How scientists measure if you have good friends

I thought the good friend test was who do I tell that I got a job at Harvard. But I ended up telling everyone. Then I thought maybe the good friend test was who can I reach out to when I’m having a total breakdown? But again, the answer is everyone, because no one solo person can actually deal with me calling them, repeatedly, so I have to just tell you all, here on my blog.

The research about friends talks about reciprocal friends. For example, does your best friend think you are their best friend? If the answer is no, then term for that person is not friend, it’s shitty friend. Because uneven friendships are alienating.

This explains so much of my life.

So I decided to do something about that. I wrote a note to my collaborator at Harvard and I told her she is so interesting to talk to and I love how intellectually challenging she is for me to keep up with and since friendship reciprocity comes up so much in articles we cite, I wonder, do we have a reciprocal friendship?

I took picture of the notecard and sent it to my academic brother because we agreed that I should send him any correspondence to Harvard people, before I send it, to be sure I’m not being weird.

He told me no. Do not send that to her.

So I crossed out her name and wrote his name, stuck a stamp on and sent it to him. I don’t know if I have a reciprocal friendship with my brother, but I do know that the biggest thing I can offer him in the realm of friendship is to not write about him. So I will have to write about engagement instead.

Engagement is how we relate to a friend. Here are reasons people think of someone as their friend:

Pride – this friend is someone who makes you feel important

Fun – this friend is someone to have a great time with

Pressure – this is a friend where there are consequences if you were not friends, like you’d feel guilt or they’d feel sad

Emotions – this friend is the person to share important events or feelings with

Special – this friend really wants me to be their close friend so there we are

Commitment – this friend feels good to be committed to

Take a pause here and think about where on this list your friends are in relation to you.

I’m waiting.

I don’t want you to be skimming this post and then forget to do the pause.

Did you do the pause?

I want friends who don’t skim, so don’t do that.

Okay. So it was sort of a trick question, except I got tricked too, and it doesn’t feel like a fun trick, it feels like a trick where I want to kill all the people who do research about friends.

Wait. Something else about friends: women only want to kill people who they are very close to, so this is how you know that I’m a very serious researcher now.

Back to that list. The trick about the list is that it’s not different types of friends. It’s different stages of friendship that we all go through as we mature.

In our 20s we collect lots of friends trying to figure out the trials and tribulations of adult life. In our 30s we cull our friends to just one or two and we add our own family. Because having a real friend is about reciprocal commitment (see that last type of friend on the list) so we can only really keep one or two. And then that’s it. We keep our friends and family for our whole life.

I use we very loosely here. As in not we. Because people who are committed to the same family and friends their whole life are people who value relationships over interestingness and do not read blogs. They probably don’t read very much at all, I mean, why would they? Collecting information to mull it over and then sharing ideas with other people is not the same as sharing commitment to a relationship with other people.

You knew autism was coming, right?

Autistic people make friends by sharing ideas. Neurotypical people make friends by sharing commitment to friendship. Neurotypical people do not see the dynamic exchange of ideas as a relevant part of friendship. Autistic people have a hard time understanding what to do with a friend if there is not an exchange of ideas.

I am not making this stuff up, okay? I’m actually shocked by it.

And there is the truth: the only people who I think are friends are people who share ideas with me. It’s why I always come back to you.

37 replies
  1. Joanne
    Joanne says:

    This was so interesting! I think about friendship along. And I have both kinds of friends; the exchanging ideas kind, and the kind where we share what we’ve been doing and exchange platitudes. What I value most in a friend is the sense that I really matter to them. But I’ll settle for anyone who will listen to the shit I find interesting. Also! I want to kill so many people! Not just the people I’m close too. Maybe I’m not a real woman! xo

    Reply
  2. Angela
    Angela says:

    You give fantastic insight. Always so informative. I took my little Dyslexic son Sky to see you years ago & you helped him understand so much about himself. We still talk about your findings of him to this day. He’s now a sophomore in college.
    Angela

    Reply
  3. Carol of Kensington
    Carol of Kensington says:

    Penelope! I sent my round robin Christmas letter to you and you didn’t respond! I even mentioned you in it.

    Why would anyone have a friend that you didn’t exchange ideas with? Oh, I accept that tons of people do that, but yawn. I write an email to a friend most mornings. It’s how I wake myself up. No one writes much back, but I believe they like it.

