I recently had an eye-opening discussion with Mrs. Smith, a school counselor, regarding a female high school student I will call Gina. The counselor emphatically scoffed at Gina's autism diagnosis, stating, "I saw her... with my own eyes... smile at two of her peers!" The ensuing silence lingered as I waited for her to finish her thought. But that was it. Her accusation was complete.
Let's bust some myths.
Yes, individuals on the spectrum can smile. Yes, these students and adults may have peer groups at school or work. Yes, ASD individuals may marry and have children. If you ask an autistic individual if he has friends, he will most often say 'yes.'
Let's talk about facts.
1. Less Reciprocity
Individuals on the spectrum have fewer connected relationships with people their own age.
Rotherham-Fuller et al. (2011) found that ASD students had significantly fewer mutual relationships in all grades relative to typical classmates. Classroom students were asked to list their top three friends and to identify a best friend. "...children with ASD showed misperceptions of their social involvement, as they listed children as friends who did not consider them within their social group."
2. Fewer Social Relationships Across Context and Time
The person on the spectrum is also more likely to have friend connections based on a particular interest or structured context. For example, Karen may say, "Mia is my friend at church, and Alice is my friend at work." However, the relationships don't tend to extend across context and time as frequently. For example, if Karen leaves her workplace, she is less likely than a neurotypical adult to maintain a connection with Alice over time.
3. Long Distance Relationships
Some of the autistic individuals I work with describe having a significant other or best friend of several years. However, the relationship is described as entirely online with no (or very minimal) in-person contact. The emotional closeness may be limited as well. For example, the autistic individual is more likely to talk about facts and interests than to self-disclose with his friends.
The autistic individual may say that he was "drinking with friends" over the weekend. However, when asked where they got together, he may explain that they were drinking while playing a long-distance video game "online together."
4. Less Central to the Network
In the Rotherham-Fuller study, over 85% of typically developing students were considered part of the classroom social network by other students in the 4-5th grade, whereas only 23.8% of children with ASD were viewed as connected (decreased from about half in K-1st grade).
5. Marginalized Groups
When ASD individuals do connect with peers, they may be most likely to connect with groups of marginalized students or other autistic individuals. "I eat lunch with other people who have no one to eat with. These are my friends."
Notice that these statistics are talking about the "frequency" of finding certain friendships in neurotypical versus autistic groups. However, nowhere is it suggested that ASD individuals have no friendships or relationships! For example, nearly one quarter of the ASD students in the Rotherham-Fuller group were considered connected to the classroom social network by their peers. The important take-away has more to do with what are common versus uncommon types of connections within or outside of the spectrum.
Yes, if you watch Gina at school, you will catch her smiling. She will walk through the hall with peers at times. But overall, she is disconnected from the social network, debilitated by the anxieties of social communication, and confused by peer relationships. She would greatly benefit from supportive mentoring at school and other accommodations to help her have success!