Autism and friendships

Social interactions can be baffling for autistic people. They may become easily overwhelmed or frustrated when they try to develop and sustain friendships. Making friends can be frightening, confusing and anxiety-provoking.

Sometimes being understood makes the biggest difference in being able to overcome any potential barriers to forming friendships. Here are some insights, based on what I have learnt, which I hope can help others to understand and tackle these barriers.

1. Knowing what to say or how to say it

Conversation can be a minefield, and initiating conversation (finding things to say) can be challenging. Even when you wish to speak and want to make friends, worrying about speaking or being unsure of whether the feelings are mutual can get in the way. When someone is feeling especially anxious, they may get tongue-tied or forget what they want to say altogether.

2. Understanding body language, facial expressions and gestures

Does close proximity indicate that someone is trying to be friendly? Is someone a true friend, or a fake friend? Not being able to tell the difference can lead to bullying. Social skills sessions can be beneficial in learning to recognise these signs,  read other’s and adapt your own non-verbal cues according to the context.

3. Anxiety in certain social situations

Heightened levels of anxiety, particularly in social situations, can often be experienced. Making friends can cause anxiety because of the high expectations people set, consciousness and any expectations to keep up with other people. This can be a struggle. Social media can be useful in developing friendships as the focus is only on the words, not the overwhelming non-verbal cues that goes with communication and can reduce the anxiety that face-to-face interactions can bring.

4. Making compromises and coping with routine changes

This can be challenging due to inflexible ‘black and white’ thought processes. Having a routine provides predictability and comfort; it is a way of reducing anxiety. Therefore, it can be a struggle if other people change their minds after plans have been arranged or turn up late. This can cause immense frustration. This can also mean it can be hard to see other people’s perceptions of situations. Having clear arrangements with friends, including knowing when interactions will begin and end and explaining it feels if the plan is cancelled, can be really helpful.

5. Confidence in own abilities.

Feeling self-conscious, timid and anxious can make it undoubtedly harder to establish friendships. Negative self-talk can lead to feelings of inadequacy. Confidence building and resiliency sessions, the use of coping cue cards, and being aware of what being and having a friend means can be of benefit.

6. Latching on to previous negative experiences and expecting the same thing to happen in every friendship.

The breakdown of some friendships can lead to feelings of worthlessness, isolation and upset. It can be extremely difficult to move on from past memories and experiences, meaning present or future social relationships are associated with previous, negative situations.

7. Disclosing autism to people.

There are many advantages and disadvantages of disclosing being autistic to people, including those you want to be friends with. Some people may not look beyond the ‘label’ and explore the many strengths of the person with autism. This can make it hard to make friends as other people may not be open-minded or understanding. It can be incredibly frustrating and upsetting if a friendship breaks down because autism is disclosed, but this can often mean the other person is not worth your time and effort. On the other hand, if a positive relationship is formed, the person may have an in-depth understanding of the condition and this would give people a chance to reveal their true colours. Autism can have many positives; it’s important to be proud of who you are and make small steps towards achieving your goals.

8. They may appear to be too over-friendly.

Getting easily attached to people can often occur, which can lead to becoming over-friendly. It can be difficult to understand other people’s roles and perceptions, and what you feel/ do may be considered as socially unacceptable. This misunderstanding can lead to a difficulty in establishing friendships. Laying down boundaries and understanding how to behave around particular people in the social network is beneficial; Michelle Garcia Winner’s Social Thinking concept could support learning around this topic.

9. Emotional understanding, regulation and expression

This can be challenging. It is possible to be very sensitive to other people’s thoughts. It can also be hard to understand the stages of friendships, which can lead to confused emotions. It can be a struggle to cope with anxiety linked to not knowing what to say in conversations. Anxiety can lead to the avoidance of social situations. This can lead to social isolation, with limited opportunities to make new friends. Trying to explore appropriate expressions of emotion and developing a small, positive social network can be a useful tool.

10. Constant expectation of maintaining friendships.

Keeping in contact with friends can be difficult, especially if you are not sure how often to contact them. This can lead to upset and disappointment if the friend doesn’t reply for whatever reason; and wondering if you've upset them. This may cause overwhelming anxiety and frustration.

It is important to work around these challenges to develop worthwhile, positive relationships with those on the spectrum. People need to have an understanding and supportive approach and be aware that everyone with autism is different.

Some autistic people may crave social interactions on a regular basis, whereas others prefer more alone time. It is important to be respectful of the person’s needs and ask them directly, what they would like and how social situations can be made easier. Making small adjustments and compromises can help those with autism feel more comfortable and able to express themselves. Autistic people are just like anyone else; they want the opportunity to be involved and contribute.

Often, they are fun-loving, inquisitive and kind-hearted, so please take some extra time to include and get to know them.

Lauren has setup an autism support group and social group in North Somerset, A Different perspective, to support children and young people with autism to develop friendships and gain self-confidence. They organise a variety of engaging activities that the young people would like to participate in.You can find out more via the Facebook page and twitter

If you have an experience or views that you would like to share, then please get in touch

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About Lauren Smith

Lauren (20) was diagnosed with autism aged 12. She is studying a degree in Special Education and aims to set up a business, deliver training to professionals and support young people on the spectrum.
  • Weston-super-Mare, North Somerset