How to be a friend to autistic person ?

Steve Ramsey, PhD -Health Sciences MSc-(hon) in Med Ultrasound.RMSKS.

Steve Ramsey, PhD

People with autism

        Dan Aykroyd – Actor and Film Writer.

·        Albert Einstein – Scientist & Mathematician.

·        Daryl Hannah – Actress & Environmental Activist.

·        Anthony Hopkins – Actor.

·        Heather Kuzmich – Reality TV Contestant & Model.

·        Tim Burton – Movie Director.

·        Henry Cavendish – Scientist.

Albert Einstein: Einstein was slow to learn language; he repeated sentences until he was seven. He had difficulties with social interactions. Although he loved his children, he could not stand for them to touch him. He displayed fixations on one topic to the exclusion of everything else.

Sir Isaac Newton: Newton rarely spoke and had difficulty with day-to-day conversations. He had very few friends and was socially inept. He became so fixated and focused on his work he often forgot to eat. He relied very strongly on routines. If he was scheduled to give a lecture, that lecture was going to happen whether there was an audience or not.

Charles Darwin: Darwin avoided human interaction as often as he could. He had a fear of intimacy as a child. Darwin wrote notes than rather deal with people in person. At times Darwin would become obsessed and fixated with various gadgets. He was ritualistic and compulsive.

Thomas Jefferson: Despite being president, Jefferson was shy and often had an inability to communicate verbally with others. He was very sensitive to loud noises. Alexander Hamilton noted that Jefferson seemed to have difficulty making eye contact. Jefferson had a fixation with birds, in particular, mockingbirds. He generally had a mockingbird named Dick sitting on his shoulders.

Michelangelo: Michelangelo had poor communication and social skills. He was aloof and had few, if any, friends. Michelangelo has been described as having high-functioning autism with savant abilities. He was obsessive about following a repetitive work routine. If the routine was broken, it created a great frustration – interrupting his creative process. He has been described as being preoccupied with his own private reality.

Andy Warhol: Warhol had a preference for repetition and had great difficulty in social interactions. On the occasions when he did converse, he used very mineralized language. His eccentric behavior included extreme focus and obsession with detail.

Interestingly, the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh has worked with the Cognitive Psychology Department at the University of Victoria, British Colombia, on a project that hopes to improve the communication skills of autistic children. The program uses Warhol’s portraits to teach facial recognition skills to students who have been diagnosed as on the autism spectrum.

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You’ve probably seen a film or television show where an Autistic person is portrayed as a loner. And, while media representations aren’t always realistic, perhaps you have met someone like this in real life: they might be a colleague who avoids office social functions, a student who regularly eats lunch in the library, or an acquaintance who usually declines invitations to parties.

Lots of Autistic people are honest, caring and loyal (often to a fault), so they make great friends. Friendships in general tend to be built upon mutual respect, shared interests and enjoyment of each other’s company, and friendship with an Autistic person should be no different.

Often non-autistic people mistake this choice to opt out of certain social situations for a disinterest in social connection, or even take it as a personal rejection. This can make it hard to know when, how or whether to approach the person, which can limit opportunities to connect and develop a meaningful friendship.

Differences in social interaction and communication are among the defining features of autism a lifelong developmental divergence that is also characterized by differences in sensory processing, and often accompanied by a preference for sameness and a capacity for hyperfocus. Historically, social behaviors such as those described above have been framed in terms of pathology. ‘

Deficits’ in social communication and interaction form one of the two key groupings of diagnostic criteria  for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (2013), or DSM-5. But it is not always the case that Autistic people want to avoid social engagement; rather, research shows, different ways of engaging are important to consider. Recent studies that examine social interaction in cross-neurotype dyads that is, pairings of Autistic people, pairings of non autistic people, and pairings of an Autistic person and a non-autistic person have shown that Autistic people are often more motivated and at ease when interacting with other Autistic people, and experience a greater sense of belonging.

That said, worthwhile friendships can develop between Autistic and non-autistic people, provided there is sufficient understanding and genuine acceptance of the distinct ways in which each person experiences the world.

