Autism and Relationships: Supporting Young People

Reviewed by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS
Hayley Vaughan Smith, Person Centred Counsellor and The Ridge Practice and Everlief Child Psychology
Author: Hayley Vaughan Smith, Person-Centred Counsellor
  • Are you the parent of a child with a diagnosis of autism?
  • Do you think that your child may have an Autism Spectrum Disorder? (This is the official diagnostic term and is also known as ASD. However, many people rightly reject the term “disorder”. Autism is a difference, not a disorder)
  • Is your child showing some autistic traits?
  • Do they find making friends and maintaining relationships tricky?

Autism and relationships is a huge and complex topic. It’s likely that you and your child have some big questions about how they manage relationships with other people and what the future might look like for them.

Every child has different strengths and challenges. Relationships are an integral part of all of our lives. For an autistic person who may have so-called social deficits (challenges with social communication, social skills and social interactions in a neurotypical world), relationships can sometimes be a struggle.

Relationships in general can be bewildering, exhausting and stressful for some autistic individuals. And yet many people have (perhaps unrecognised) social strengths including likability, keenness for friendships and high levels of empathy. Some young people may need a little extra emotional support until they build their confidence, particularly when trying to understand romantic or intimate relationships.

Autism and Relationships – What Common Challenges Might There Be?

By understanding what potential common challenges autistic people might face with relationships, we can start to think about the best way to support them.

young girl quirky close-up

Friendship Dynamics

Friendships are a key part of early childhood and beyond.  It can sometimes be hard for both neurotypical people and autistic people to understand and manage friendships. One common trait of autism – cognitive rigidity – can make navigating friendships a bit harder though. For example

Change or unexpected events in relationships can cause great stress for an autistic young person. And yet, that is the nature of relationships. They change all the time.

I find that creating visual maps of friendship dynamics can really help children get to grips with them. Here’s a case study:

Angelina

Ten year-old Angelina had a best friend, Casey, and hated it when Casey played with two other girls, Jess and Milly. She wanted exclusive access to Milly. Angelina felt that Jess and Milly were deliberately unkind to her. They enjoyed playing football and would try to get Casey to join in their game. Angelina didn’t want to play football, so she often ended up on her own. With help from her teacher at school, Angelina drew diagrams of what play time looked like on a “good day” and a “bad day”.

On a good day, Angelina and Casey played on the monkey bars and talked about Minecraft undisturbed, whilst all the other girls played football or chatted on the bench.

On a bad day, Casey wanted to play football and this left Angelina with a dilemma: Play alone, join in with football even though she doesn’t enjoy it, or chat with the “quiet girls” on the bench. Through drawing the diagrams and talking with her teacher, Angelina could accept that Casey was still her friend even if she chose football some days. Angelina could understand that it’s okay for her to spend time with different people too, sometimes. She decided to try chatting with the quiet girls on the bench,and discovered that they also liked Minecraft! This meant more options for Angelina in the playground, and budding new friendships. It meant she was no longer isolated and alone when Casey wasn’t at school.

Understanding Emotions – Your Child’s Own Emotions and Other People’s

Emotions are not only expressed through words but through non-verbal cues such as body language, intonation, posture and facial expressions which some autistic children can find hard to determine.

Teenagers don’t always show their feelings or find it easy to express how they feel which can leave autistic young people uncertain about what’s going on in the relationship.

It’s possible to have good relationships without a sound understanding of your own emotions or other people’s. But it definitely helps if your child can deepen their understanding. Your child will have stronger and deeper friendships if they can figure out how someone else is feeling and respond appropriately.

Here’s a case study.

Dan

Thirteen year-old Dan is funny and popular. Others are drawn to him and he always has friends around him. However, Dan doesn’t always realise when he has taken a joke too far and has upset or offended someone. When he was younger he was always forgiven for this, but now he’s a teenager a few people have stopped being friends with him. Dan and his psychologist decide that they will spend time developing his understanding of:

  • “When to stop” when you are teasing someone or telling a joke about them.
  • How to spot if someone is offended or upset.
  • How to respond if someone is offended or upset.

Through talking, drawing and role play, it took Dan a few weeks to build up his skills and confidence in these areas. After two months Dan felt much more confident. He could still be his usual hilarious and gregarious self, but he could spot when he needed to “reign himself in”, apologise or repair a rupture in a relationship.

How Your Child is Perceived

Some autistic children and young people can appear withdrawn or come across as indifferent.  They might approach other children in an unusual way or use formal language that’s perceived as feels odd or unfriendly.  They may find generating two-way conversations really difficult.

