Photo by Stefan Boness/Panos
Autistic and non-autistic people see the social world differently. But openness and empathy can foster a valuable bond
by Abby Sesterka & Erin Bulluss + BIO
Photo by Stefan Boness/Panos
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.
Before we sally forth to discuss the practical aspects of friendship, we’d like to add a caveat. ‘Autistic’ is not a one-size-fits-all descriptor, and there is immense diversity within the Autistic community. At certain points, you might think: ‘But this doesn’t apply to the Autistic person I know!’ and that might be true. We suggest disengaging, when necessary, from the more specific details and examples, and considering how the broader concepts discussed could apply.
Note: you’ll notice that throughout this article we use identity-first language (eg, ‘Autistic person’) in preference to person-first language (eg, ‘person with autism’). This is both a personal and political statement, and is reflective of our own preferences for how to describe our identity as well as the dominant preference of Autistic adults in Australia, where we live and work. We also choose to capitalise the word ‘Autistic’ – as you might have seen within the Deaf community – to denote pride.
Get to know your friend’s preferences
People are often guided by their own preferences for social connection when interacting with friends, as per ‘the golden rule’: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. However, when your friend is Autistic, they might have different preferences regarding the types and frequency of social contact and the kinds of gestures that they feel strengthen a friendship. Using your own preferences as a template can thus lead to misunderstandings.
Luckily, the solution is simply to ask your friend what they enjoy and don’t enjoy about social interaction, and to explore together what fosters feelings of connectedness and comfort in the friendship. For example, Autistic communication tends to be open, direct and honest, and we often prefer to skip the small talk about weather or local sporting teams, and instead get straight to the point. While this might come across as rude to some, it is really about getting to the interesting content, which is where we find connection with others. Note that remaining open and interested in learning about an Autistic person’s social preferences over time can help create a strong friendship, whether or not that person is able to readily articulate those preferences.
Learning about an Autistic person’s preferences can also include learning about the ways in which Autistic people experience the world differently from you, which underpins some of those preferences. You might like to ask your friend directly about this, and perhaps also read some accounts by other Autistic people to gain a greater understanding of the areas – such as sensory, emotional and language processing – in which our perception of ourselves, other people and the world is likely to differ from yours. Just remember that there is diversity among Autistic people, so refrain from assuming someone else’s experience is the same as your friend’s experience.
In line with a preference for predictability and sameness, which is common among Autistic people, both authors feel more comfortable socialising in familiar spaces where we know what to expect. When we socialise together, the inviter will make sure the invitee knows what the plans are (even down to the food that will be served) and who else will be there. Likewise, the invitee will mention if they are bringing a partner or if they might be running late. These are simple things, but it means we needn’t be concerned with the unknown and can better focus on enjoying time together.
Most often, we socialise at home, where noise and other sensory stimuli can be managed so as to allow us to concentrate on connecting with our friends. This is related to the sensory processing differences that are often a part of the Autistic experience. While for many people, the clanging of cutlery and hissing of steaming coffee machines might blend into the background as their minds naturally centre human voices, we find that these sounds can drown out conversations and put our nervous systems on edge, making for a rather unpleasant experience.
Be ready for (sometimes brutal) honesty
When we were young, undiagnosed Autistic women, carefully observing the social conventions of non-autistic people was a survival mechanism: it gave us a template on which to base our social interactions. These days, it’s more of a hobby. Many of these conventions are quite hilarious when you look at them critically.
We’ve all seen a friend, colleague or relative arrive with a new, utterly dreadful haircut. It’s so terrible, yet so noticeable that people can’t not comment on it. What commonly ensues is not frank feedback or constructive criticism, but rather a mass fawning over the unfortunate individual. They’re told that the new hairdo makes them look younger, or matches their face shape, or makes them look just like [insert name of current tabloid celeb]. As this unfolds, it seems obvious that everyone is passing deliberate and disingenuous comment to ease the palpable shared discomfort about the new haircut.
