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My social life as an autistic person

Published: September 4, 2018
Last updated on August 23, 2023
Question from a mother: How is your social life? I think my autistic child is struggling, as they have no friends

In this article, I will talk a bit about my social life, and get into the question as to whether autistic people struggle with their social life.

By most people’s standards, my social life is seemingly nonexistent. I only have a few online friends left who message me a few times per year, and I lost my last physical friend a few months ago. And yet, I am not struggling. It was a bit painful losing a best friend, but I honestly have so much to do that I don’t have much time to maintain social relationships anyway.

I also keep my social life small so that it is manageable; I wouldn’t be able to keep up with too many social components.

Maintaining relationships

As a kid, my tendency was to sit alone to draw or read. My parents felt it was important for me to be social, however; to engage with others and maintain friendships. They were probably right.

But I didn’t have much care for it myself. My parents often told me—practically forced me—to call one of my friends and go do something with them. I did, but it was never voluntary. Effectively I required guidance to maintain my friendships.

Without that guidance, not much would be happening in the social domain.

No social life needed

As I hit puberty, however, I started engaging with other people more. I had school friends, I had a friend I would often go to after school, I had friends I would go out with every weekend, and I would talk online with a myriad of people from all over the world.

I’m not one for socializing in the conventional sense, though. What I really enjoy is exchanging knowledge and ideas with others. A deep emotional connection isn’t strictly necessary for that, although it could make engagement in general smoother, and it could drive motivation to seek out contact with people.

I think people generally like engaging with me because of my eccentricities, which may have been cultivated by getting plenty of alone time. In other words, if social life is not deemed to be required for an autistic person, it may be conducive to just letting them do what they want to do; whether that’s a pursuit with other people, or solitary activities. Perhaps later in life, they will be more driven to seek out engagement with others.

Friends without expectations

Over the years, friends have come and gone for various reasons, which I suppose is only natural, and partially a matter of circumstances. Some friends I kept for quite some years, which may be because they understood me pretty well, and were thus more forgiving of some of my proclivities.

For example, they would come to understand that I am not very likely to call them. But if they call me, I can be an excellent friend. I’m open to hanging out or just talk, even if I don’t tend to initiate any of this myself. Friends of my friends would tend to perceive me as an oddball, and they had a hard time understanding my behavior; but once they hung out with me for a while, they always indicated liking me. In other words, people just have to look beyond the eccentricities, and learn what a person is about.

Despite my lack of social motivation, people would come to appreciate me for being me, and appreciate the fact that I stay true to being me, without being influenced by others.

Perceived struggle

So if you have an autistic son or daughter who doesn’t seem to have a rich social life the way you might expect from a child their age, I have to wonder to what degree they actually struggle with that, and to what degree you just perceive them to struggle based on your expectations and assumptions. Do they report social challenges, or are they just not socially motivated? I would talk with your child, and ask them about their (social) needs. Are they doing fine pursuing solitary activities? Or do they wish they had more friends but struggle making connections?

From a neurotypical perspective it can seem that an autistic person is struggling, but struggling with what exactly?

  • Are there struggles in making and maintaining relationships?
  • Or are there struggles with trying to adhere to a neurotypical framework of social engagement?

So the underlying question is, what does your child want? What are their motivations? Do they have challenges living up to the social expectations of others, or does he want to engage socially but is unable to do so?

In my experience it tends to be a mix of both; however, I am quite sure my parents were a lot more concerned with my social life than I was. No, I didn’t want to be friendless, but I didn’t really want to maintain a lot of relationships, either. Realistically, I did just fine drawing and reading on my own. In fact, at least 80% of the time, it was what I preferred.

I just wasn’t interested in social engagement to a degree others were.

Little social reward

There is a so-called social motivation theory of autism, which posits that social motivation deficits play an essential role in autism. Studies have confirmed this theory:[1]The Social Motivation Theory of Autism (Chevallier et al., 2009)

We conclude that ASD can be construed as an extreme case of diminished social motivation and, as such, provides a powerful model to understand humans’ intrinsic drive to seek acceptance and avoid rejection.

A lot of autistic people will also have social anxiety. This ought to be addressed in order to improve the quality of life. But in my experience, my lack of social motivation has never been an issue. I’ve practiced social skills and came to understand social and societal expectations better, as well as social conventions. Understanding social situations is in my best interest, but I never felt like I needed to work on my motivation.