    I am visiting a friend who I have not hung out with since my party days, over twenty five years ago. She lives way far away from London and from the country town I’m in now. We have slotted right back into our old ways, and she is blowing my mind again with her renaissance mind and manner. I made dinner for ten in my holiday let, took it over and she announced to the table that I’m the reason she married her husband. She’d known him forever, I met him and fainted at his cuteness, said “he’s gorgeous!” and she said…”he is?”. The rest is history, according to her. I was just stating a fact.

    I think I am very lazy friend-wise. They seem to find me and do most of the organising. My mind is stimulated enough by one, me, two my husband, and three my sister. Those three take a lot of mental energy.

    We are walking around in gale force winds and everyone here wants to talk. Dog walkers told us the paths to choose, a guy on the beach pointed out where further down to see the gray seals, basking and swimming with their cute faces and amazing eyes and yesterday at the store I was taking photos of the empty shelves and a guy looked at me and said “so there’s no bread today”, just a random comment to see if the conversation takes off.

    When Armageddon comes, we’ll need to be able to connect to acquaintances and that’s an art in itself.

    Happy New Year and I hope you figure out how autistic women can survive in the workplace. I think the bubble I existed in was a problem. I made a much better freelance consultant. Good times.

    Friends just are. You don’t even need to live near them. I live my life in bubble, just thinking and reading, and if I meet someone new who is totally on my wavelength, like my new dentist, that’s a present.

    Reply
    • Penelope
      Penelope says:

      I did miss your holiday email, Carol. But I went back to it. No one has ever sent me a holiday card that is a review of their favorite books they read over the past year. It’s such a great way to address the urge to write a holiday card and have an interesting exchange of ideas at the same time. You write great short book reviews. The only one I didn’t like was the one that was way shorter than all the others. I wish you’d written more. It reminds me to trust myself when I’m writing and not give up even if I think it’s not going well.

      Penelope

      Reply
      • Carol of Kensington
        Carol of Kensington says:

        Penelope, you’ve been teaching the fine art of editing so I edited those down to the nub. They had to fit the boxes beside the book cover thumbnail. Isn’t it interesting to compare book covers. Not all are designed to be read easily as thumbnails, nor do they pop on the shelf.

        The Thursday Murder Club series is a huge phenomenon here in the UK. I think everyone has read the first one and has an opinion. They are meant to be funny and a little surreal, which bugs some murder mystery people or angers them! You cannot read them while sipping a drink as you never ever see the joke coming. Plus I got fond of all the characters; a bonkers collection of senior citizens in a community for oldsters.

        Reply
  4. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    Attachment also plays a role in friendship. When someone didn’t grow up with attachment – attaching is the worse thing on the planet to them. In order to have reciprocal relationships one needs to be able to attach. Otherwise when the friendship starts to get close- the one with attachment struggles, bolts, or self destructs. I think it’s easy to blame everything on autism- autism is something one can’t change. Attachment can be earned and reciprocated relationships can be built. But change is hard- and people are only willing to change if their situation is worse than the change.

    Reply
    • Penelope
      Penelope says:

      Attachment is really important. Totally agree. Right now one of the biggest problems understanding autism is that 95% of people who grew up with autism have poor attachment due to their parents having autistic traits and having no idea how to cope with them.

      So it’s really unclear how much of attachment is intrinsic to autism and how much is a result of mothers (it’s always mothers) who have autistic traits not knowing that and then not creating a more secure attachment. This topic is a huge part of the videos I’ve made — it comes up all the time.

      Most things about ourself are things we cannot change — how happy we are, how smart we are, how much we read, how awkward we are socially. Science tells us that even if we think we can change these things, we cannot. But we can undertstand who we are and make good decisions for ourselves based on who we are. Autism is the same in that regard — denying who you are means you don’t allow yourself the chance to make good decisions based on who you are.

      Penelope

      Reply
  5. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    I have one friend by your heuristic. He’s a fellow I met in college. We’ve had some great adventures together and now we’re watching our children fly the nest.

    He lives about an hour and a half away, so we have to be intentional about seeing each other. There were many years we weren’t, yet our friendship endured anyway. I think there’s enough value there for both of us, as well as comfort (in that we know what we’re getting with each other), that we got through the dry stretches with no trouble.

    What bound us together 35 years ago was staying up late, drinking Jim Beam and Coke, and complaining to each other about our aloof and perfectionist fathers.

    Reply
  6. K
    K says:

    If autistic people make friends by exchanging ideas, is it best for autistic moms to keep working to get social contacts or to stay at home with their child? What are the pros and cons?