Speaking personally, that’s just not how we roll. While both of us are mindful of people’s feelings and respectful of differences in preferences, we refrain from giving positive comments unless we genuinely believe them. We will also express unpopular opinions, let our friends know directly when we disagree, and give a correction when it is warranted. This is largely because we – like many Autistic people – have a drive for truth over social niceties and value doing the right thing over adherence to social convention. We would feel it rude if our friends allowed us to continue to mispronounce a word or get the same terrible haircut again because of a lack of honest feedback. We are the people who will immediately tell you when you have parsley stuck between your teeth, saving you the retrospective cringe of getting home, looking in the mirror and realising that, for seven hours or so, people have politely observed your well-garnished dentition without saying a word.
So, if your Autistic friend hangs back quietly while others rave about your new haircut, or provides unsolicited fact-correcting during conversations, try not to take it personally. It comes free of subtext, power play or contempt, and is instead a glimpse into the world of unfettered Autistic communication.
Be open to different ways of connecting
Social connection often takes place in the form of face-to-face get-togethers, regularly in group situations and in public venues such as restaurants. However, many Autistic people prefer to connect in different ways, such as via text messaging, social media or online gaming, in small-group settings or one-on-one, or during a structured activity.
Often, this is more than just preference; it links to the way that Autistic people experience the world differently to most. Many Autistic people find that text chat feels like more of a ‘level playing field’ for social interaction, as we can focus on the content of the conversation, take time to process a comment and construct a response, and are not required to process facial expressions, body language and auditory information in order to gain a full understanding of the message. Also, exchanging emojis and GIFs can assist with setting the tone of the chat in a way that is often clearer than a facial contortion or verbal tone. It’s important to realise that many of us experience dyspraxia, whereby difficulties with coordination can impact one’s ability to verbalise, or situational mutism, when sensory overload or other cognitive demands affect one’s ability to speak. And some Autistic people, for a variety of reasons, do not speak at all, but not speaking doesn’t mean a person can’t communicate. So, while you might feel that text chat is more prone to misunderstandings than a phone call or conversation in person, for many Autistic people the experience is quite the opposite.
Additionally, Autistic people tend to be very driven by our interests, rather than by social connection in and of itself. As such, we might best connect socially when it is incidental to a planned activity or occurs around shared interests rather than small talk. We might forget to say hello and goodbye, but remember in fine detail any overlapping interests and randomly send facts or memes about these intersecting interests. This is often a way that we show care, affection and warmth, though it might be missed or misunderstood by non-autistic people. So look out for information drops in your areas of interest, a well-researched list of solutions to your latest personal quandary, or some unsolicited oversharing about our own failures when you’re feeling bad about something that didn’t quite work out. These might just be ways that we are showing you we care and that we understand (some) of your inner workings.
Often, the messages people receive about friendship while growing up are neuronormative in nature, in that they take into account the preferences of the neuromajority, and disregard different – and equally valid – Autistic ways of constructing friendship. As such, you might feel viscerally unsettled when deviating from your long-held assumptions about what constitutes a good friend or a healthy friendship. It might feel wrong to mainly communicate via text messages rather than in person even though you live two streets away, or to spend time in the same room doing entirely different things when you do see each other in person. Identifying and interrogating the assumptions you hold can help you understand why you feel unsettled by, or resistant to, alternative ways of defining friendship – and provide you with a freedom to redefine it in terms of what it means for you and your Autistic friend.
Focus on your connection rather than the rituals of socialising
Try not to confuse a friend’s lack of adherence to sociocultural conventions with a lack of desire to connect. Autistic people might not always be on top of social conventions and expectations around when it is OK to just drop in unannounced (never, some would say), or whether to offer to do the dishes at your place, or whose turn it is to pay for a dinner. We might seem stingy because we respond with ‘Are you sure that is OK with you?’ when you offer to pay, rather than jumping in and engaging in a performative faux-conflict about it. But none of these missteps in the dance of the rituals of socialising are reflective of how we feel about our friendship with you. We aren’t devaluing or forgetting you. It is the sociocultural rituals surrounding friendship that we devalue or forget.
