Autistic Womxn - Relationships

Updated: Jun 3

Quick but Important Disclaimer:

We chose to use the word womxn in our campaign title, as the campaign aims to be inclusive to the LGBTQIA+ community. We wholeheartedly understand and respect that individuals may prefer an alternate term. We are open to opinions and suggestions as we want to learn when we can be more inclusive. We will interchange the use of the words "non-men," "woman," "women," and "womxn" in our published articles.

grit & flow understands that there are multiple ways to refer to individuals on the spectrum. We prefer to use identity-first language, as does the author of this paper, but that is not all we will use as we try to be inclusive. We will interchangeably use "autistic person," "person on the spectrum," and "person with autism." Also, our published works include using identity-first language for disabled individuals but understands that others may prefer "person with a disability," so we also interchange these terms.

Introduction:

Author and her cat looking up at a camera
Author - Nicole Seaward M.S. and co-author Bobo

I fully appreciate being autistic and enjoy many of my autistic traits. However, one of the tougher aspects of autism for me is the confusion that sets in when engaging with others. The inability to master communication baffles me because I can easily understand and synthesize complex information and data on a particular subject and put that information into practice. But no matter how much I read and study, I remain mystified with human behavior and communication. A couple of years after college graduation, I realized that my confusion unknowingly drove my desire to pursue a master's in psychology. I have seemingly always felt outside and disconnected from the human experience. It is as if there is a thin wall between me and others that I cannot seem to scale.


Research supports my trouble with communication. In fact, one of the core differences between autistics and non-autistics is the experience of social relationships. Research has stated that autistic womxn often enjoy a smaller number of friendships and that those friendships are based more on engaging in activities and joint interests than sharing emotions.[i] I can certainly relate to this finding. As much as I am involved with my community and volunteering, I have a small number of friends. I have a large number of contacts and acquaintances, but I tend to keep most at arm's length. It is true that some of those that I consider acquaintances may actually be friends; I have trouble understanding the difference. [IS1] Aspects of social engagement are where autistics often face the most discrimination and bias. The difference in communication styles between autistic and non-autistic individuals can create awkwardness during social interactions. The hampered ability that autistics experience when making friends transfers into the workplace, impacting how we engage with coworkers and management. This paper explores how autistic people make friends and how the lack of social engagement in the workplace can be an unwritten rule that impedes the autistic's success.


Friendship

As we know, boys and girls are socialized differently from a young age. Often, parents teach their girls to be quiet, courteous, clean, and welcoming. It is unclear how much influence this type of conditioning might have on the social differences observed between autistic boys and girls. Researchers have reported that when it comes to friendships, autistic and non-autistic womxn share many similarities. Some reported discrepancies were that autistic womxn tended to have fewer, more intense friendships, and best friends can often become their sole focus, much like a special interest.[i]

When I was younger, I remember pushing my doll carriage down the driveway towards a new neighbor who had just moved in and was playing outside. I walked right up to her, and the first thing out of my mouth was, "Do you want to be friends?" I did not introduce myself to her or tell her about myself. Thankfully, she accepted my abrupt invitation and ended up becoming my best friend, nearly inseparable, and she was one of the only friends I had as a child.

In junior high and high school, I experienced being bullied by others, just like many other autistic people, because I did not understand the nuances of social interactions and was interested in different hobbies. These misunderstandings and different interests made me appear awkward and "off." I also loved helping my teacher out and being in the front of the class. My interest in learning and helping out made others think I was getting special treatment or was a "brown-noser" or "suck-up." Kids made sure to let me know how they felt about me and my differences. Surprisingly by high school, I was popular though I never had a set group of friends. I just sort of wandered between all of the different groups. I made many friends through participation in diverse school and afterschool activities like woodworking class, soccer, theater, yearbook, rock climbing, and water conservation. After high school, making friends became difficult. Those whom I managed to befriend were coworkers.

Many autistics can meet and begin friendships with others. Still, after short periods they tend to fizzle out because many autistics do not inherently know how to maintain them. Research has stated that womxn tended to experience challenges with managing relationship conflict and reported an associated level of exhaustion with social engagements.[ii] Researchers have also reported that womxn in the general population are more likely to participate in social exclusion, manipulation, and spreading rumors than males are.[iii] This means autistic womxn are at a heightened risk for victimization, exacerbated by their challenges with understanding the intentions of others.[iv] These elements of friendship and social inclusion can carry over into the workplace.


