Young adults on the autism spectrum often have difficulty making friends due to challenges with social communication. Most research is focused on social skill deficits in teens with autism resulting in social isolation, but there is less research about what their relationships do look like, particularly from a strength-based perspective. While they may look for different qualities in relationships, they still believe relationships are important, even if they struggle with developing trust and intimacy with others. A recent study published in Autism in Adulthood explores the diverse ways that teens and young adults on the spectrum develop satisfying relationships despite social difficulties.

Social Isolation in Teens on the Autism Spectrum

According to data from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2, one of the biggest challenges for teens on the autism spectrum is that they report more loneliness and poorer friendship quality than their peers. 

  • 43% of adolescents (ages 13–17 years) on the autism spectrum never got together with friends outside of school or organized activities
  • More than half (54%) never received phone calls from friends
  • Half (50%) were regularly invited to social activities by friends
  • Less than 30% had at least one close friend or a peer relationship that involved some shared activities

Do teens with autism prefer to be alone?

When interviewed about their relationships and relationship styles, many teens on the spectrum attribute their social withdrawal to being seen as different from others and too few opportunities to socialize, rather than a conscious choice to isolate. 

Friendship was very important for most of them and they described their desires to have friends, their efforts to make friends, and the significant difficulties and frustrations they faced. They attributed these difficulties to being seen as different from others and too few opportunities to socialize. 

People on the autism spectrum may perceive friendship differently, have different priorities or goals for friendship, and have different ways of seeking and experiencing friendship than their typical peers. 

Factors Influencing Their Relationship Style

Aside from difficulties understanding nonverbal communication and taking other people’s perspectives, social anxiety is one of the biggest factors that affects how teens on the spectrum develop relationships. They are more likely to experience sensory overload in large groups, crowded spaces, or loud places, which rules out a lot of social situations and opportunities to meet new people in public. 

Instead, they may feel more comfortable socializing one-on-one, online, or by being introduced to someone new by someone they trust, like a family member or their best friend. While their main issue in conversations with people they know who share similar interests may be being aware of whether they are interrupting or talking too much, they may struggle to hold conversations with people they don’t know because they are questioning social norms. This is a normal experience for many people who are shy around strangers but is compounded by a fear of not knowing other people’s intentions. 

If they believe that they share similar interests with someone else, they may forget about levels of intimacy or that social scripts depend on the context. For example, they may strike up the kind of conversation with a server at a restaurant or their teacher that they might get into with their close friends. When it comes to romantic relationships or online safety, this may mean that they are more likely to get taken advantage of for trusting others as they struggle to set boundaries.

What qualities do they look for in relationships?

It is possible that teens on the spectrum have a wider definition of what “friendship” look like, especially as they are more likely to value including others and being kind to everyone. In this study, teens on the spectrum identified more friends than their parents did and described friends as those with common interests. By contrast, their parents thought of friendship as having mutual benefit and emotional connection. 

They had the most success by finding friends who accepted and appreciated their social differences. In these relationships, they did not have to worry about social norms the way they usually did. Several participants found it easier to relate to others on the spectrum and participated in organized social groups. Others made friends around shared interests where their autism was not a primary concern.

Strengthening Relationships in Residential Treatment

At Seven Stars RTC, we help cultivate a supportive social environment for teens on the spectrum that takes into account their social strengths and capacity to connect with others. Many of the teens we work with appreciate the structure of the program in guiding social group activities but struggle with interacting with others during their free time and connecting on a deeper level. 

Our team is dedicated to helped teens develop more effective social skills using positive psychology and a relationship-based approach. Between practicing social skills in group therapy and outdoor recreation activities, students learn to self-monitor anxiety and achievements in their interactions with others. Our therapists are more hands-on and interact with students outside of individual sessions in order to foster a strong therapeutic relationship, which is the foundation of their success at the program and once they transition home.

Discover Seven Stars Can Help 

Seven Stars RTC is a residential treatment center for teens ages 13-17 struggling with Autism-related issues. The program provides acute care stabilization, residential treatment, academic programs, adventure-based therapy, skill-building, and positive psychology. These various programs and therapies help students to improve their confidence, self-awareness, and personal management. Seven Stars provides students with individualized access to the resources they need to transition to the real-world practicing healthier habits and self-control. We can help your family today!

Contact us at 844-601-1167 for more information about social skills for teens on the spectrum. We can help your family today!