Initiating contact is often not easy and avoiding trying can lead to isolation.  They may prefer to play alone which doesn’t help to build relationships. That said, the need for alone time is perfectly okay and shouldn’t be discouraged. Alone time to decompress enables young people to have more successful social interactions without getting overwhelmed or burnt out.

Many autistic children and teens can find crowds, events with family members or going out with a group of friends overwhelming.

It can be helpful for your child to develop insight into how they are perceived. Then, ask the question: Does it matter? Perhaps they are perceived as odd by a crowd who really don’t “get” them, but there are a whole bunch of people who like and accept them as they are. In this case, it doesn’t matter.

If the way they are perceived is a genuine barrier to your child forming meaningful friendships, what can they do? How can they help people understand them and see all the great things they can offer a friendship, without changing themselves just to fit in?

Spend some time problem-solving with your child. Then choose the best 1 or 2 solutions. Sometimes the solution is to develop a new social network with more like-minded people, whether online or in real life. Other times, a child might decide that one small tweak will help others to get past seeing them as odd or weird, so that they get a chance at building a positive relationship.

Here’s a case study.

Ahmed

Ahmed is sixteen and has two close friends through his love of Greek mythology. These friends don’t go to his school. At school he feels isolated. He finds it difficult to approach others and so he resorts to two methods that may be seen as “weird”.

Ahmed tries to make intense eye contact with other people in the canteen or playground, as he has heard that this is the first step in social interaction. He also tries to make “small talk” by asking people what is their favourite story in Greek mythology. He has heard that small talk is important for building relationships.

Ahmed talks his difficulties through with his parents and his school mentor. Together, they figure out that Ahmed’s attempts are not working in his favour despite his best intentions. Ahmed can see this more clearly once he has talked it though. He suggests that he shouldn’t worry about eye contact, as he is good at doing it once the conversation has got going and he is more relaxed. Ahmed accepts that many others at his school are not interested in Greek mythology. His mentor helps him create a list of topics he could ask questions about other than Greek mythology. Over time, this new level of insight helps Ahmed feel more relaxed and confident. Six months later he is settled into a small friendship group at school and no longer feels isolated.

autism and relationships: two boys relaxing and chatting

Managing Transitions

Managing transitions in relationships e.g. making new friendships in high school and  maintaining previous friendships can often be hard.  Help your child to build up their confidence by using whatever communication platform they find comfortable.  E.g. if your child finds face to face interaction uncomfortable, perhaps they could start by sending text messages or emails to stay in touch?

It can be hard for autistic brains to accept that friendships change and evolve. They may try to hold on to a friendship even when they no longer have much in common with the other person. Or they may be reluctant to seek new friends because they find it difficult to conceive of having more than one friendship group at a time.

In my experience, these situations are tough and autistic children need extra time and support to help them adapt. Be open to whatever means helps them explore their evolving relationships: talking, art, music, diagrams… whatever works for your child!

Autism and Relationships – Different Ways to Support Your Child

Autism and relationships are often not straightforward.  A young autistic person will usually have some or all of the following characteristics within their profile. These may make their relationships more challenging.

  • Social communication difficulties (e.g. reading and using body language/facial expression, generating two-way conversation)
  • Difficulties with social imagination (e.g. making inferences, predicting what might happen next in a social interaction)
  • Repetitive behaviours and special interests which may prove either a help or a hindrance to building a social network.
  • Autistic people can be very rule-bound.
  • Sensory processing issues (such as sensitivity to the chaos and noise generated by large groups of people)

So, how can your support your child to experience healthy and happy relationships?

Encourage Some Social Interaction (But Also Plenty of Down Time)

Your child should not feel that they need to interact in the same way that everybody else does. Connecting with others is good for our mental health and we are social animals, but autistic people may burn out if they overdo it socially. They may need extra rest leading up to a social event (such as a party) and will definitely need time to decompress and recover afterwards.

Help your child to connect with people who have similar interests by joining clubs and leisure activities that they might enjoy.  Try to find social support groups which are autism-friendly. The leader or coach should have a sound understanding of autism. The National Autistic Society has local networks which could be an avenue for your child.

Encourage play-dates if your child can manage them – it may be that 1-1 is best rather than too much time in larger groups.  Play-dates can help support your child’s experience of building relationships and learning to turn-take and share equipment and air-time.

supporting your child: autism and relationships

Help Them Understand Emotions

Some practical ideas to help widen your child’s emotional vocabulary might include:

  1. Colour coded and categorised lists of feelings (negative – red, positive – green)
  2. Use arts and crafts to explore what emotions might look like e.g. cut out magazine photos and make a collage of different expressions.
  3. Drama groups can offer the opportunity to express emotions through a character which might feel more comfortable than performing as ‘them’. Never force your child into such an environment though, if it’s just not “them”.

