Finding your tribe

We held the first adult support group session this week and what struck me was the diversity of the people attending. And the fact that, irrespective of age, gender or any other “normal” social measure, they quickly bonded based on that which they shared – this was their tribe, where “normal” social measures don’t matter.

This was much more obvious over the weekend when we had the first Square Peg Club gatherings for kids and teenagers. Firstly, seeing their hesitancy when entering the venue, and then a couple of hours later, their parents becoming impatient after hearing “Just a couple of minutes more, please.” They found their tribe. 

Autism and friendships

From the very first recorded cases of autism, scientists have recognized that a lack of social interaction is a central part of the condition. According to Scientific American, as early as 1943, in a paper by Leo Kanner, one autistic girl was described as moving among other children “like a strange being, as one moves between the pieces of furniture.” He interpreted the behaviour of autistic children as being governed by “the powerful desire for aloneness and sameness.” For decades after, scientists and clinicians supposed that people with autism do not have friends and are not interested in forging friendships.

But we know that this is not true. In the paper, "I never realised everybody felt as happy as I do when I am around autistic people," the authors found that despite differences in social interaction, autistic people do not necessarily differ from their neurotypical peers in their desire for social relationships. However, initiating, maintaining and navigating these relationships may be difficult for autistic people, due to differences in autistic social cognition. Autistic people tend to have fewer friendships than their neurotypical peers, and autistic relationships may have less reciprocity, and centre around activities rather than emotional bonding.

Although some recent research has explored autistic people’s friendships from their own perspective, little is known about whether autistic people experience self-reported differences in relationships with autistic and non-autistic people.

Shared Understanding

The exception is one of the first papers on friendships among autistic people which appeared in 2019, “Neurodivergent intersubjectivity: Distinctive features of how autistic people create shared understanding.” As a student, Brett Heasman worked at a drop-in center for autistic adults and was struck by the extent of social interaction among the adults playing video games. He video-recorded pairs of autistic friends playing together and analysed their conversational turn-taking.

He found that the conversations had far more peaks and troughs—shifts from connection to disconnection and back again—than in a conversation between two neurotypical people. Periods of disconnection included long stretches of one person dominating the conversation or fragmented commentary unrelated to anything that had just been said. Tight conversational turn-taking and politeness would occur when a shift in the game required cooperation or a new person entered the room. Shared experiences such as having watched an amusing YouTube video could lead to engaged discussion and laughter. “There’s a lot of swinging and missing,” says Heasman, now a research associate at University College London,“ but when they do connect, it goes out of the park.”

The Autistic Definition of Friendship

 As autistic individuals, friendship has a different meaning to us that to neurotypicals. This difference was explored in the 2024 metastudy, "Experiences of Friendships for Individuals on the Autism Spectrum." It found that the 'Autistic meaning of friendship" as described by autistic individuals is comprised of five themes including:

  • “They would always look after me” Participants described friends as someone who was there to offer help in times of need, being “someone who cares for you and protects you” or who would always help you.
  • “They actually understand” Respect, trust, understanding, acceptance and caring were used to describe friends including “the ability to be themselves without judgment.”
  • “Grow to become friendly” Autistic individuals defined friendship based on proximity. One participant discussed the notion of slowly building relationships with potential friends “Every morning I say hello to at least all of my friends, and that slowly builds up the trust between us and I find that easier. Each day I can talk to them more and I can relax around them more and understand them more.”
  • “Like the things I like” Shared interests and participating in common activities were highlighted by many participants as a key requirement for friendship, with relationships formed on shared interests facilitating a sense of belonging. When friends have different interests, it could become frustrating, leaving some autistic individuals reported feeling exhausted and distressed.
  • “People like me” Autistic participants reported developing friendships with those that that were similar to them, with some participants reporting that they tended to befriend peers who were also autistic or had other disabilities, or who were ‘different’ in some ways. Adults especially explained that they found it easier to relate to others with autism because of their mutual understanding and empathy and that they believed this was greater than if they had been non-autistic.

Multiple participants also suggested they did not have to conceal the autistic aspects of their behaviours or communication styles while interacting with their autistic friends, which allowed them to be their “authentic self”.

Finding your Tribe

Having friends who are also on the spectrum may skirt some of the conflict. The Scientific American article cites the example of Dena Gassner, 61, who was diagnosed with autism at age 38. She has a stable group of friends, but finds it easier to connect with others on the spectrum. “You don’t have to explain anything to anybody,” she says. When Gassner goes out for dinner with her group of autistic friends, everyone in the group knows what to expect. “The people who can tolerate more sound or the people who brought their earplugs face the crowd. The people who cannot, face the wall,” Gassner says. “Those relationships are treasured for me.” In these friends, she says, she finds an almost organic give and take: “like one person inhales, and the other person exhales.”

Matthew Lerner, a psychologist at Stony Brook University in New York, who established a camp for children with autism called Spotlight, describes why this is so important. On the second or third day of his first camp, 16 years ago, an 11-year-old boy ran up and tugged his sleeve. “Matt, Matt, where did you find these kids?” Lerner recalls him asking. “All over the place,” Lerner answered. “Everyone wants to come to camp, just like you.”

The boy turned to Lerner and said, “This is the first normal group of kids I have ever met.”

If you are interested in joining any one of our social groups, please contact Noeline at


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