It may be true that I would have had a richer social life—which may have had a positive influence on my professional life—if I had spent more time cultivating it, but my lack of motivation I perceive as a fact rather than a problem. I have my frustrations when it comes to my professional life, but I am still working on it, and I enjoy the progress I am making.

Note that while others are engaged in small talk, I am doing things that I deem a lot more important than social engagement.

People might say I am “in my own little world”, which has some validity. That’s how I like it!

Is there an issue?

First, establish if your child is genuinely struggling with their social life, or whether it’s your perception that they aren’t engaging enough socially. If it’s the latter, there may not be a genuine problem, as the lack of social motivation is inherent to autism; so you may have to change how you view autism, and acknowledge your child’s motivations and desires. Their social life may remain small, but perhaps that is just how they like it.

But it may be the case that even though your child by their own admission does not struggle, the lack of social engagement and the cultivation of social life nevertheless has a detrimental effect to their well-being in the future. It tends to be conducive to our mental health to have a support network, which may be too small or non-existent if we make no effort to establish connections with others.

With a richer social life, you can get the support that you may require from friends. And of course, establishing and maintaining friendships can improve your social skills through engaging with others, which may have a myriad of positive outcomes later in life—including the likelihood of finding a job, or a partner. In summary, a richer social life can be conducive both to one’s personal and professional life. But keep in mind that autistic people may have significant limitations in their ability to sustain a rich social life, so there has to be a balance between conducive connections and their mental energy (so-called spoons) to mediate those connections.

Social practice

All of this considered, it may be a good idea to offer your child some guidance, and—as my parents did—encourage them to call their friends now and then. Help them cultivate their social life by encouraging them to enter certain social situations so they may—with guidance if necessary—acquire more social skills and establish connections with others.

My wife, Natalie, used to give her son social challenges. For example, when going to a social gathering, a challenge could be to interact with others and focus on asking questions for 30 minutes in total. As such, with each social gathering, they would focus on practicing a different social skill.

As a result, her son has a much richer social life than I did (and do), and his social skills are undeniably superior to mine, even though he is much younger than I am. He doesn’t have the same anxiety engaging with others as I have—or seemingly doesn’t, anyway. Truth be told, I am probably more autistic than he is, so you may not have the same success with every autistic person; on the other hand, he may just have practiced his social skills to a degree he only appears to be less autistic. It’s near-impossible to know which it is without forcing him through the diagnostic process.

Either way, I am quite certain that if my parents hadn’t offered some guidance and forced me into certain social situations, I would be worse off today; I would likely have become even more of a recluse, and with more obvious social impairments or idiosyncrasies that negatively impact my ability to navigate social situations.

Social motivation

But if your child struggles with their lack of social motivation—meaning they want a richer social life in principle, but lack the motivation to establish/maintain it—then perhaps pharmacological treatment is worth considering.

For example, by administering oxytocin—a hormone that plays a role in social bonding—social behavior can be promoted in autistic people:[2]Promoting social behavior with oxytocin in high-functioning autism spectrum disorders (Andari et al., 2010)

Under oxytocin, patients respond more strongly to others and exhibit more appropriate social behavior and affect, suggesting a therapeutic potential of oxytocin through its action on a core dimension of autism.

A partner

Lastly, it may be conducive for your child to find a partner who is more engaged socially. That’s what happened to me. Even though Natalie is autistic herself, she often acts as my social buffer, and we compensate for each other’s challenges. The same goes for the design studio I worked for; my colleagues operated the phones and had contact with clients, so I could focus solely on design—which is exactly what I wanted! I may have missed out on practicing social skills, but perhaps social engagement is better left to those who like it and are good at it, so I can cultivate other skills.

Having said that, I try to be more proactive and call friends and make my own appointments, because I wouldn’t want to lessen my ability to engage socially because my partner does it all for me. I want to be an independent adult as much as I’m able to.

But perhaps there is also something to focusing primarily on cultivating our gifts, rather than trying to keep up with others in areas where we show deficits.


This article
was written by:

Eva Silvertant is a co-founder of Embrace Autism. She is living up to her name as a silver award-winning graphic designer, and is passionate about design, typography, typefaces, astronomy, psychology, and more. Currently pursuing an MA in Psychology.

Diagnosed with autism at 25. Also, a trans woman; you may have known her as Martin Silvertant at some point.

Want to know more her? Read her About me page.


Although our content is generally well-researched
and substantiated, or based on personal experience,
note that it does not constitute medical advice.


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