Conventional social gatherings can be laden with obligations and custom; rarely are these things as simple as just showing up. Some events require guests to arrive at a specific time, whereas others set the time as a guideline with the expectation that people will filter in over the course of the event. There’s also the well-worn custom of never arriving empty-handed to someone’s home, which raises questions of what is appropriate.
Although we often want to attend such gatherings in principle, the reality of anticipating these social prerequisites and preparing accordingly is a feat in and of itself. This can leave us exhausted before we have even attempted the small talk with strangers or tolerated overwhelming sensory environments that generally are part and parcel of such events. Many Autistic people regularly experience challenges with executive dysfunction, so just attending to the daily humdrum of routine necessities can be enough for the day. As much as we’d like to see you, we’re sometimes just way too exhausted to drop by your place after work with a home-cooked Basque cheesecake and a bottle of organic Shiraz (because you don’t drink white and your spouse/partner/housemate is allergic to sulphites).
So, if your Autistic friend politely declines an invitation to your birthday party, rather than take offence, refocus on prioritising connection rather than social rituals, and perhaps suggest a one-on-one catchup the following week instead. And consider asking if there is anything in particular that is difficult about attending the social gathering so that you know for future reference.
Ensure that your intentions are genuine
Sometimes people feel obliged to introduce themselves to a family who has just moved in across the street, or make the effort to have lunch with a new workmate who might be feeling out of their depth. These can indeed be welcome and helpful gestures, but such acts often also serve to make us feel better about ourselves because we’ve done ‘the right thing’.
We mentioned the stereotype of the ‘Autistic loner’ at the top of this Guide, and it is true that many Autistic people do desire more meaningful social connection in their lives, so you might feel inclined to extend your hand in friendship as a way to help. But make sure that your intentions are honourable and sincere; don’t do it so that you look like the good guy. Many Autistic people have had negative social experiences. We might have been excluded or bullied at school, and we might have misread social cues in ways that resulted in ridicule or embarrassment, or even wound up in abusive relationships because we misjudged someone’s intentions. These things can make us wary of people’s motives (be they genuine or otherwise) and, quite often, the last thing we need is a superficial friend with self-serving intentions.
Lots of Autistic people are honest, caring and loyal (often to a fault), so we make great friends. Friendships in general tend to be built upon mutual respect, shared interests and enjoyment of each other’s company, and friendship with an Autistic person should be no different.
If you’re unsure about something, don’t be afraid to ask
Part of Autistic interaction is direct, honest communication. If you’re wondering about some aspect of your interactions with an Autistic person, rather than making an assumption or trying to read the subtext (spoiler alert: there likely isn’t any), have a go at asking directly. We’ve curated below an ‘iFAQ’ of all-too-infrequently asked questions. We’d like to see these questions become more frequently asked, because it makes life easier for everyone involved:
For our Autistic ‘neurokin’: reflect on your social needs and preferences
While this Guide is mainly written for non-autistic people, the authors suspect it might also find its way to an Autistic audience. As such, here are some lessons we have learned as late-diagnosed Autistic women with a combined eight decades’ experience of navigating friendships, packaged up neatly for you, the Autistic friend, to take away:
The way we look at autism and Autistic people has changed a great deal over the past couple of decades, both in clinical contexts and in the broader community. While evolving views often take time to be absorbed into the common vernacular, some interesting schools of thought have the potential to make society a friendlier place for Autistic people. We’ve handpicked a couple that we’ll briefly describe below.
