The study’s senior co-author is Professor Liz Pellicano, an internationally renowned expert on autism based at Macquarie University.
Researchers interviewed 102 children: 27 autistic girls, 27 autistic boys, 26 neurotypical (non-autistic) girls, and 23 neurotypical boys.
Autistic and non-autistic girls described similar approaches to friendship, with a focus on developing friends who they could depend on for social and emotional support.
Both groups placed high importance on their friendships, and were eager to fit in, but a difference emerged when it came to conflict between friends.
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,” one interviewed autistic girl said.
Conflict in all the girls’ relationships usually took subtle forms, such as gossip, ‘the silent treatment’, or exclusion.
Autistic girls were more often victims of conflict within friendships, and were less able to understand the causes of this conflict or to play the social games expected of them to resolve it.
The two 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.
Meanwhile, 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 and “[back] them up.”
The most common cause of conflict among 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.
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.
While some researchers have suggested that autistic girls would have similar approaches to friendship to autistic boys, her study contradicts this idea and suggests that autistic girls might need special assistance to help them maintain the successful friendships they desire.
Professor Pellicano said there were a number of exceptions – areas where the autistic girls were more like their autistic male counterparts than non-autistic girls, “such as having best-friendships that were less close than those of their neurotypical peers, experiencing more conflict with best-friends, and being subject to more overt conflict than their neurotypical peers”.
“[But] these findings nevertheless provide compelling support for the possibility that gender plays an important role in shaping young autistic people’s social experiences,” 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.”