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UBC Theses and Dissertations

“Autism in practice” : establishing, maintaining, and understanding friendships among autistic adults in British Columbia Brake, Jad


This dissertation explores the lived experiences of autistic adults living in British Columbia in Canada and examines how they socialize and experience friendship relations. Based on 14 months of ethnographic fieldwork, this work answers the following: 1) What are autistics’ experiences of the physiological barriers that may affect autistics’ social interaction, communication, and relationships? how do autistics describe and deal with these barriers? 2) How do autistics describe their relationships with the people they call “friends,” and how do they create and sustain these relationships? 3) What can we learn from the practices of friendship among autistics, and their coping strategies for everyday challenges, about the everyday and life experience of being an autistic? By answering these questions, this study provides an anthropological analysis that illuminates the perceptual-physical grounding of experience and demonstrates how aspects of embodiment construct as well as explain relatedness and sociability, and the processes of developing intersubjectivity and morality in autistics’ friendships. Specifically, it shows that there are three main issues that explain friendship and sociability among autistics: Unusual sensory perception, social communication difficulties, and personal histories and negative lived experiences. By adopting diverse sensory, communicative, and social coping strategies, autistics constantly adapt their previous sensory, communicative, and social experiences to particular social environments, and try to develop effective communication and intersubjectivity that enable them to engage in friendships and intimate relationships. These ongoing adaptative processes, which reflect the stress of social interaction and the intense desire for it, produce distinctive patterns and perceptions of friendship among autistics and generate a different way of practicing friendship. Accordingly, to understand what autistics define as “friendship,” I argue, this form of relatedness must be examined in the broader context of personal difficulties, particularly sensory-embodied experiences, physical environments, social-cultural attitudes and reactions, and the lived experiences of autistics, all of which intersect and construct the nature of friendship among autistics. By contextualizing friendship, my findings question assumptions about autism as a lack of interest in social interaction, and contribute to an understanding of autism as a complex corporeal and social experience, rather than a purely medical or neurodevelopmental condition.

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