    What are the differences between autistic moms and neurotypical moms?

    Is there any relationship between personality type and autism? I did your course a long time ago, I’m an INFJ

    Thanks, love exchanging ideas with you. Happy new year!

    Reply
    • Penelope
      Penelope says:

      These are excellent questions. They are the cornerstone of my research – especially the difference between autistic moms and neurotypical moms.

      Autistic mothers are way better in the workplace than neurotypical mothers and autistic mothers have a more difficult time adjusting to parenting than neurotypical mothers do. This combination means that autistic moms are most likely to work when they have kids, but this is not good for the kids or the mom.

      The biggest problem with autism is not autism itself, but rather that people with autism have been raised by autistic parents who don’t understand their own autism. That situation creates unstable attachment and loneliness for the mother and the child. The best way to be a mother with autism is to work on understanding what autism means for yourself. As you understand it in yourself you’ll intuitively make good decisions for both you and your kids.

      Penelope

      Reply
      • HiThere
        HiThere says:

        You know how neurotypical women are happy to help men navigate social life?

        I try to find very warm neurotypical women older than me and hire them as nannies and they shepherd me through it. And they are so neurotypical and nice that they are happy to help me, and with more grace than I ever could when advising someone… Just kinda nudge me. I ALWAYS listen to them.

        It’s a weird criterion to select on but it’s worked brilliantly. No-one understands why we keep the nanny that barely speaks the language or is super messy or whatever we’ve had, but that quiet help and neurotypicalness is the criterion. They are happy to help and also happy with the job because they are very well paid, very appreciated and allowed to bring their own (neurotypical, great example) kids to work.

        Reply
  7. Sarah Fowler Wolfe
    Sarah Fowler Wolfe says:

    Ooooh this just put the final piece in my understanding of the way several autistic acquaintances communicate with me. We share ideas, infrequently but as if a conversation is ongoing.

    Reply
    • Penelope
      Penelope says:

      That’s a great way to talk about it! Also, your observation reminds me of how asynchronous conversations are much more fulfilling for autistic people than neurotypical people. So that’s an example of one, but also, the ramifications of that are autistic people feel good with long-distance and internet-only friends.

      Penelope

      Reply
  8. Melody
    Melody says:

    This is definitely how I communicate best with my autistic friends – exchanging ideas and interesting things we’re learning. Because we are ALWAYS learning. I do try to be a reciprocal friend, I’m bad at gift giving and the more hands-on stuff. Especially with having young children to care for, sometimes my capacity is just too low.

    Reply
  9. Jenny
    Jenny says:

    You’re my fun friend that always has interesting stuff to share. And I didn’t see the other friend option: inspires me to be a better person.

    Has anyone researched the effectiveness of EMDR? I’ve been doing it ever since my hospital stays and it’s really helped. I’ve also found out Lithium helps control my POTS symptoms too, which is nice.

    My kiddo’s counselor just gave me Brene Brown’s Atlas of the Heart to read.

    I don’t think we’ve talked since before the kiddo started 3rd grade at a private school. They’ve loved the first semester.

    Reply
  10. Erika Quirk
    Erika Quirk says:

    Thank you for the belly laugh! “I use we very loosely here. As in not we. Because people who are committed to the same family and friends their whole life are people who value relationships over interestingness and do not read blogs.” I caught myself there, thinking, wait, I’m reading her blog, ohhh HA HA HA and I’m Autistic and I’m still trying to figure out and analyze this friendship thing. Now I have to go read the other comments so I don’t say anything repetitive.

    Reply
  11. Michelle Smith
    Michelle Smith says:

    Unpopular opinion but I think friendship is overrated and divides loyalties. Either you’re just obliged to call and have coffe while talking about inane stuff which I find excruciating or you tell them everything and feel guilty that you’ve betrayed your husband and get upset when you find out they don’t tell you anything real, or if they do, you mighty accidentally betray a confidence of theirs by telling your husband. It’s all too hard and honestly, I think friends are for single people, the young and the old.

    Reply
    • Penelope
      Penelope says:

      Well, I think the point of this whole post is that around here, yours is a very popular opinion. The problem is that high-functioning people do not need to make new friends when they are old. They have been loyal and committed to friends they care about.

      Autistic people are the only ones who think friends are overrated in middle age. Which is why autistic people without spouse and kids are really really lonely in their third stage of life.