Support Them in Expressing Attraction & Romantic Feelings

Romantic partners are different to ‘friends’ but can also be friends!  Confusing right?  When autistic young adults feel an emotional connection to someone that feels different to the usual friendship feelings they know about, how do they manage them?

You can help your teen determine the meaning of romantic relationships. With someone they trust, (maybe you or a family member) spend time talking about adult relationships. Explore what the differences, advantages and disadvantages there might be having a relationship with a neurotypical partner or an autistic partner.

Visual supports such as social stories can make this easier and will help them to recognise and categorise attraction messages.  Help them to identify the difference in feelings they might experience in friendships, sexual relationships, romantic, or intimate relationships and what these mean. This article about sexual and romantic relationships may be helpful for you.

When autistic teenagers have trouble understanding social rules or other people’s body language they may behave or express themselves inappropriately.  They might struggle with other people’s interests and beliefs being different to their own.  Give them clear explanations of what is appropriate and socially acceptable. It’s fantastic to have strong and passionate views, but sometimes these need to be reigned in to avoid getting into trouble.

Here’s a case study:

Jodie

Jodie is fifteen is passionate about many good causes. She is well respected by others and sees herself as a political leader of the future. Jodie has strong views on swearing. She is strongly against it. When she heard other students in her year swearing on the school bus, she decided to confront them. She tried to explain why she felt their behaviour was inappropriate. The girls did not respond well. They laughed at her and threw her school bag off the bus. Jodie decided that she would report any further incidents of swearing to school staff. Unfortunately this led to other students mocking and isolating her.

Jodie spent time thinking through what to do next, with the support of her school counsellor. She was able to understand that her absolute commitment to a cause didn’t always serve her and could lead to unhappiness. She began to understand that it’s possible to have strong views, whilst also knowing when to take a metaphorical step back and leave things alone. Jodie and her counsellor talked through which kinds of situations this approach would be helpful for. Jodie began to adopt this approach and this enabled her to rebuild some relationships within her year group.

Physical Contact: Help Your Child Set and Manage Boundaries

Some autistic young people cannot cope with close physical contact for sensory reasons. This must be respected. It’s possible to have strong relationships without physical contact. It’s important they help their friends understand their personal boundaries.

On the other hand some autistic young people want a lot of physical touch and may not be able to spot when others have had enough, or when they have got too close for another person’s comfort.

You can help your child by raising their awareness that people have different “personal bubbles”. For one person, frequent touch is okay, but others may not want you to come within half a metre. You can draw out your child’s friendships and an estimate of each of their friends’ personal bubbles. Some will be very small, and others will be huge bubbles.

Sensory Differences and Relationships

If your child has sensory issues e.g. being touched or hugged, this might affect how they are able to express affection and attraction to someone else.  Maybe they are affected by loud noises which will make certain social situations uncomfortable for them (e.g. watching a movie at the cinema or going to a live music event with friends).

If this is something your child finds difficult you need to help them problem solve. But it doesn’t mean they can’t have fun with their friends. For example, if your child can’t cope with the cinema because it’s too loud and busy, what can they do instead? Perhaps they can have a movie night under the stars in their garden with a small group of friends instead.

When Relationships End

Autistic teenagers might need extra help to handle the end of relationships. The ending of long-term relationships in particular can leave a very big void.  So make sure that they feel loved and supported by you and others. Give them time and space to process what has happened to the relationship too. They will be able to move on, but in their own time.

Use simple language and messaging with explanations that they will understand allowing the time to talk about how they feel and what happens next.

Open Communication

Depending on your child’s communication abilities and capacity to talk, discuss or reflect, try to keep the lines of communication open.  Aim for a continuing, healthy dialogue around all relationships.

Use podcasts, TV programmes or movies to discuss the relationships they hear and see and what they think about them. Are they respectful? Is there equity in the relationships? What signs can they detect that the relationship is not healthy, even coercive or abusive?

Alternative Forms of Communication

Using alternative forms of communication, such as pictures, speech bubbles or colours may help your child explore relationships and what they mean.  Cartoons are a great resource to explore facial expressions and meanings as they are over-exaggerated and easier to read.

The video below is a great introduction to social stories.

YouTube video

School Support: Autism and Relationships

Many schools have dedicated programmes to support children with communication and relationships.  These might include buddy programmes, social skills lessons, workshops or after-school clubs. Talk to your child’s school and see what’s on offer.

