minded individuals who can get to know each other using game chat lines, web pages and message boards dedicated to autism. However, as in any social situation, the autistic adolescent may be vulnerable to others taking advantage of his or her social naivety and desire to have a friend. The autistic adolescent needs to be taught caution and not urged to provide any personal information until they have discussed the Internet friendship with someone who can be trusted.

Activities for parents

The end of the school day, when the autistic adolescent has recovered from the educational, social, and sensory challenges of their day at high school, may be a time to discuss any aspects of friendship that have been successful or confusing. The conversation may start with sharing positive friendship experiences, such as an enjoyable time with a group of peers in an academic or recreational activity, helping a peer, or sharing interests and knowledge. However, there may have been times when the autistic adolescent had difficulty accurately reading non-verbal communication and a peer’s intentions.

A game of ‘Puzzling Peers’ can be played: the adolescent is asked to describe the situation, and replay the dialogue, gestures, and facial expressions. The parent and adolescent are then detectives or scientists trying to decipher the message or intention. This can include anything from confusing facial expressions such as eye rolling, to inexplicable demands from the peer (why did they assume I would be interested in this topic?) Other puzzling situations can be not understanding why they would be shunned and criticized for telling the truth (she is obese and needs to go on a diet) or not saying a ‘white lie’.

A parent may explain how to elicit more information, with questions for the young person to ask, such as ‘are you saying that to be friendly or mean?’ or ‘I’m confused, are you being sarcastic?’ They can also help rehearse what to say and do in other situations, such as accepting or declining an invitation to meet and learning the cues and means of ending a conversation or interaction. It is important that friends are not offended by an abrupt ending to a conversation or social gathering, as offence was not intended.

We all of us have a limited capacity for the duration of social contact, and it may be helpful to apply the metaphor of filling a ‘social bucket’. Some typical teenagers have a large social bucket that can take some time to fill, while the autistic teenager has a small bucket – a cup – that reaches capacity relatively quickly. Conventional social occasions with a friend can last too long for the autistic adolescent, especially as social success is achieved by intellectual effort rather than natural intuition. Socializing is exhausting, and the teenager may need to emotionally recover in solitude at home.

It is important for parents to be aware of the friendship challenges faced by their autistic teenager, including a difficulty initiating social contact with peers, and finding someone that they want to talk to and spend time with. As an autistic teenager said, ‘It’s not that I’m antisocial, it’s that I don’t meet many people that I like.’ The parent may need to become a social secretary, arranging and rehearsing social events to encourage the development of friendships, and de-briefing after the event, focussing on what was socially successful and providing clarification and guidance where specific social skills need to be achieved.

Friendship curriculum for teachers and therapists

We now have resources and programmes for parents, teachers and therapists that are specifically designed to enhance friendship abilities in autistic adolescents.

  • We recommend the publications and programmes developed by Michelle Garcia Winner and Pamela Crooke, with more information available from socialthinking.com. They have developed resources and guide books such as: Socially Curious and Curiously Social: A Social Thinking Guidebook for Bright Teens and Young Adults Social Thinking graphic novels.
  • Carol Grey originally developed Social Stories to explain the social world to autistic children and adolescents. More information on Social Stories can be obtained from carolgraysocialstories.com. Carol has adapted Social Stories for adolescents; for example, Carol and Tony worked on a compliment guide and workbook for autistic teenagers and adults

https://carolgraysocialstories.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Spring-1999-ISSUE-AND-INSERT-.pdf

  • Carol’s work has been extended by Siobhan Timmins who has written Successful Social Stories for School and College Students with Autism and Successful Social Articles into Adulthood. Both books are published by jkp.com

Sessions cover topics such as:

  • developing and maintaining friendships
  • romantic relationships and dating etiquette
  • managing peer conflict and rejection
  • conversation skills
  • electronic communication
  • developing friendship networks
  • finding sources of friends
  • appropriate use of humour.

The PEERS programme has been the foundation of a range of social and friendship programmes in many countries and in Australia by www.codeblueforautism.com.au

Minecraft is a popular pastime with autistic adolescents, and the computer game has been adapted to teach social skills by Raelene Dundon. Her book is titled Teaching Social Skills to Children with Autism Using Minecraft published by www.jkp.com

Drama activities can be used to teach social skills and there are two books that describe drama activities to improve the social skills of autistic adolescents. They are:

Acting Antics: A Theatrical Approach to Teaching Social Understanding to Kids and Teenagers with Asperger Syndrome by Cindy B. Schneider, published by www.jkp.com

Act it Out: One Year of Social Skills Lessons for Students Grades 7-12 Social Skills for Teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder by Jeannie Stefonek, published by www.aapcpublishing.net

There are a range of relevant books published by www.jkp.com, such as:

The Asperkid’s Secret Book of Social Rules: The Handbook of Not-So-Obvious Social Guidelines for Tweens and Teens with Asperger Syndrome by Jennifer Cook O’Toole

60 Social Situations and Discussion Starter to Help Teens on the Autism Spectrum Deal with Friendship, Feelings, Conflict and More by Lisa A. Timms

The Asperger Teen’s Tool Kit by Francis Musgrave

How to Start, Carry On and End Conversations: Scripts for Social Situations for People on the Autism Spectrum by Paul Jordan

Asperger’s Rules: How to Make Sense of School and Friends by Blythe Grossberg.

Social Skills Groups for Children and Adolescents with Asperger’s Syndrome: A Step-By-Step Program by Kim Kiker Painter.

Freaks, Geeks and Asperger Syndrome: A User Guide to Adolescence by Luke Jackson.

There are three resources not published by Jessica Kingsley Press.

Asperger’s Teens: Understanding High School for Students on the Autism Spectrum by Blythe Grossberg, published by Magination Press.

Communication Skills for Teens: How to Listen, Express and Connect for Success by Michelle Skeen, Matthew McKay, Patrick Fanning and Kelly Skeen published by Instant Help Books.

Unwritten Rules of Social relationships: Decoding Social Mysteries Through the Unique Perspectives of Autism by Temple Grandin and Sean Barron published by Future Horizons.

The autistic teenager may not know of their diagnosis, or reject books that include the terms autism or Asperger’s syndrome in their title or text. The following are publications that provide guidance in making friends without using the ‘A’ word.

Making Friends: A Guide to Getting Along with People by Andrew Matthews published by Media Masters.

A Good Friend: How to Make One, How to be One by Ron Herron and Val J. Peter published by Boys Town Press.

Awkward: The Social Dos and Don’ts of being a Young Adult by Katie Saint and Carlos Torres published by Future Horizons

The Science of Making Friends: Helping Socially Challenged Teens and Young Adults published by John Wiley and Sons