Relationships at Work:

One of the things I worry most about when starting a new job is, "Will they like me?". It is nerve-wracking to learn both new job tasks and new faces at the same time. The beginning of a job tends to be incredibly overwhelming. One research participant commented that "it wasn't the socializing that troubled her, it was the lack of understanding around social interaction."[i] My experiences in social situations are pretty similar. I enjoy people and learning about their lives and interests, but my uncertainty in social situations creates anxiety, leading to avoidance when engaging socially. Research has reported that many autistics feel this way because they do not "understand humor or know when to join in or add to a conversation, and they fear they may come across as rude."[ii]

Author sitting on a newly constructed deck with a man standing next to her.
Nicole led a volunteer project for SNHU’s Global Days of Service Project with Habitat for Humanity

Challenges with understanding others and the feeling that we are "getting it wrong" contribute to social anxiety and a reluctance to engage socially. One autistic described how "socializing left her with 'constant heart-thumping anxiety,' which often led her to limit how much time she spent with friends."[iii] Think about how this might impact an autistic person in the workplace. We do not inherently understand facial expressions, sarcasm, or others' intentions, which leaves us open to making socially unacceptable missteps. These missteps in the workplace can leave coworkers and managers with a false impression of who we indeed are.

Researchers reported that 60% of respondents stated that the social aspects of the workplace presented a significant challenge. It is not only the intense moments like a performance review that cause anxiety. Simple communication tasks, exchanging pleasantries, or answering the telephone can all feel overwhelming.[iv] Autistics also generally show disinterest in "small talk," and they generally prefer to talk only about work-related topics.

If we do not eat out with our coworkers or show up for company social events, what will everyone think? Perhaps they may come to believe that we do not like them or care to be around them. They may feel that we think we "are better than them" and therefore do not enjoy their company. None of this is usually right. Let's always try to remember that for the most part, the important aspect of being productive at work is job performance.

Is it entirely necessary that we engage in social politics and gossip in the workplace? Unless they are a significant element of the job, they should not be necessary. However, the judgments made by others about autistics can creep beneath the surface and live there. The next time we step into a performance review situation, there is a potential for the impressions we have left on managers to impact our outcomes, what we earn, or whether we are offered continuous employment.


Closing:


This week we will explore workplace relationships alongside friendships and social networks. Unwritten social rules impact how managers, supervisors, HR members, and coworkers see one another, which can be devastating to the autistic worker. Many people form their opinions about others on how they make them feel. If coworkers or supervisors feel uncomfortable around a worker, they may hold less favorable views about that individual and their abilities. The segments of interviews that we will release will offer insight into the feelings of autistics and the impact of relationships in their lives and the workplace. We will also explore what experiences with coworkers and supervisors have been like for some. We hope you enjoy Week 3 of our monthlong focus on Autistic Womxn.


References:

[i] Milner, V., McIntosh, H., Colvert, E., & Happe, F. (2019). A qualitative exploration of the female experience of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 49, 2389-2402. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-019-03906-4, 2398 [ii] Ibid, 2398 [iii] Sedgewick et al., 2019, Friends and Lovers, 119 [iv] Baldwin, S. & Costley, D. (2016). The experiences and needs of female adults with high-functioning autism spectrum disorder. Autism, 20(4)., 483-495. DOI: 10.1177/1362361315590805, 489 [i] Ibid, 113 [ii]Moseley, R.L., Hitchiner, R., & Kirkby, J.A. (2018). Self-reported sex differences in high-functioning adults with autism: A meta-analysis. Molecular Autism, 9(33), 1-12. https://doi.org/10.1186/s13229-018-0216-6,2 [iii] Tint, A., Hamdani, Y., Sawyer, A., Desarkar, P., Ameis, S. H., Bardikoff, N., Lai, M. C. (2018). Wellness efforts for autistic women. Current Developmental Disorders Reports, 5, 207-216. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40474-018-0148-z, 208 [iv] Raymaker, D. M., Teo, A. R., Steckler, N. A., Lentz, B., Scharer, M, Santos, A. D. … Nicolaidis, C. (2020). 'Having all of your internal resources exhausted beyond measure and being left with no clean-up crew': Defining autistic burnout. Autism in Adulthood, 2(2), 1-16. http://doi.org/10.1089/aut.2019.0079, 6 [i]Sedgewick, F., Crane, L., Hill, V., & Pellicano, E. (2019). Friends and lovers: The relationships of autistic and neurotypical women. Autism in Adulthood, 1(2), 112-123. DOI: 10.1089/aut.2018.0028, 113

[IS1]Note to Ivan – Should be used as a quote in other things


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