Autism and Loneliness: Navigating Friendships

A woman sits by herself, looking at her phone and appearing sad

Too often, autism and loneliness come as a package deal. Autism is characterized by differences in communication, behavior, and social interactions. As a result, we tend to struggle with the nuances of communication. This contributes to the profound intersection of autism and loneliness. I want to bring light to the experiences and emotions that contribute to this sense of isolation many of us feel. I hope that by shedding some light on these experiences that it will help society be more inclusive and understanding.

Making Friends While Autistic

As I sit here trying to write this, I find myself swimming in the pool of words in my head, unsure of where exactly to start. I know I’m lucky in that I have low-support needs and have solid friendships. As a kid, I did get put in friendship club in 1st grade. However, this was more because prone to playing by myself. When I did play with other kids, apparently I was bossy. Or did I just have blunt neurodivergent speaking habits that were pathologized? (Not to mention having blunt Jewish grandparents.)

Up through college, I always had friends but it felt like I could never quite crack the code of forming the kind of close bonds other people were able to. I didn’t really feel central to any friend group or like people particularly cared if I was around or not. Maybe that was more of a reflection of how I felt at home growing up and simply projected it outward because I didn’t know how to process it. Based on some of the friendships I still have today, I’m not sure those feelings of unimportance were the reality of the situation but just my inability to navigate the nuances of friendship. Connecting on deeper levels felt inaccessible to me and so I was prone to group hopping.

Difficulties in Generalizing Autistic Friendships

Autism often feels like everyone else is in on something or has a set of guidelines you weren’t given. While I struggled with friendships, I still know I’ve had more positive experiences. Some autistic people have felt completely isolated without any real friends their whole lives. Others can, and do, maintain lifelong close-knit friendships. That’s why I feel the need to make the point that I’m not trying to generalize autistic experiences with loneliness. Those experiences exist on a spectrum as varied as the spectrum itself.

That being said, there are common experiences I’ve heard many autistic or other neurodivergent people talk about. I know several autistic women who, in adolescence, found female friendships too challenging to navigate while male friendships were less complicated. More often than not, this subjected them to more tension and even bullying from their female peers. Many of us feel misinterpreted and like others perceive us as having malintent. People often perceive us as justifying ourselves when we’re just trying to explain our thought process so we can learn where we went wrong.

Autism and Loneliness: Feeling Left Out

Difficulty navigating the nuances of communication and relationships already complicates making friends. What also makes it difficult is the fact we need more downtime than neurotypical people do. We need time to not think about our facial expressions or if our tone is right. We need time to not worry about if we put the right words together. Unfortunately, we also have bills to pay so we have stupid jobs to do. This leaves us with very little energy left for socializing. Needing more downtime, we turn down plans more often and people slowly just stop inviting you.

You see the fun places your friends go without you. The trips they planned without even thinking to ask if you’d want to join. You see the way others so casually do things all weekend long while one activity over the weekend is enough to drain you for the entire next day. You see the places people travel to and long to see them one day too. But for people with autism, our travel daydreams are immediately interrupted with concerns. Concerns about food aversions and what we’ll be able to eat. Worry if you’ll be able to enjoy the experience without getting grumpy with overstimulation and annoying everyone you’re traveling with. Sure, we are very comfortable in our own company but that doesn’t mean we don’t crave the company of others. Humans need connection with other humans and without it, their physical and mental health suffers.

Worried About Being Annoyingly Autistic

And that brings me to our next factor in autism and loneliness which is the perpetual fear you’re being annoying. Many people falsely assume we don’t care what other people think. Sometimes we are oblivious to how people feel about us but that doesn’t mean we’re not affected by it when we do know. Many autistic people have rejection sensitivity because we have been made fun of for misreading social situations so many times. We’re constantly trying to read if we’re actually annoying someone or if we’re missing some subtlety of what they’re saying.

When we see our friends doing things without inviting us, we wonder if we’ve done something annoying to not be invited. Even when we are with our friends, we wonder if we’re being annoying. Annoyingly loud, going on about something others aren’t interested in, or if we’re interrupting too much. It should be simple to ask friends to invite you more often or if you can join them somewhere. When you have rejection sensitivity and struggle with executive function, it’s much more difficult. Meanwhile, we sink further and further into loneliness.

Feeling Trapped Inside Your Brain

There is another factor in autism and loneliness I’ve been coming to terms with recently. And that is what a wildly different existence I live in my head. In my head, I am easygoing, quick to laugh, well-spoken, and expressive. In reality, I am all of those things…sometimes. More often than not I need processing time before I respond. I worry about how something spontaneous will cause me to struggle the next day.

The random and disconnected words my mouth plucks from the sea of them in my brain often leaves me sounding incoherent. The thought in my head, so beautiful and complex, comes out scattered and confused. Internally, I have rich ideas for how I want my life to be and the things I want to do. When I do speak them out loud, I find myself confused by others’ surprise at my thoughts. So often, they’re unaware any of it was going on in my head but I think about it so often, how could they not know?

So many things I want to do and so often I’m at home needing downtime. Meanwhile, the world goes on to do interesting things without me. Could I push through more often? Sure, and I am trying to do so. But pushing through can also come with heavy consequences of autistic burnout. Autistic burnout can take months or even years to recover from. Who has the time for that?!

Ways to Cope with Autism and Loneliness

Obviously, these are things I struggle with myself so please don’t look at me as a bastion of guidance and good ideas. Per usual, there are a few tips I can give though. What’s helped me the most (while also being quite hard to do) is working on my communication with my loved ones. Telling them more about the way my brain works and asking them to not give up on inviting me places even if it feels like I say no a lot. I’m trying to journal out more of my internal thoughts and things I want to do so I can verbalize them enough to actually tell people about them. Also helpful: therapy 😬

Neurodivergent friendships are undoubtedly easier to maintain. If you don’t have any that live nearby, try looking up related groups or events in your area. Many areas have adult autistic meetups or even groups that run a variety of ’tism-friendly events. If you struggle with conversational skills or engaging with people, occupational therapy can be very helpful for many people with autism. If you don’t have access to occupational therapy, there are resources on YouTube created by occupational therapists that can be helpful. Transition Abilities has a number of useful life skills videos including conversational skills that can help you feel more confident in social interactions.

If you also struggle with autism and loneliness, what’s one thing you wish other people understood that would make it easier for you to be social? And if you need a friend, say hi in the comments or send me an email so we can be friends!

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  1. tempmail

    I do not even know how I ended up here but I thought this post was great I dont know who you are but definitely youre going to a famous blogger if you arent already Cheers.

    1. AriC

      Thank you, this was such a sweet comment to start my week with! Blogging can be such a vulnerable thing so your comment really means a lot.

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