Autism and friendship struggles

One of the things I find most difficult in life is making and keeping friends. There are two reasons why:

Reason 1: Cognitive empathy

I hope you know that ‘autistic people have no empathy’ is a silly myth.

There are actually two types of empathy:

  • affective empathy: the ability to understand how someone else is feeling
  • cognitive empathy; the ability to understand what someone else is thinking

Autistic people feel affective empathy just as neurotypical people do, but we tend to have more extreme sensitivities to this. Some autistic people are undersensitive and can’t feel it much, and some are oversensitive and can feel it much more than most people. Personally, I am oversensitive, which means that I tend to get emotionally over invested in things and people. But cognitive empathy is where most of my difficulties lie in terms of friendship.

Neurotypical people have what I call an ‘instinctive brain’. This means that knowing what to say in social situations and understanding others comes naturally. Their brain has the magical ability to just tell them what to say or to understand the social aspects of life, from what I’ve been told.

However, autistic people have ‘systematic brains’. I learn by experience. This applies to most things: understanding internal bodily sensations and what emotions they mean I am feeling, how to talk to people; and since we are on the topic of friendships: cognitive empathy.

To put it simply, if I meet someone new I immensely struggle to understand them and their point of view. As a result, I am easily tricked and scammed by people on the street.

Recently, someone told me they needed £20 to buy petrol to go and see their mum who was in hospital after having a heart attack and they said they would pay me back later if I gave them my phone number. So I gave them my last £20 that had to last me 2 days. An hour later, I realised that I didn’t have their number so couldn’t contact them, and that the hospital was only a 20 minute walk away, so of course he just wanted to steal my money. Thanks brain.

On the plus side, like I said I learn by experience. The more I see, talk to and get to know an individual, the more I understand them. If I have known someone for long enough, I eventually get up to the point where it seems like I instinctively understand that person, when really it’s just lots of practice, analysing and reflecting.

To have positive experiences with and develop friendships with people, you need to have a good level of understanding of them. You need to work out whether the person actually likes you and wants to spend time with you, whether they just say they are your friend so they can use you or they aren’t really your friend and spend time with you because they have sympathy for you, amongst a plethora of other reasons. This is without even trying to work out likes and dislikes, their personality, what it is appropriate to talk to them about, their sense of humour, what makes them angry and more. There is a lot to work out and meeting new people takes a toll.

This is before taking into account the silly things neurotypical people do too. Like not being honest and genuine so you are misinformed about how they are really feeling and ‘fluffing things up’, or when they don’t give you enough information to come to a proper judgement. Just as there are things to learn about an individual, there are just as many strange ways of using language that are incompatible with an autistic brain.

And of course people change all the time, so knowing someone also dooms you to an endless process of analysing and reflecting. All of this makes meeting new people absolutely exhausting.

Some days, I just sit in my room and avoid people all day to have a break from all of this. Other days, I come home and I am too mentally exhausted to relax, so I sit and do nothing instead of reading a book or playing some games.

By the way, the above is the process for getting to know one individual. Group situations make this process even more tiresome and difficult.

Reason 2: Reciprocity

The key to a positive friendship is reciprocity. That is making sure there is a similar amount of give and take in the friendship.

I didn’t realise until recently that in most of my friendships I was giving but not getting anything in return. People used to be friends with me because I helped them with their homework, with studying and other things like that. If I didn’t help with education, most of these people wouldn’t have even spoken to me. When I decided to stop masking so much and stop hiding the fact that I’m autistic, I realised I had to stop associating with these people. Even though I could call them ‘friends’, I was using all of my energy pleasing them without anything in return, and it isn’t fair. So now I have a lot less friends, but people I still enjoy spending time with are real friends, and I am a real friend for them too, as far as I am aware

The problem here is calculating the value of the reciprocity.

How do you put a value on the amount of positivity someone has received from the time you have spent with them? If I have had a more positive time than them, what and how much do I give to balance things out? Have they lost out by being with me because they could have spent the time doing other things? What about time itself, how much value does that have? Is the other person’s time more valuable than mine? As you can see, this gets complicated, that’s before even thinking about the smaller things, like buying things for each other, doing each other favours and even smaller things than that:

If I’m invited somewhere with someone and they’re driving, how much do I offer them for parking? If they insist they’re paying, do I still need to pay anyway so that I’m not taking too much? This sort of thing literally takes over my mind. A few weeks ago I went to Leeds with someone to watch a film premiere. Unfortunately, the parking couldn’t be paid for until we were ready to leave. This meant that I spent most of the time worrying about how much I need to pay, whether or not the there person would let me pay some money towards it and the implications of different scenarios. In the end, I got money out to pay half the cost and he refused and paid it all, and this still comes to my mind because it feels like I have taken something but didn’t give anything in return, meaning that our relationship is unbalanced.

Being autistic and anxious about most things, I try my best to make sure I get the least amount from other people and give as much to other people as possible. I refuse to let anyone spend any money on me or do too much for me, because I am so anxious about the implications this will have on the reciprocity and don’t want to comprise a positive friendship with someone by doing so. Though I am more than happy to spend most of my money on other people (as long as they don’t do it in return). The more important I feel someone is in my life, the more I hate it when they give me things. The downside of this way of thinking is that I can easily overwhelm people by offering too much, which actually happens a lot more than you may think.

