In a new study co-authored by Professor Liz Pellicano, an internationally renowned expert on autism in the Department of Educational Studies, autistic and non-autistic girls describe similar approaches to friendship.

Both groups were found to place high importance on their friendships, were eager to fit in and were focused on developing friends who they can depend on for social and emotional support.

But the study also showed that when it comes to friendships, the autistic girls might need extra support to help them develop their relationships. The difference emerged when it came to conflict between friends.

While non-autistic girls often had a wide group of less intimate friends, autistic girls usually formed close bonds with just one or two friends. Conflict between friends could therefore be devastating: “you have no-one else to go to,” said one autistic girl interviewed.

Researchers interviewed 102 children: 27 autistic girls, 27 autistic boys, 26 neurotypical (non-autistic) girls, and 23 neurotypical boys for the study. Autistic girls were more often victims of conflict within friendships than their neurotypical counterparts. They were also less able to understand the causes of this conflict or to play the social games expected of them to resolve it. Conflict in all the girls’ relationships usually took subtle forms, such as gossip, ‘the silent treatment’, or exclusion.

The two girl groups also took different approaches to resolving major disagreements. While non-autistic girls tended to know how to work out a compromise, autistic girls ended up taking an “all-or-nothing” approach: either accepting all the blame themselves, or labelling the other person the wrong-doer and breaking off the friendship.

The most common cause of conflict among the boys was friends annoying each other by taking jokes too far. But this was usually seen as a minor issue, and quickly resolved. While non-autistic boys placed a little more emphasis on emotional matters, such as shared humour, trust and listening, on the whole they took a similar approach to friendship to autistic boys.

Both autistic and non-autistic boys’ friendships revolved around shared activities and concrete support; their friends were “people they do things with” – ranging from sports to video games – and people who would help them out practically and “[back] them up.”

Professor Pellicano said she was concerned to find that autistic girls reported more relational conflict than all other groups in the study given the often-limited support that is available to autistic girls.

While some researchers have suggested that autistic girls should have similar approaches to friendship to autistic boys, her study contradicts this idea and suggests that autistic girls might need targeted support to help them maintain the successful friendships they desire.

In Professor Pellicano’s view, “these findings provide compelling support for the possibility that gender plays an important role in shaping young autistic people’s social experiences. People tend to assume that autistic children grow up in a social vacuum, impervious to the world around them. But that’s simply not the case. And our findings support that, especially for autistic girls.”

“They add to a growing body of work supporting the idea that autistic girls need different strategies and supports to understand and effectively navigate the social expectations placed upon them.”

For more information, please read the study here or contact Liz Pellicano at liz.pellicano@mq.edu.au.

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Last updated: 12 Mar 2020