      Penelope

      Reply
      • Angie
        Angie says:

        The idea that Autistic people think friends are overrated in middle age is SO TRUE for me. I’m in my 40’s now and I have just lost the desire and energy for friendship – I still struggle to accept that I am Autistic, but I am able to definitely identify many traits. I revel in my own company way more than need others around me. That being said I am married with 3 young kids (8,6,4) so when I say revel in my own company, I mean I”m more than happy just sitting in my own family bubble. I am very friendly when i need to be, and I have some very long lasting friendships that I will never abandon. I also have long lasting relationsihps that I question and maybe its that pressure element – I am not sure I want to be friends as I don’t necessarily enjoy the exchange of ideas with them (they are remnants from my younger, partying days) but I feel like If i’m not friends with them I will regret it. My overwhelming desire when I sense someone is trying to befriend me is to EURGHHHH RUN AWAY. This is increasingly hard with kids who are at that age where they are forming solid friendships and their parents are wanting to be friends too. And my kids don’t at all complain about why I don’t organise lots and lots of playdates for them, but when someone else invites them for a play date they have a great time. I also feel very strongly about the exchange of ideas and my politics are getting more visible and I am also afraid of scaring off my kids friends via scaring off their parents as they possibly don’t sit in the same sphere. I worry that I am ruining my kids chances of being good at friendships through what I feel is my own inability to embrace a wider kind of friendship environment…I’m not sure that makes sense.

        Reply
  12. Michelle
    Michelle says:

    This is why I like to gather friends and socialize in context around shared interests (ie. book club, dinner party club, miniatures club, sports, creative workshops, etc.) Without this structure, I’m unlikely to socialize. Social media is also a good space to share announcements, pictures, etc. And I just respond with emojis to comments if I don’t have energy for more.

    Reply
  13. welm
    welm says:

    “Autistic people make friends by sharing ideas” – I’m sure no one clicks these thinks but I did and the link appears to have the findings:

    Individuals with autism tend to prefer physical distance (65.9%), while also prioritizing having fun (60.8%) over confiding in someone (38.9%), contrasting with non-autistic peers’ preferences.

    Sorry if I missed it, but where does this study say what you said?

    Reply
    • Penelope
      Penelope says:

      I appreciate that you clicked the links! I could talk about the research all day.

      There are three links on that phrase “Autistic people make friends by sharing ideas.”

      The Sosnowy study talks about making friends through shared interests. We are notorious for endlessly talking about our special interests (and often nothing else). The people we like best are the ones who want to talk about it with us.

      The Finke study suggests that we should reframe how we measure friendship for autistic people. Autistic people don’t make friends for emotional connection but rather to connect on shared perspectives and values. The study goes on and on… I summarized it as autistic people focus on ideas over emotions.

      The third link is to my post about how autistic people connect on interestingness — that’s what we have to offer other people, so that’s what we connect on. In that post, the phrase “we constantly try to understand how the world works” links to an article by Lai (and Simon Baron-Cohen, my favorite) that describes autistic women trying to look normal by talking too much in order to be with someone. That’s another way to see autistic people talking about our ideas to connect.

      Penelope

      Reply
      • welm
        welm says:

        thats confusing with the formatting you use, consider using some citation style instead, like “[1][2][3]”

        also, confirmation bias much.

        Reply
        • Penelope
          Penelope says:

          I’m extremely flattered that you think this writing is so academic as to necessitate footnotes. I’m too set in my ways with the links. Also, since we’re discussing it, I find the links to text to be much more exacting. A lot of the citations in academic papers are not actually related to the text they note. It’s more pressure to really find relevant sources if you are selecting the exact text the source supports.

          Penelope

          Reply
  14. V
    V says:

    I think good friends are a very rare and precious commodity and a bit like dresses: you can look through 1000 and only find one you like.

    Brene brown talks about the “half-butt test” (I don’t say “butt” but you will understand this) where a friend will shift over to lend half a seat if you need it. Also the marble jar.https://jamesclear.com/great-speeches/the-anatomy-of-trust-by-brene-brown

    I have learnt over time that there are certain friendship moments where you just have to physically show up for people (child is sick, death of a parent etc) and that those moments can the not be erased and add cement to that relationship.

    I am I suspect a little on the spectrum but I also perceive that I do not want to be friends with many people just for the sake of it. So I try to invest in my good friends and not worry too much about those who fall away (often the ones I made when all our kids were small), even though it hurts a bit.

