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Autistic people may be at higher risk of loneliness and associated poor mental health due to sensory sensitivities, a new study has found.
The study debunked the idea that a lack of social motivation is a reason for loneliness among the autistic community, and finds that sensory environments can obstruct autistic people from engaging in social activities.
The authors are now calling for a societal effort to create spaces that consider the sensory needs of all neurotypes.
Rates of loneliness are substantially higher among autistic compared with non-autistic individuals, with autistic adults four times as likely to feel lonely compared to their peers.
However, there are not many studies in which autistic people themselves describe loneliness, and how this is linked to sensory differences.
The authors therefore set out to discover whether there are differences in autistic and non-autistic people regarding loneliness.
To do this, they set out to quantify the level of distress associated with loneliness and seek further insight into autistic adults’ personal experiences of sensory differences.
The researchers conducted two studies: Study A and Study B. In study A, roughly 200 autistic and non-autistic adults completed a range of questionnaires.
These questionnaires asked about the individual’s loneliness, whether they experience symptoms of anxiety and depression, how distressed they are by loneliness (and anxiety and depression if applicable) and how they experience the sensory environment.
The questionnaires revealed that autistic adults not only displayed significantly higher levels of loneliness than non-autistic participants, but that their level of loneliness distress was also much greater.
The authors say this “negates the hypothesis that autistic individuals lack the motivation to seek out meaningful social relationships.”
Autistic individuals also had higher levels of depression, anxiety and sensory differences than non-autistic participants. However, in both groups, sensory differences were related to higher anxiety and depression, and loneliness was an important influence on this relationship.
In Study B, eight autistic adults spoke with other participants about their experiences of loneliness. They were given conversation starters and the researchers then looked for common themes that came up within conversations.
In this study, autistic participants described the pain of feeling lonely and socially disconnected. Many of the participants said they often struggle to make meaningful connections because their sensory sensitives stop them from going out.
Practical barriers to social inclusion were also identified, such as financial constraints, an absence or reduced ability to access affordable social or community spaces.
The participants also described a “deeper yearning for meaningful connection with others”, with many feeling this was somehow “out of reach.” When discussing this, participants commonly cited mental health issues as both perceived causes and effects of this deeper loneliness. They also suggested that being autistic in a predominantly non-autistic world added to this experience.
At the same time, many of the participants described needing “restorative solitude” after social overstimulation. However, the authors highlight that this need for ‘alone time’ does not negate the sometimes extremely distressing experiences of loneliness reported by the autistic participants.
The authors note that the study sample does not represent the entire autism spectrum, as all the participants were able to speak and travel to the study venues with little support.
The participants were also mostly White, so the authors say the study cannot “speak about the experiences of autistic people across different ethnic groups.”
Nevertheless, Dr Gemma Williams, co-author of the study and a public health research officer in the School of Health and Social Care, says the research highlights how ‘painful it can be for autistic people to feel lonely.
“We conclude that to enable meaningful and inclusive social interaction, a real societal effort is needed to create spaces that consider the sensory needs of all neurotypes,” she added.