“Friends Are Hard…but It Gets Better”: An Examination of the Friendship Experiences of Adolescent Girls and Adult Women with and without Autism

Thursday, May 11, 2017: 12:00 PM-1:40 PM
Golden Gate Ballroom (Marriott Marquis Hotel)
F. R. Sedgewick1, V. Hill2 and E. Pellicano1, (1)Centre for Research in Autism and Education (CRAE), UCL Institute of Education, University College London, London, United Kingdom, (2)Psychology and Human Development, UCL Institute of Education, London, United Kingdom

While much is known about the friendships and peer relationships of autistic children, these studies have focused largely on school-age boys on the autism spectrum. The very limited research on autistic girls’ friendships intriguingly suggests, however, that they might be more similar to those of neurotypical adolescents than autistic boys.


This research sought to examine the friendship experiences of two cohorts of autistic females, adolescent girls and adult women, alongside their neurotypical counterparts, to elucidate the similarities and (subtle) differences across distinct stages of development.


We conducted semi-structured interviews with 60 participants, including 30 from each age group (15 autistic girls, 15 neurotypical girls; M age = 14 years 2 months; M Social Responsiveness Scale (SRS) score = 83.8 autistic; 46.7 neurotypical) (15 autistic women, 15 neurotypical women: M age = 30 years 6 months; M SRS score = 78.3 autistic; 41.8 neurotypical). Thematic analysis was used to identify themes.


Almost all participants discussed having one or more secure friendship, although some autistic participants said that they had significant difficulty in maintaining relationships.


Friendships online. Neurotypical girls used social media to display their offline friendships in the online environment, ‘liking’ friends’ posts as a way of affirming the relationship. Autistic girls were at a severe disadvantage in terms of this ‘friendship performance’, as they often had limited access to social media and therefore could not engage in these reinforcing behaviours. In contrast, autistic women relied heavily on social media to enact their relationships, preferring written communication and often being active in online communities, making the internet an integral part of their social lives.


Competition. Adolescents spoke of a sense of trying to ‘be the best’ in many different ways. This competition was within friendships as well as with wider peers. Autistic girls frequently described being unable to understand how to effectively engage in these behaviours, and therefore ‘losing’ social cachet. This competition during adolescence was mentioned by both autistic and non-autistic women in terms of past friendships, and that they actively avoid such people in adulthood.


Conflict management.  Autistic girls and women displayed a more ‘extreme’ social profile than their neurotypical peers, who generally sought to negotiate equitable outcomes when faced with conflict. In contrast, autistic adolescents felt they would either give up on the friendship or assume total responsibility for finding a solution, potentially leaving them vulnerable to manipulation. Similarly, autistic adults frequently said they would simply end a relationship that was difficult for them, leaving them happier and more satisfied with their social situation than they had been as a teenager.


Despite identifying a wide range of challenges in the friendships of teenage autistic girls relative to neurotypical peers, these challenges tended to dissipate with age and maturity. Although adult autistic women acknowledged some continued social challenges, they generally described being highly satisfied with their friendships. Targeted interventions around self- and other-awareness may help autistic girls to identify and pursue the sort of relationships that would make them happiest.