Foreword by Dr Michelle Garnett
Friendship is arguably one of the most important supports we have in life. Having just one good friend in adolescence can be the difference between positive well-being and suffering depression. An autistic teenager has the capacity for deep and enduring friendships, however forming, and keeping these friendships can seem impossible at times. We are proud to present a five-part series on friendship in autism during the teen years, a new and original series of articles written by Prof Tony Attwood. In the first part of the series Tony describes the differences between neurotypical and autistic friendship. In part two, the nuances of female autistic friendships are presented, in the next article, friendship styles that work in autism are described. Strategies are presented in the last two articles, firstly strategies for parents and then resources and programmes for teachers and therapists. We hope you find the series enlightening, and helpful for understanding and assisting the autistic adolescents you know and love to find and maintain friends.
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 qualities of interpersonal skills that are played out in typical adolescent friendships are the foundation of interpersonal skills for adult relationships.
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 and often have had peer interactions which are likely to 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 covert social rules and conventions and being able to follow them and are criticized by peers for being a ‘social retard’ and not understanding how someone of intellectual ability could make so many social errors. Autistic adolescents have probably not had many opportunities for a friendship mentor, peer, or adult, to provide guidance and constructive and 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 enough social experiences and desperately needs to relax in solitude and intellectually process the days social experiences. As far as the autistic teenager is concerned, friendships end at the school gate. They can 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 important that the experiences are brief, structured, supervised, successful, and voluntary.
When autistic adolescents are included in the activities and conversations of their peers at school, there can be a recognition of not being popular. This is illustrated by two comments from autistic adults describing their teenage years: ‘I wasn’t rejected but 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 and that they are perceived as a nuisance. Autistic adolescents often blame themselves or being 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 a social mistake. 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 misperceiving or not recognising friendly intentions when they do occur and assuming that everyone is against them. 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, meeting with friends less often at school and for a shorter duration in comparison 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, preventing a 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, help 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 often yearn for a sense of connection, but usually experience rejection from popular friendship groups. However, they may be accepted by a marginalised teenagers that engage in activities and interests that would cause some concern for parents, such as groups of peers exploring alcohol and drug use, sexuality and eating disorders. The friendship family ‘adopt’ the autistic teenager who acquires a new intense interest and accumulates 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 the friendship such as knowing how often to make contact using social media, appropriate topics of reciprocal conversations on mutual interest, what might be suitable empathic comments and gestures, as well as how to 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 why the friendship ended, and having a sense of being betrayed.
A characteristic 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 are perceived as ‘shallow’ and combines with another difficulty associated with autism, knowing how to empathically respond to a friend’s disclosure that they may be misperceived by peers as emotionally ‘cold’. An autistic teenager may feel the pain of their friend to such a degree that they are unable to respond in that moment, they feel overwhelmed.
Autistic teenagers have many qualities to offer friendship that are not unique to autism but tend to co-occur with autism. These qualities include loyalty, honesty, acceptance of difference and diversity, having a sense of humour, kindness, and deep compassion. Unfortunately, the autistic adolescent can be quite unaware of their own personality strengths and how important each of these can be in a friendship. One powerful way we can help our autistic adolescents is to find ways to increase their self-awareness about their strengths for friendship, and to use these strengths to overcome their challenges. The autistic teen does not need to be liked by everyone but does need at least one good friend.
Next week, we will be presenting Part 2 of our series on Adolescent Autistic Friendship: Autistic Female Friendships.