The neurodiversity paradigm
Neurodiversity is a term coined by the Australian sociologist Judy Singer in the late 1990s that simply refers to the fact that there is natural diversity in human minds. While neurodiversity encapsulates each and every human and their unique mind, it has been most relevant in helping to reframe our understanding of neurodevelopmental divergences such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia and Tourette’s syndrome. Neurodiversity is more easily understood when viewed alongside other types of diversity, such as cultural diversity and gender diversity, and even more so when we recognise that neurodiversity is a form of biodiversity. While neurodiversity provides a view that divergences such as autism are natural variations rather than disorders, this view does not negate the experience of disability as a result of neurodivergence; just as neurodiversity recognises strengths that can be advantageous, it also acknowledges challenges that require support. If you are a non-autistic person, understanding neurodiversity could help you approach friendship with an Autistic person on a more equal footing.
The social model of disability
In a traditional way of thinking called the medical model of disability, individual differences that are associated with disability are considered negative and abnormal, and disability is situated within the disabled person. In contrast, the social model of disability supports the view that these individual differences are neither inherently negative nor positive, and locates disability at the myriad intersections between the disabled person and the world around them.
Naturally, there is debate between these two competing viewpoints. We recently observed an example of this contention in a social media thread. A teacher discussed an Autistic student who was particularly sensitive to the sound of people whistling. The student’s peers had realised this, and some of them would deliberately whistle to elicit distress in the Autistic child. The teacher had posted this story to seek suggestions of strategies or aids that might either reduce the student’s sensitivity to whistling or mitigate the same student’s distress upon hearing it.
By simply posing the question in a way that located the problem within the Autistic child, and then seeking ways to train the problem out of the child, the teacher was viewing autism through the medical model, as were the many people who responded with recommendations of headphones, exposure therapy and mindfulness practices. In contrast, others demonstrated that their views were more aligned with the social model by identifying the whistling as a form of harassment that the school and its teachers should be responsible for addressing, particularly given that the school was aware of the distress it caused this individual.
While the social model of disability might not immediately seem relevant to friendship with an Autistic person, we would argue that this entire article is written through the lens of this model. Earlier, we described how having a different social style can make it hard to initiate and maintain friendships, because the majority of people lack the understanding, and thus the empathy, to help create a bridge to make the friendship with an Autistic person work. By understanding your Autistic friend, and adjusting to their needs and preferences (just as Autistic people constantly must adapt to a world structured for non-autistic people), you are creating an accessible friendship and thus abling, rather than disabling, your friend.
The book Is That Clear? Effective Communication in a Neurodiverse World (2020) by Zanne Gaynor, Kathryn Alevizos and Joe Butler is a practical and accessible guide to understanding Autistic communication, filled with tips for adapting your communication style when interacting with Autistic people.
The anthology Loud Hands: Autistic People, Speaking (2012) is curated by the Autistic Self Advocacy Network in the US, and offers a powerful and entertaining collection of essays written by Autistic people about a broad range of topics.
In his book NeuroTribes (2015), the US journalist Steve Silberman examines the ways in which we have historically conceptualised autism – and how neurodiversity offers a framework for understanding it in the future.
The short video Neurodiversity (2021), written and produced by this Guide’s Erin Bulluss and the clinical psychologist Rachel Samson, explains the concept in simple terms.
The website jAcademic, from the Autistic advocate and academic Jac den Houting, is home to a variety of useful resources, including a link to an editorial on their lived experience of neurodiversity and their popular TEDx talk, ‘Why Everything You Know About Autism is Wrong’ (2019).
In the article ‘Disagreeing Over Neurodiversity’ (2019), the Autistic scholar Damian Milton unpacks the opposing views on the concept.
The website of Reframing Autism, an Australian Autistic-led organisation, is brimming with useful resources on just about everything relating to autism.
If you liked this Guide, feel free to check out some of our other articles. We’ve written about a number of topics, including the language people use to talk about autism, the experience and implications of an autism diagnosis in adulthood, avoiding Autistic burnout, and even the social challenges of Christmas time.