I spend the majority of my spare time thinking about reciprocity. One thing that has been on my mind recently is that one of my autistic traits is being a perfectionist and as a result I am a very sore loser. The problem with this is that if I beat people in games I feel like I’m taking a lot without giving and as a result ruining a friendship, but if I lose a game I get annoyed and react negatively, which again has negative implications. I really wish I could be happy about losing as gaming can create a huge imbalance, and I’m sure it has several times. Surely if I lose on purpose for the benefit of the other person it shouldn’t really matter? But according to my brain, that’s not the case. I haven’t managed to last more than 5 minutes after letting someone beat me, before telling them I lost on purpose as my brain doesn’t deal with it very well.

I would list other things that I factor in and things I think about, but the list is endless, so I’ll move on.

Now combine reason 1 and reason 2.

When I meet new people, I don’t just not understand them, but I don’t understand their understanding of the reciprocity of our relationship, meaning I am absolutely clueless as to knowing where I stand with them and whether or not I am being a good friend to them, or they are being a good one to me.

When I first meet people who I feel are important to me or who I am developing a friendship with, they are all I can think about. I say a lot that my brain needs certainty. I need to know where I stand with people and everything needs to be in depth and clear. If not, it feels my brain is trying to complete an unsolvable puzzle. Therefore, new friends take up a tremendous amount of time and energy, not just when I’m with them, but when I’m alone. I get literally obsessed with the person with pretty much no escape. I’ve realised over the years that the only way to stop this is by seeing them lots and lots until the overthinking stops as I know them so well that my brain doesn’t have to analyse as much. This is why I’m reluctant to meet new people and it is very difficult to make friends. If I meet too many people, it stops me from being able to focus on anything, whether it is work, or just having fun. For me, the difficulty isn’t just finding people who I share interests with and who have a mutual enjoyment with me like how friendships work for neurotypical, but also all of the above.

I hope I have written this clearly enough for you to understand. Please let me know if not and I will try and make some changes.



14 thoughts on “Autism and friendship struggles”

  1. Thank you so much for writing this.
    I work with children with autism…. every moment I feel…I wish I knew what was inside their brains…so that I can understand them will help me find ways to help them learn.
    You did just that.
    Thanks again

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Your writing and thoughts are so massively helpful. We have an autistic son and he finds it so hard to convey things like this to us. So this just helps more than you know and it all makes so much sense. It makes things fall into place . Thank you x

    Liked by 2 people

  3. it`s actually much simpler than that. it takes two people to communicate. putting all of the honus on the autistic is unrealistic and disrespectful of the fact that autism is specifically a disability of nonverbal communication. trying to make a person do the one thing they`re disabled in isn`t practical. if you`re assessing an autistic by the standards of someone who isn`t autistic, you`re doing it wrong.

    now about empathy… people who aren`t autistic have no more empathy of any kind for autistics than autistics do for them. this is obviously not just an autistic issue. if it were, other people would be able to empathise with autistics. instead, they are far more likely to be negative.

    reciprocity ? autistics can`t and don`t socialise as much as other people. and that`s ok. because reciprocity goes two ways. assuming you`re empathetic with an autistic, you`re going to reciprocate by respecting their needs the same way they are yours. again, it`s more about meeting in the middle.

    now we combine one and two… and this is why autistics are stuck trying to make other people happy at their own expense. because a lot of them seem to think that they have to do all the work.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. This must be strongly culture based, because I’m Asian and…I’m not sure if the culture is just autistic-like or what, but since knowledge and skill are heavily valued – guess what autistics have in droves?! – a wider range of behaviors seem to be tolerated. Meanwhile, I’ve actually met some very extroverted autistics, and they want to socialize as much as any extroverted NT does! Not socializing makes them visibly wilted.
      One thing I agree on: communication is a two way street, and it’s not something that NTs always do effectively among themselves either.


  4. Thank you for sharing this … your insights give a voice to those who cannot articulate their experience. Perhaps one day we’ll be sharing such messages through the school system to peers so we can begin building a truly inclusive society for all citizens. Inclusion is more than awareness & acceptance – lasting change begins with understanding.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. I am working with highly functioning autistic teenagers. So often I encounter the lack of me being able to bridge the brain of a neuro typical with the brain of neuro atypical. Your article helps me to understand the reasons for my ‘incapability’ better. But also leaves the thought, together with some despair, whether people like me (neuro typically) are actually the right ones to teach them something about relationships as copy-paste is not what you people need for bridging the gap, I guess.
    Thank you for sharing your ‘interior’

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I’ve thought about this often. We’re not quite there yet, but it’d be nice to have a group of autistics and NTs together leading training on friendships and communication.


  6. Wow, you have just described how i feel about the relationships I have with other people, I cannot bear to be indebted to anyone. I didn’t realise this was connected to autism. I have an Aspergers diagnosis, but part of the problem is being unable to explain the things you have written, I am better at writing things down than verbalising, but I feel like I have been trying to express myself for all of my life, just fitting in was a momentous task, without anything extra.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I’m 43. I didn’t get diagnosed until I was in my mid 30’s.
    I am absolutely unashamed of being autistic and honestly have taught my four autistic children that Asperger’s is a superpower. However having grown up with no diagnosis and still basically having the default response to not identify my diagnosis to people until well into relationships, I can completely relate to you and how exhausting the process is. I’m proud of how well I have handled adulthood, although I don’t think the neurotypicals around me are very impressed LOL, but that’s their worry. Annnddd mine. It truly is a labyrinth , isn’t it? Thank you for writing and sharing this. You’ve definitely put it into words that I can’t explain.

    Liked by 2 people

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