    I don’t think friendship is just about ideas- I think it’s about mutual support, trust, and similar values. People who believe in me without question. I have not always done a good job at reciprocating but I am getting better – I arrange or suggest a meet up rather than waiting for someone else to do it.

    Hope the move is going ok

    Reply
  15. HiThere
    HiThere says:

    This is funny because I read your list and paused and while I was pausing I thought ‘well that list is incomplete, my best friends are my friends because we share ideas, not because of “fun” or “special” or whatever’.

    And then I read the rest. Aha.

    Anyway, I came to your blog because I want to know if Asperger’s women can be spokespeople – for companies, I mean, not for Asperger’s.

    I got promoted very quickly in a totally different part of the company, did a great job, now my boss (who loves me) told me that I should go out of my comfort zone again to grow.

    Is spokesperson like regular conversation, which I suck at, or like lecturing, which I am great at? For what it’s worth, I don’t particularly care about the mission of the company. (We have four kids and the nanny is looking after them and the husband works a creative job, so that’s already sorted.) I am 35 so not that old yet but also not 21-cute anymore.

    Reply
  16. Ally
    Ally says:

    Speaking as a female, my friends are divided up into two groups: long distance male friends from college that I talk on the phone with about shared interests and in-person male rock climbing friends that I rock climb with and talk about rock climbing with.

    Looking back, the only female friends I really connected with were definitely neurodivergent. But this was before I knew anything about autism, and I failed to see a pattern for many years. Now that I see the pattern, for some reason I keep attracting neurotypical females into my life who want to be friends with me. They all happen to be in their early twenties. I’m nearly thirty and I’m so over the drama of the twenties. It gives me so much stress when NT women pursue friendship with me, because I feel incredibly awkward around them and have no idea how to connect on a friendship level. I want to talk about interesting stuff or work on our goals together, not hear you vent about your husband!!! The most recent girl I met who tried to connect with me gave me a blank stare when I asked her what her hobbies were. I just want them to leave me alone but I don’t want to hurt them.

    Reply
  17. peyton
    peyton says:

    I am 24 and it is challenging for me to make friends – If I do make a friend, it’s usually once a year and they are usually twice my age and usually we met at a bar. These friends are typically only friends because they help keep my brain active or because I can make them laugh and it feels good to be laughed at – I tried “getting lunch” with a friend from high school the other day – I honestly don’t remember what we talked about -It didn’t matter, obviously. I like being friends with older people because we are different and they are usually interesting and also they were here before the internet – like the friendship conversation topics are just already set up it’s so easy to disagree and disagreement is interesting – And friends to me should be interesting. I don’t know. I’ve been on a search to make a new friend – I don’t really drink alcohol anymore so I went to the bar and got a “Mocktail” and looked for a friend. That was ridiculous. I soberly talked to one guy there. He had dreadlocks. This is how it went. Dreadlocks: “So this is how you’re spending your Christmas, huh? Alone at a bar..” (This is a statement disguised as a question) Me : “Yep, yeah, yeah,ya”
    I couldn’t hold the conversation sober… I turned 21 during covid so I think some things got blended : Desperation for others, connection, friendship, loneliness, and alcohol- I don’t know which is which. I tried making friends at AA and that was successful. Maybe that’s the place to be…It’s just sad. It’s a personal problem. I’m new here, I like your blog. Found you through Meghan Daum – Another writer I like. I emailed her a few years ago and asked if I could interview her. She let me. Maybe I just need to interview people as friendship surrogate.

    Reply
  18. Brooke
    Brooke says:

    There’s a great post by Rosie Spinks about the friendship problem where she uses the phrase, “Friendship feels like admin.” Friendship seems to have become more difficult post COVID because now we must navigate the waters of our friends’ crippling anxiety–they cannot do weekend getaways because travel is too fraught, cannot meet for dinner because night driving is too fraught, and cannot drop into your AirBNB because the unknown is too fraught.

    Conversations–actual conversations with engaged, balanced back and forth–have become impossible because every topic is triggering and social anxiety causes withdrawal at one end of the spectrum and overtalking at the other end (pun intended?)

    We are so polarized and uncomfortable with feeling uncomfortable we refuse to leave our frictionless experience loops, instead seeking familiar echo chambers to reinforce the same old conversations and dogmas we continue to insist that social media and television are forcing upon everyone but us. We are asleep and un-individuated, lulled back into our bubbles by the promise of stress-free existence. We have forgotten no mud, no lotus.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *