How to be a Good Friend to an Autistic Person

December 11, 2021

Autistic and non-autistic people see the social world differently. But openness and empathy can foster a valuable bond.

You’ve probably seen a film or television show where an Autistic person is portrayed as a loner. And, while media representations aren’t always realistic, perhaps you have met someone like this in real life: they might be a colleague who avoids office social functions, a student who regularly eats lunch in the library, or an acquaintance who usually declines invitations to parties.

Often non-autistic people mistake this choice to opt out of certain social situations for a disinterest in social connection, or even take it as a personal rejection. This can make it hard to know when, how or whether to approach the person, which can limit opportunities to connect and develop a meaningful friendship.

Differences in social interaction and communication are among the defining features of autism – a lifelong developmental divergence that is also characterised by differences in sensory processing, and often accompanied by a preference for sameness and a capacity for hyperfocus.

Historically, social behaviours such as those described above have been framed in terms of pathology. ‘Deficits’ in social communication and interaction form one of the two key groupings of diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (2013), or DSM-5. But it is not always the case that Autistic people want to avoid social engagement; rather, research shows, different ways of engaging are important to consider.

Recent studies that examine social interaction in cross-neurotype dyads – that is, pairings of Autistic people, pairings of non-autistic people, and pairings of an Autistic person and a non-autistic person – have shown that Autistic people are often more motivated and at ease when interacting with other Autistic people, and experience a greater sense of belonging.

That said, worthwhile friendships can develop between Autistic and non-autistic people, provided there is sufficient understanding and genuine acceptance of the distinct ways in which each person experiences the world.

A growing body of research that attends to the lived experience of Autistic people encourages us to reframe the way we view Autistic social interaction. Rather than focusing on deficits, we can think seriously about the differences in social-communicative style, preferences and needs that are core to the experience of autism.

Autistic people often enjoy a different quality, type or frequency of social interaction compared with non-autistic people. For Autistic people, as for most people, healthy friendships are underpinned by respect, care and empathy; these might just manifest in different ways. This divergence from the norm can make initiating and sustaining friendships more challenging for Autistic people, given that social conventions are largely tailored to non-autistic people.

These ideas are linked to a concept called the ‘double empathy problem’, proposed in 2012 by the Autistic academic Damian Milton. The fundamental basis of the double empathy problem is that Autistic and non-autistic people have such different experiences of the world that establishing common ground is equally challenging for both parties. Milton defined it as a ‘double problem’ because it is experienced by both people and, thus, the problem belongs no more to one than it does to the other. This challenges the dominant view that it is the Autistic person who is impaired and, by default, responsible for any miscommunication or interpersonal challenges during interactions.

When all is said and done, building a friendship with an Autistic person is essentially the same as developing any other healthy relationship: based on mutual understanding and connecting in meaningful ways to create a sense of intimacy, trust and security.

If you are non-autistic and haven’t yet had the opportunity to learn about Autistic ways of experiencing the world, some aspects of the process of developing a friendship with an Autistic person might seem a little foreign or confronting. But rest assured, Autistic people have many great qualities to bring to friendship; we tend to be honest, open and extremely loyal, and we have distinctive perspectives to offer. It is well worth persisting past any initial awkwardness to see if there might be solid friendship material hiding underneath.

In this Guide, we describe ways that non-autistic people can play their part in bridging the gap between different styles of social engagement in a friendship with an Autistic person. We’ve also included some notes on friendship for Autistic readers. As late-diagnosed Autistic women ourselves, we have had many friendship experiences throughout our lives – good, bad and sometimes confusing – and we draw from these experiences in offering our guidance.

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