Many autistic people can experience social isolation. We'll look at the possible reasons for this, and ways in which you, your family, friends and carers can improve matters.   You might find social situations difficult. Other people appear to know, intuitively, how to communicate and interact with each other, yet they can also struggle to build rapport with autistic people. You may feel that your social differences mean other people don't understand you.

Here we offer information about conversations, making friends and socialising, telling people you’re autistic, and where to find out more.  

Possible reasons for social isolation

Many autistic people experience social isolation. This may be due to a range of reasons. For example:

  • You may find that non-autistic or neurotypical people seem unwelcoming, or don’t want to interact with you.
  • You may prefer to be on your own and enjoy your own company.
  • You may want to engage with others but lack the confidence or the skills to do so.  
  • You may find it difficult to maintain contacts due to a lack of understanding of small talk and other conventions of social behaviour – referred to as social skills.
  • You may be trying to avoid repeating a past negative experience in a social situation such as bullying.   
  • You may need a higher level of support for activities than your family, friends and/or carers are able to provide.
  • You may live independently, without family, support workers or a social network.
  • You may not be aware of suitable activities in your local area.

Enabling social interaction

Try discussing with someone who you trust, why you feel isolated. You may find it difficult to be around others for long periods of time and others need to respect this. But it is also worth considering the benefits of having a network of contacts, for when you want company or need support.

If you, or someone that supports you, feel that you spend so long doing an activity on your own that it’s stopping you from doing other things that you need to do, you could make a timetable with time for this activity and other things too.

Routines can provide reassurance and comfort, but can limit social interaction with other people. In order to overcome restrictive routines you could:

  • gradually introduce change by identifying one new place to go to every week, for example a local shop.
  • Focus on places where it is possible to meet new people. In time, you may get to know people you see regularly.
  • Practice a few bits of small talk, such as 'How are you today?', which may help to reduce your anxiety about making social contact with people.

If you need a more structured plan for support, look for a person-centred planning facilitator. These are skilled people who involve everyone in the person's life in their 'relationship circle'. They also encourage and support you to take control of your plan.  

Find social groups and meet other autistic people 

You may feel more motivated to join a social group where the members have similar interests to your own. Having common ground, or something members enjoy talking about, makes it easier to start and maintain a conversation.

  • Find local support groups and projects aimed at autistic people.
  • Read The Spectrum, our quarterly magazine written by people on the autism spectrum. It has a pen pals section.
  • Find information about local groups, activities and trips from your local council, newspapers or magazines.    
  • Search community noticeboards in your local library, cafés and adult education centres.
  • Contact your local leisure centre or swimming pool for information about local sports clubs/keep fit activities.
  • Contact your local arts centre and enquire about group talks and activities.
  • Learning a new skill can often lead to making new friends. Your local college might run adult education courses in things like art, IT and cooking.
  • If you are in employment ask your manager or other members of staff about after-work activities.
  • Age UK can help you to find local services for older people.
  • The University of the 3rd Age provides learning opportunities and activities for older people. 
  • Circles Network offers support to people of any age who are isolated or at risk of isolation. A circle of support, sometimes called a circle of friends, is a group of people who meet regularly to help an individual accomplish their personal goals.

If you prefer communicating online you could:

Get support with socialising

Many autistic people need a great deal of support if they are to get involved in social activities. Family, friends or carers may be unable to meet these needs. In these cases it is a good idea to:

Managing anxiety 

If you are experiencing extreme levels of anxiety in social situations, it might be useful to talk about this with your GP. A medical professional should be able to offer support and advice and may be able to signpost you towards support services.

Qualified counsellors can often offer information on techniques that may reduce anxiety and improve social skills. Sometimes advice can be provided via the phone or email or a home visit may be arranged.

The NHS often offers counselling following a GP’s referral. It is important to contact a qualified counsellor with specialist knowledge and understanding of the autism spectrum. 

Staying safe

If you are going to a new place, take your mobile phone or small change to use a public phone in case of an emergency, or if you need to call someone for any other reason. 

It can be useful to carry an Autism Alert card especially when going out alone. The card can be used in situations where it may be necessary to make members of the public, the police or emergency services aware that the cardholder is on the autism spectrum.

Preparing to take part in a group or activity

Once you found an activity that interests you, get in touch with the group leader, find out what the format for the activity is and ask for a brochure or information pack.

You may need to become a member of some social groups to attend meetings, which might mean paying a fee. You should ask the organiser about this and find out whether you'd need to make a one-off payment or commit to a weekly, monthly or annual fee.
If you are attending a group that isn't specifically for autistic people, it's up to you whether you tell people about your condition. Giving people this information can help them get a better understanding of your needs and the group may be able to offer additional support, should you need it. However, deciding to 'disclose' is a big decision and some autistic people have told us that, for them, disclosing left them vulnerable to bullying. So if you are joining a group where you don't know anyone, you could try talking about this issue with your family or friends, or with the person who organises the group.

The social group or activity may take place some distance from where you live so it is important to think about transport. The organisers may be able to tell you about transport links and routes and possibly give you a map. You can also contact your local council to find out about support with transport.

To make sure the activity is right for you, you may try going along as an observer at first. 

If you feel you may need additional support to take part in the activity, ask if a family member, friend or carer can come along or if the group could provide some extra support. Add the activity or group meeting to your calendar.

