Friendships are particularly challenging for girls with autism
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Friendships are particularly challenging for girls with autism

by Freya Lucas

November 23, 2018

Research from Macquarie University have found that girls with autism spectrum disorder struggle with friendships to a greater extent than their male peers also living with autism spectrum disorder, in a study released this week. The research is significant, as it disrupts previous thinking which delivered social support programs for children with autism along gender neutral lines.


The study, co-authored by Professor Liz Pellicano, has shown that while all the girls in the study placed high importance on their friendships, girls with autism struggle especially in navigating conflict.


Professor Pellicano’s research is likely to be of value to the early learning education and care (ECEC) sector, with the rise of Australians living with autism spectrum disorders increasing 79 per cent in the years 2009 to 2012, and with the commonality of autism spectrum disorder being four times higher in males than females – meaning female specific support and information is limited for educators caring for girls on the autism spectrum.


Both autistic and non autistic girls groups studies placed high importance on their friendships, were eager to fit in and were focused on developing friends who they can depend on for social and emotional support.


The study showed that when it comes to friendships, autistic girls might need extra support to help them develop their relationships, especially when dealing with conflict.


While non-autistic girls often had a wide group of less intimate friends, autistic girls usually formed close bonds with just one or two friends. Conflict between friends could therefore be devastating: “you have no-one else to go to,” said one autistic girl interviewed.


Researchers interviewed 102 children: 27 autistic girls, 27 autistic boys, 26 neurotypical (non-autistic) girls, and 23 neurotypical boys for the study. Autistic girls were more often victims of conflict within friendships than their neurotypical counterparts. They were also less able to understand the causes of this conflict or to play the social games expected of them to resolve it. Conflict in all the girls’ relationships usually took subtle forms, such as gossip, ‘the silent treatment’, or exclusion.


The two girl groups also took different approaches to resolving major disagreements. While non-autistic girls tended to know how to work out a compromise, autistic girls ended up taking an “all-or-nothing” approach: either accepting all the blame themselves, or labelling the other person the wrong-doer and breaking off the friendship.


The most common cause of conflict among the boys was friends annoying each other by taking jokes too far. But this was usually seen as a minor issue, and quickly resolved. While non-autistic boys placed a little more emphasis on emotional matters, such as shared humour, trust and listening, on the whole they took a similar approach to friendship to autistic boys.


Both autistic and non-autistic boys’ friendships revolved around shared activities and concrete support; their friends were “people they do things with” – ranging from sports to video games – and people who would help them out practically.


Professor Pellicano said she was concerned to find that autistic girls reported more relational conflict than all other groups in the study given the often-limited support that is available to autistic girls.


The research is particularly noteworthy because it contradicts previous ideas that support for all children experiencing autism, in terms of navigating friendships, should disregard gender.


“The findings provide compelling support for the possibility that gender plays an important role in shaping young autistic people’s social experiences”. Professor Pellicano said.


“They add to a growing body of work supporting the idea that autistic girls need different strategies and supports to understand and effectively navigate the social expectations placed upon them.”

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