Autism and Relationships – Communication

Conversations are not predictable which can be problematic for a lot of people with autism who thrive on predictability! The National Autistic Society explains that ‘this is why many autistic people avoid conversations with their peers and will often talk to adults, autistic adults or children much older or younger than themselves.’

helping your autistic child develop strong relationships: group of teens together at school

Speech, Language and Communication

All children develop language by understanding a word before they start saying it and blending it into the context of a sentence.  Autistic children may experience some of the following communication characteristics.

  1. Delayed language or a non-verbal profile.
  2. Advanced language and vocabulary around favourite topics, but limited vocabulary in other areas.
  3. Difficulty following what is being said in conversations, or the subtext.
  4. Struggle with the comprehension of metaphors, idioms or language such as sarcasm.
  5. Difficulty attending to another person (joint attention).

Speech and Language Therapy

If your child needs extra support with their speech and language, talk to your doctor about a referral and enquire what support is available through their education setting too.

Social Communication Aspects of Autism and Relationships

To help our children grow their confidence and skills, we need a sound understanding of their social communication strengths and difficulties.  Undoubtedly your child will have some social strengths, but they may struggle in a few key areas. These are not necessarily “deficits” but your child may struggle to fit into the neurotypical world. Perhaps they don’t want to or don’t know how to follow societal and cultural rules and expectations.

Make a grid. Think about all types of interactions your child has: peers, teachers, parents, younger children, unfamiliar people e.g. shop workers or restaurant staff. In which areas is your child thriving? Why? In which areas is your child struggling with skills, confidence or overwhelm? Why?

helping autistic teens with relationships: two teens facing away from one another on a bench

Social communication language encompasses the whole person with aspects including body language, eye contact and the use of facial expression.  This can be extremely complex for autistic children and autistic adults to master – they are interpreting a huge range of messages. But good social skills will help your child to be socially confident and to be able to be their natural selves. I don’t believe that any skills should be forced upon a child. But sometimes practising a skill in a fun and low pressure way can make the world of difference to their confidence.

Skills which your child may choose to work on could include (for example):

  • Taking turns in conversation.
  • Not dominating the conversation as this can lead to boredom and withdrawal from the relationship.
  • Paying attention with auditory and visual skills (as long as this is not too draining for them).
  • Giving constructive feedback.
  • Asking for help.
  • Asking questions or seeking clarification if they don’t understand something.
  • Placing an order.
  • Being aware of body proximity – how close they sit or stand next to someone as this can determine how comfortable the other person feels in the situation.
  • Understanding that others’ views and opinions may be different to their own but that this is normal and okay.

Remember, having a common interest is often the basis for a friendship or a relationship so this is a really good place to start a conversation.  “Wow, you’ve got the Arsenal shirt on, I support them too!”.

Autism and Relationships: Where Can You Go From Here?

Read this article about autism assessments if your child doesn’t yet have a diagnosis and you think this may be the next step for them.

Take a look at our fantastic online course, Embracing Autism, for parents of recently diagnosed children or those waiting for an assessment.

Take a look at this article about autism and anxiety, if anxiety is affecting your child’s everyday life.

If you have a teenager with social anxiety, my article on this topic will help you.

Explore the following fantastic books about autism and relationships:

Bullies, Bigmouths and So-Called Friends by Jenny Alexander

The Spectrum Girl’s Survival Guide: How to Grow Up Awesome and Autistic by Siena Castellon

The Autism Spectrum Guide to Sexuality and Relationships: Understand Yourself and Make Choices that are Right for You by Dr Emma Goodall

 

Related Reading

Autism Vs OCD: Understanding Your Child

Autism Assessments: Information For Parents

ASD: Thriving In The Teenage Years

Autism And Anxiety: Supporting Children In An Imperfect World

10 Brilliant Sensory Activities for Autistic Teenagers

Empowering Autistic Children: Top 10 Autism Classroom Ideas For Every Teacher and Parent to Know

The Crucial Impact of Interoception For Your Autistic Child

*Asperger’s syndrome has been removed as a diagnostic category from the latest versions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (Version Five) and International Classification of Diseases (Version Eleven). It is now considered to come under the umbrella of autism spectrum disorder.

Hayley Vaughan-Smith is a Person-Centred Counsellor accredited by the National Counselling & Psychotherapy Society. She is the founder and counsellor at The Ridge Practice in Buckinghamshire, and counsellor at Everlief Child Psychology.

Hayley has a special interest in bereavement counselling and worked as a bereavement volunteer with Cruse Bereavement Care for four years.

Hayley is mum to 3 grown up girls, and gardening and walking in nature is her own personal therapy. Hayley believes being in nature, whatever the weather, is incredibly beneficial for mental health well-being.


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