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Friends when you have autism; challenge or asset?

Positive friendships are characterised by understanding mutual wishes and intentions, respect for each other’s boundaries and pro-social behaviour. Qualities that might be more challenging for autistic adolescents.

Rachel A.G. O’Connor, Neeltje van den Bedem, Els M.A. Blijd-Hoogewys, Lex Stockmann, & Carolien Rieffe
01 February 2022
Read the article in SAGE: Friendship quality among autistic and non-autistic (pre-) adolescents: Protective or risk factor for mental health?

Friendships: different preferences, same intentions?

This research poses the question to what extent the friendship qualities differ among autistic and non-autistic adolescents, and how this relates to their mental health.

Friendships are  important to most people. Friends give a sense of social belonging and are typically characterised by positive traits, such as love and trust. Adolescents find it to be a source of happiness, they are more self-confident and experience fewer mental problems. These can be qualified as the positive friendship quality (PFQ).

It is often thought autistic adolescents have a lesser need for friendships. This cannot be farther from the truth: autistic adolescents are also striving for friendships, but find more difficulties initiating and continuing them. Not only that, they experience less support and connection than their non-autistic peers.

Friendships can also be defined by their negative aspects, such as jealousy, dominance, competition, and regular conflicts – the so-called negative friendship quality (NFQ). Past research suggests autistic adolescents experience more conflict in their friendships than non-autistic adolescents.

The balance between the good and bad sides of a friendship affects adolescents’ mental health. This research takes a look at the composition of this balance among autistic and non-autistic adolescents, and how this relates to symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Measuring friendship

306 adolescents (twelve years old on average) took part in this research, of which 104 were diagnosed with autism (86 boys / 18 girls). By using the Best Friend Index (BFI), the quality of the friendships was measured, whilst symptoms of depression were measured with the Child Depression Inventory (CDI). The level of anxiety was examined using a parent report questionnaire.


The outcomes of this study confirm previous findings that friendships among autistic adolescents have fewer positive characteristics compared to their non-autistic peers, whereas the level of negative features did not differ between the groups. Positive friendship qualities were related to fewer depressive symptoms for both groups, whereas the opposite was true for negative friendship qualities.

Remarkably, for autistic girls, positive friendship qualities were related to higher levels of anxiety. Autistic girls may experience more difficulties shaping their friendships positively. This could be related to the fact that many autistic girls think and experience that they will be better accepted by their non-autistic peers when they try to camouflage their autistic traits.

To conclude, it seems the findings of this research underline the importance for all adolescents, autistic or non-autistic, of having positive friendships.

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