"I Wish I'd Know That When I Was Younger" - a Qualitative Exploration of the Change over Time in the Relationships of Autistic Girls and Women from Multiple Perspectives

Poster Presentation
Friday, May 11, 2018: 5:30 PM-7:00 PM
Hall Grote Zaal (de Doelen ICC Rotterdam)
F. R. Sedgewick1, E. Pellicano2 and V. C. Hill3, (1)Centre for Research in Autism and Education (CRAE), London, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, (2)Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia, (3)Psychology and Human Development, UCL Institute of Education, London, United Kingdom

While there is growing interest in the experiences of girls and women on the autism spectrum, no published work has yet examined how their relationships change between two key developmental stages, adolescence and early to mid-adulthood – both of which are characterised by significant changes in social experiences and expectations.


This cross-sectional study sought to examine the friendship and romantic experiences of two distinct cohorts of autistic females, adolescent girls and adult women, to elucidate potential similarities and differences across these distinct stages of development. Parental views were also sought to provide multi-informant perspectives on girl’s experiences.


We conducted semi-structured interviews with 27 autistic girls (M age:14 years 5 months) and 19 autistic women (M age:30 years 2 months) about their relationships and conflict experiences. 20 of 27 parents of autistic girls were also interviewed about their daughter’s relationships and their thoughts about the future.

Results: Interviews were transcribed verbatim and analysed using thematic analysis. Almost all autistic girls and women discussed having one or more secure relationships, although some described difficulties with maintaining relationships. There were two key commonalities across autistic girls and women’s interviews. First, both autistic girls and women discussed having a few, intense relationships, both as their preference and because they found it “hard work” to maintain more. For autistic girls, this generally took the form of one or two best-friends, without wider social groups. For autistic women, their romantic partner had often taken on this role. Second, both autistic girls and women faced the same type of conflict regardless of life-stage, which was almost exclusively relational in nature. We also identified two key differences between the groups. First, there were notable differences in how autistic girls and women managed conflict they experienced. Autistic girls took a ‘black-and-white’ approach, either entirely assuming blame or seeing an insurmountable problem. In contrast, autistic women had learned to negotiate resolutions, but were also happy to walk away from situations which were too difficult. Second, these changes to conflict management, along with better self-knowledge through the diagnostic process, meant that autistic women were more satisfied with, less anxious about, and more self-assured in their relationships than autistic girls. Finally, one major concern identified from the accounts of autistic women and parents related to vulnerability. Adult women discussed experiencing physical and sexual violence, along with mental health issues. Parents were also concerned about their daughter’s vulnerabilities, often actively trying to pre-empt them. Autistic women described how this input would have been useful when they were younger.


Many of the social experiences reported by adolescent autistic girls were also reported by adult autistic women, including the patterns of their friendships and relationships, and the conflict they face with their peers. There are also apparent improvements in their relationships over time – in conflict management and social satisfaction – despite a range of challenges also present in adulthood. Future work should seek to examine which factors support these relationship improvements, and how these skills could be taught to autistic girls.