Don’t feel pressured to attend for the whole of the activity or meeting, or to go on your own - especially at first. Over time you can increase the length of time you stay, eventually aiming to attend the whole session without additional support.

If you have any issues at the group, discuss these with the group leader so that they can be resolved as soon as possible.

Social skills for adolescents and adults

Approaching someone and starting a conversation

  • If the person isn’t already talking to someone else, or is talking to someone you know, approach the person. Otherwise it might be better to speak to them later when they are free. Stop when you are about an arm's length away and face them.
  • Saying 'Hello' is normally a good way to start a conversation, or 'Excuse me' if you wish to attract someone's attention. The appropriate greeting depends on the situation and person you are speaking to. For example, you might say 'Hiya' to a friend but a more formal 'Hello' to your boss or customer. If the person you speak to answers 'Hello' (or something similar) it usually means that they are happy to talk
  • Using the person's name before or after your greeting will help them to know you are talking to them.
  • Ask some general questions at the beginning of the conversation rather than starting on a certain topic. Here are some ideas:
        How are you?
        It's nice to see you.
        Did you enjoy the film/concert/TV programme? (if you know they have watched one).
  • Try writing down some other general questions and topics that you can use when you are talking to other people.
  • Try to make a list of things that are appropriate to talk about e.g. the weather, TV programmes.

What can I talk about?

Some topics are almost always inappropriate. Avoid talking about these if you don’t know the person well. Try to make a list of things that are and are not appropriate to talk about.

You may find it useful to have a prompt card that lists key information on how to start and end a conversation with others. The card may also list ways of dealing with situations that make you feel anxious. 

Examples of topics that are usually appropriate are the weather and TV programmes.

Examples of topics that are usually/may sometimes be inappropriate:

  • Critical comments about a person’s appearance, eg saying that you do not like their clothes.
  • Money, eg asking someone how much money they earn.
  • Age.

Talk about things that you know the other person likes as well as the things that you like. If you both like the same things then you could talk about these.

  • Saying 'please' and 'thank you' - is appropriate in all situations.
  • Talk about things that you know the other person likes as well as the things that you like. If you both like the same things then you could talk about these.
  • Take it in turns when talking to someone. Let them answer your questions and give them a chance to ask you one in return if they want to.

Talking about feelings

What is appropriate to say to a person will depend on how they are feeling about the subject. You may find it difficult to tell how someone else is feeling. They might not actually say how they feel and you might find it difficult to read body language and facial expressions.

If you are not sure how someone is feeling, you can ask them how they feel.

Sometimes people don’t tell the truth because they want to make the other person happy or not cause offence. For example, if someone asks another if they look fat, they might answer ‘No’ even though they think they do look fat. Some people call these 'little white lies'.

If someone is upset about something you’ve said or done in a conversation, it doesn’t mean they don’t like you. Saying sorry usually helps. If you are not sure why the person is upset, you can ask.

Tools like Mind reading can help you to recognise emotions.

How does a conversation end?

Watch out for signals that someone wants to end a conversation with you. These may include:
not asking questions back

  • looking around the room
  • yawning
  • saying they have something else to do.

If you aren’t sure whether they want to carry on with the topic, you could say 'Would you like me to tell you more?' or 'Would you like to talk about something else?'.

You might want to talk about a certain topic a lot, but the other person might not be as interested in it or knowledgeable about it as you are. Sometimes the person will want to end the conversation for another reason, eg they may need to get to work.

You might be disappointed that the person wants to end the conversation, but sometimes it is better to end a conversation before you run out of things to say.

If you want to end the conversation, most people will think it’s more polite for you to say something like "Well I'd better be going now. Goodbye." than for you to just say "Goodbye" then walk away.

Who is a real friend?

It can be difficult to tell if someone is not a real friend. You may not find it easy to notice body language and tones of voice that could be a sign that someone is just pretending to be your friend.

Some autistic people have so called ‘friends’ who go on to abuse them. This could be financial, physical or sexual abuse. This is called mate crime. Mate crimes are Disability Hate Crimes and should be reported to the police.

A true friend:

  • will always make you feel welcome and talk to you if they have the time
  • will treat you as well as they treat all of their friends.

Someone pretending to be a friend:

  • might make unfair requests of you
  • might treat you less well than their other friends
  • might threaten not to be your friend anymore or play on your guilt if it is to help them get their own way.

(Based on advice from Marc Segar).

Telling people that you are autistic

Sometimes people find others who behave differently to themselves hard to understand. People who aren’t autistic may find it hard to understand why you may prefer not to look them in the eye whilst you speak or why you like to talk a lot about a special interest.

A way of helping people to understand you and communicate well with you is to tell them that you are autistic. It is your choice whether or not to tell people but it can often be a positive decision.

You could tell them things you’d like them to know (eg that you find it easier to concentrate on a conversation by not making eye contact) and things you’d like them to do (eg tell you when they want to end a conversation). You could tell them they can find out more about autism on our website.

Further information

Arc Safety Net 

Autism Alert cards 

Circles Network

Friend or fake easy read booklet, Arc

The independent woman's handbook for super safe living on the autistic spectrum, a book by Robyn Steward.

Quick cues, a social script app that helps autistic teens and young adults to handle new situations.

60 social situations and discussion starters to help teens on the autism spectrum deal with friendships, feelings, conflict and more, a book by Lisa A. Timms.


Quick link to this page:

Last reviewed November 2018