A growing body of research that attends to the lived experience of Autistic people encourages us to reframe the way we view Autistic social interaction. Rather than focusing on deficits, we can think seriously about the differences in social-communicative style, preferences and needs that are core to the experience of autism.

Autistic people often enjoy a different quality, type or frequency of social interaction compared with non-autistic people. For Autistic people, as for most people, healthy friendships are underpinned by respect, care and empathy; these might just manifest in different ways. This divergence from the norm can make initiating and sustaining friendships more challenging  for Autistic people, given that social conventions are largely tailored to non-autistic people.

We must be patient and truthful. The fundamental basis of the double empathy problem is that Autistic and non-autistic people have such different experiences of the world that establishing common ground is equally challenging for both parties. Milton defined it as a ‘double problem’ because it is experienced by both people and, thus, the problem belongs no more to one than it does to the other. This challenges the dominant view that it is the Autistic person who is impaired and, by default, responsible for any miscommunication or interpersonal challenges during interactions.

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People are often guided by their own preferences for social connection when interacting with friends, as per ‘the golden rule’: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. However, when your friend is Autistic, they might have different preferences regarding the types and frequency of social contact and the kinds of gestures that they feel strengthen a friendship. Using your own preferences as a template can thus lead to misunderstandings.

Luckily, the solution is simply to ask your friend what they enjoy and don’t enjoy about social interaction, and to explore together what fosters feelings of connectedness and comfort in the friendship. For example, Autistic communication tends to be open, direct and honest, and we often prefer to skip the small talk about weather or local sporting teams, and instead get straight to the point. While this might come across as rude to some, it is really about getting to the interesting content, which is where we find connection with others. Note that remaining open and interested in learning about an Autistic person’s social preferences over time can help create a strong friendship, whether or not that person is able to readily articulate those preferences.

Learning about an Autistic person’s preferences can also include learning about the ways in which Autistic people experience the world differently from you, which underpins some of those preferences. You might like to ask your friend directly about this, and perhaps also read some accounts by other Autistic people to gain a greater understanding of the areas such as sensory, emotional and language processing in which our perception of ourselves, other people and the world is likely to differ from yours.

Just remember that there is diversity among Autistic people, so refrain from assuming someone else’s experience is the same as your friend’s experience.

In the middleast they call them Crazy, in India and Asia they call them mentally challenged , same as in Africa. They will never offer a job to them and if they do they always treat them like children. Hope this is changed now as I left those countries back in 1978 , and I saw how the treat them in the hospitals.

When we were young, undiagnosed Autistic women, carefully observing the social conventions of non-autistic people was a survival mechanism: it gave us a template on which to base our social interactions. These days, it’s more of a hobby. Many of these conventions are quite hilarious when you look at them critically.

We’ve all seen a friend, colleague or relative arrive with a new, utterly dreadful haircut. It’s so terrible, yet so noticeable that people can’t not comment on it. What commonly ensues is not frank feedback or constructive criticism, but rather a mass fawning over the unfortunate individual.

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They’re told that the new hairdo makes them look younger, or matches their face shape, or makes them look just like [insert name of current tabloid celeb]. As this unfolds, it seems obvious that everyone is passing deliberate and disingenuous comment to ease the palpable shared discomfort about the new haircut.

Speaking personally, that’s just not how we roll. While both of us are mindful of people’s feelings and respectful of differences in preferences, we refrain from giving positive comments unless we genuinely believe them. We will also express unpopular opinions, let our friends know directly when we disagree, and give a correction when it is warranted. This is largely because we – like many Autistic people have a drive for truth over social niceties and value doing the right thing over adherence to social convention.

We would feel it rude if our friends allowed us to continue to mispronounce a word or get the same terrible haircut again because of a lack of honest feedback. We are the people who will immediately tell you when you have parsley stuck between your teeth, saving you the retrospective cringe of getting home, looking in the mirror and realizing that, for seven hours or so, people have politely observed your well-garnished dentition without saying a word.

So, if your Autistic friend hangs back quietly while others rave about your new haircut, or provides unsolicited fact-correcting during conversations, try not to take it personally. It comes free of subtext, power play or contempt, and is instead a glimpse into the world of unfettered Autistic communication.

Social connection often takes place in the form of face-to-face get-togethers, regularly in group situations and in public venues such as restaurants. However, many Autistic people prefer to connect in different ways, such as via text messaging, social media or online gaming, in small-group settings or one-on-one, or during a structured activity.

And some Autistic people, for a variety of reasons, do not speak at all, but not speaking doesn’t mean a person can’t communicate. So, while you might feel that text chat is more prone to misunderstandings than a phone call or conversation in person, for many Autistic people the experience is quite the opposite.

Additionally, Autistic people tend to be very driven by our interests, rather than by social connection in and of itself. As such, we might best connect socially when it is incidental to a planned activity or occurs around shared interests rather than small talk. We might forget to say hello and goodbye, but remember in fine detail any overlapping interests and randomly send facts or memes about these intersecting interests.

This is often a way that we show care, affection and warmth, though it might be missed or misunderstood by non-autistic people. So look out for information drops in your areas of interest, a well-researched list of solutions to your latest personal quandary, or some unsolicited oversharing about our own failures when you’re feeling bad about something that didn’t quite work out. These might just be ways that we are showing you we care and that we understand (some) of your inner workings.

Try not to confuse a friend’s lack of adherence to sociocultural conventions with a lack of desire to connect. Autistic people might not always be on top of social conventions and expectations around when it is OK to just drop in unannounced (never, some would say), or whether to offer to do the dishes at your place, or whose turn it is to pay for a dinner.

We might seem stingy because we respond with ‘Are you sure that is OK with you?’ when you offer to pay, rather than jumping in and engaging in a performative faux-conflict about it. But none of these missteps in the dance of the rituals of socializing are reflective of how we feel about our friendship with you. We aren’t devaluing or forgetting you. It is the sociocultural rituals surrounding friendship that we devalue or forget.

So, if your Autistic friend politely declines an invitation to your birthday party, rather than take offence, refocus on prioritizing connection rather than social rituals, and perhaps suggest a one-on-one catchup the following week instead. And consider asking if there is anything in particular that is difficult about attending the social gathering so that you know for future reference.

Sometimes people feel obliged to introduce themselves to a family who has just moved in across the street, or make the effort to have lunch with a new workmate who might be feeling out of their depth. These can indeed be welcome and helpful gestures, but such acts often also serve to make us feel better about ourselves because we’ve done ‘the right thing’.

I mentioned the stereotype of the ‘Autistic loner’ at the top of this Guide, and it is true that many Autistic people do desire more meaningful social connection in their lives, so you might feel inclined to extend your hand in friendship as a way to help. But make sure that your intentions are honorable and sincere; don’t do it so that you look like the good guy.

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Many Autistic people have had negative social experiences. We might have been excluded or bullied at school, and we might have misread social cues in ways that resulted in ridicule or embarrassment, or even wound up in abusive relationships because we misjudged someone’s intentions. These things can make us wary of people’s motives (be they genuine or otherwise) and, quite often, the last thing we need is a superficial friend with self-serving intentions.

Part of Autistic interaction is direct, honest communication. If you’re wondering about some aspect of your interactions with an Autistic person, rather than making an assumption or trying to read the subtext (spoiler alert: there likely isn’t any). So think;

  • How much notice do you like to have when planning social catchups?
  • What’s the best way to reach you? Is it easier to talk on the phone or would you prefer text messaging or email?
  • Are you OK with meeting at this café/bar/mall, or is there another place where you might feel more comfortable?
  • Can you hear what I am saying easily over this background noise?
  • How often do you like to catch up with friends face-to-face?
  • Your face seems a bit angry; are you feeling angry?
  • Your tone felt a bit abrupt then; are we OK?
  • When you are interrupting me while I am speaking/talking over me, are you also listening to what I am saying?
  • When you are looking away while we are talking, are you still listening?
  • You don’t have to be friends with someone forever. It sometimes becomes apparent that a friendship is requiring more effort than it is worth and has become detrimental to your own wellbeing. It’s OK to walk away in the interest of self-care.
  • Learn to feel comfortable with making your needs known (when it is safe to do so). For example, you could explain that you appreciate being included in things, and that you’d like people to keep inviting you, even if you often opt not to attend. Let your friends know what kind of socializing works for you.
  • It might be the case that they’re constantly inviting you to go 10-pin bowling because they don’t realize how much you dislike it.
  • Set boundaries. It’s OK to say, for instance, that you can make it to an event only for half an hour or an hour. Bonus tip from the authors: sometimes when we suspect it will be difficult to leave an event, we organize to call each other at a nominated time.
  • Even if we don’t take the call, a ringing phone means we can press pause on an overly chatty acquaintance and make a swift exit.
  • Developing and maintaining cross-neurotype relationships can take a lot of effort, which sometimes is well worth it. But don’t forget that Autistic friendships can be amazing, too.
  • Autistic people often form close bonds and strong trust very rapidly. If you can meet the right kind of Autistic person – and they’ll be out there somewhere – you just ‘click’. It might seem a bit strange, but it could well turn out to be a lifelong friendship.
  • Good friendship is often quality over quantity. A couple of trusted, genuine, close friends is better than a whole gaggle of acquaintances who might not be there when you really need someone.


  1. Remember that Autistic and non-autistic people can form meaningful friendships. Autistic people experience the world differently and have a different style of social interaction. But friendship with an Autistic person involves the same essential ingredients, including care and respect.
  2. Get to know your friend’s preferences. Ask directly what they like and don’t like in their social interactions. Don’t rely on guessing or using your own experience as a template.
  3. Be ready for (sometimes brutal) honesty. It’s likely a reflection of your Autistic friend’s direct communication style and inclination to tell the truth, not a sign of negative feelings toward you.
  4. Be open to different ways of connecting. Many Autistic people favour interacting in smaller groups, through electronic media and/or during activities based on shared interests. Connect in a way that works for the two of you.
  5. Focus on your connection rather than the rituals of socialising. Your Autistic friend might not follow social customs to the letter, but that doesn’t mean they don’t value your friendship.
  6. Ensure that your intentions are genuine. Mutual enjoyment and shared interests are far better reasons for being friends with an Autistic person than trying to look like ‘the good guy’.
  7. If you’re unsure about something, don’t be afraid to ask. Whether you are curious about your Autistic friend’s preferences, expressions or feelings toward you at the moment, it’s best to raise it directly.
  8. For our Autistic ‘neurokin’: reflect on your social needs and preferences. You can and should set boundaries that fit your comfort level, tell friends how you prefer to socialize, and concentrate on the friendships that you find most rewarding..

In a traditional way of thinking called the medical model of disability, individual differences that are associated with disability are considered negative and abnormal, and disability is situated within the disabled person. In contrast, the social model of disability supports the view that these individual differences are neither inherently negative nor positive, and locates disability at the myriad intersections between the disabled person and the world around them.

While the social model of disability might not immediately seem relevant to friendship with an Autistic person, we would argue that this entire article is written through the lens of this model. Earlier, we described how having a different social style can make it hard to initiate and maintain friendships, because the majority of people lack the understanding, and thus the empathy, to help create a bridge to make the friendship with an Autistic person work.

By understanding your Autistic friend, and adjusting to their needs and preferences (just as Autistic people constantly must adapt to a world structured for non-autistic people), you are creating an accessible friendship and thus abling, rather than disabling, your friend.

You can Read – Is That Clear? Effective Communication in a Neurodiversity World (2020) by Zanne Gaynor, Kathryn Alevizos and Joe Butler is a practical and accessible guide to understanding Autistic communication, filled with tips for adapting your communication style when interacting with Autistic people.

Always seek the advise of an expert . a clinical psychologist, or a psychiatrist who have the experience in this topic.

Thank you for reading

Steve Ramsey, PhD.