The Challenge Of Forming Female Friendships When You’re Autistic

Painful memories of childhood along with gendered social norms can make adult friendships more complicated for neurodiverse women

By Marianne Eloise

2 April 2021

riendships play pivotal roles in our lives, and when they don’t work out, it can be more painful than a romantic break-up. The societal ideal of having not only a best friend but a tight-knit “squad” is far more expected for women and taught, whether in real life or through TV, from childhood.

Making and keeping friends is a challenge for everyone, but for autistic people it can be even more complicated, particularly in a world that expects everyone to be the same. Autism spectrum disorder affects many aspects of a person’s life; we are all different but difficulties maintaining eye contact, engaging in small talk, going to certain places, or understanding unspoken social rules are common and can make socialising hard.

For autistic women, gendered social norms and expectations may make it even more fraught. Dr. Felicity Sedgewick studies the intersections of gender, relationships and autism, and has conducted research into autistic female friendships. In childhood, when our first friendships are formed, we often make friends with people of our own gender, explains Sedgewick, and there are typically more social rules among girls. “Autistic girls are generally expected to socialise in the same ways as their non-autistic peers,” says Sedgewick. “People find it harder to understand why they are different, and so they are less kind about those differences.”

“Many autistic women anticipate the same ostracisation they experienced at school”

The price of breaking social rules can be high. “Female aggression tends to be more subtle than male bullying,” says Sedgewick, adding that there are two types of bullying: relational and overt. Relational is generally the type employed by girls – “things like gossiping about someone, telling other people not to be their friend, tricking someone into doing something embarrassing.”.

That subtlety can make it difficult for autistic girls to realise if they’re being bullied. “Autistic people tend to assume others have good intentions, so they are more likely to believe when someone says they are a friend, until the behaviours get to a point where they are very upset and it suddenly 'clicks',” says Sedgewick.

Rachel*, 24, was recently diagnosed as autistic. She tells me that while she feels bad about never having dated anyone, her struggle to maintain friendships is “more devastating – it’s more isolating being insecure in your friendships”.

Growing up, Rachel would mimic her friends’ behaviours. “In doing this, I struggled with identity issues and making the right friends for me.” She found herself left out, but for a while didn’t realise why. “At school, I was part of a group of girls and they always used to make fun of me for having specific interests or just being ‘a bit weird’, now I know this ‘weirdness’ was due to being autistic,” she says.

Due to misconceptions of autism spectrum disorder, many autistic girls go undiagnosed until adulthood, meaning that they are not aware of their differences. This can lead to self-hatred and self-blame when they don’t click with their peers.

“If you don't have a diagnosis, you don't know why you find things more difficult and other people don't have an explanation for the things you do that they might find odd,” explains Sedgewick. “Sadly, children tend to pick on the person in class who they think is odd, so an undiagnosed autistic girl is more likely to be bullied than someone who has a diagnosis."

However, knowing who you are doesn’t always help when kids are still mean. I spoke to Katie*, an autistic 12-year-old girl, and her mother. While Katie was diagnosed at just three, she has found many aspects of making friends hard.

“Sometimes I find it hard to approach people and I don’t know exactly how to jump into the conversation. And sometimes when I do jump in, people brush me off or see me as rude,” she says, adding that she’s found making friends with girls far more difficult. Although Katie is coping with the support of her mum and the knowledge of her diagnosis, she tells me, “I wish people were more accepting of difference in general and weren’t so quick to judge, so I wouldn’t have to mask as much.”

These early experiences can affect autistic girls deeply, impacting on their feeling of security in future friendships, especially if they struggled to understand what they had done ‘wrong’. Many autistic women carry incredibly painful, complex memories of school and adolescence, anticipating the same rejection and ostracisation.

“It’s made me cautious of friendships, despite being desperate to forge relationships with people,” Rachel confesses. “I question a lot of what I say and do, for fear of getting it wrong.” That fear is common. Even those who have managed to find friends who ‘get’ and love them, can find themselves retreating, going quiet for fear of being ‘too much’.

Fleur, 34, didn’t have any friends growing up and was happy playing alone, but found it difficult when she tried to make friends with other girls in her adolescence:

“I got told many times by other women that I was too self-centred and intense, too blunt, and I genuinely did not understand it.”

“It’s made me cautious of friendships, despite being desperate to forge them”

She also found herself susceptible to bullying as a result of her tendency to overshare. When she was diagnosed with autism, Fleur felt empowered to leave friends who had bullied her for her autistic traits, realising that their banter was cruelty. “It made me appreciate and cherish the friendships I have now.”

She has learned that finding people with similar interests is the best way for her to maintain healthy friendships. “If I could go back in time, I would have let myself explore hobbies relevant to my special interests because I have started to do that as an adult and have made a lot of new friends.”

Despite the difficulties we can face, of the many autistic women I’ve spoken to, everyone has found a friend who is kind and loves them for who they are. Sedgewick’s research backs this up, and she is keen to point out the positives: “In my research nearly every autistic girl and woman has had at least one true best friend, and these friendships were just as good, close, and supportive as those of non-autistic girls and women. Forming these genuine friendships has often taken time, building trust and getting to know each other really well.”

The women I spoke to have learned what they need from others, and it often comes down to clarity. We can’t always judge how other people feel about us or pick up on subtle cues, whether they’re positive or negative, so we need people to be straightforward.

Sedgewick agrees that we should be honest with our friends about what we need, and if they aren’t willing to accommodate, that it might be a red flag.:

“If someone repeatedly ignores you when you tell them what would make things easier, that is not necessarily the sign of a good friend, and is worth paying attention to,” she says.

So much of our pain comes from misguided attempts to fit into holes we weren’t built for. While our trauma from being bullied often lingers and makes us insecure, having the knowledge to seek friends who are straightforward and able to respond to our needs is empowering.

I feel hopeful that as the world gains more understanding of the complexities surrounding autism spectrum disorder, and neurodiversity more widely, things will get easier. To enter a friendship with anyone –- neurotypical or not –- requires clarity and kindness. Be upfront in your thoughts and intentions with others. Most importantly, when it comes to bullies, if they show you who you are, believe them the first time and run the other way.

Names have been changed.

Header image by: Mike Goldwater / Alamy Stock Photo

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