Welcome to day twelve in the A to Z Challenge on autism. Sorry for being late to publish my post again. Today, my post deals with a common experience in autisitc people: loneliness.
Autistic people by definition have trouble forming friendships, especially with non-autistic people. For this reason, many autistic people feel isolated and lonely. I am no exception. Other than my husband, I have no close friends, though I have a ton of Facebook friends. Most I don’t really know.
in adolescence particularly, I felt lonely. I remember writing in my diary a month into starting secondary school that I realized everyone had built friendships already and I hadn’t. In elementary school, I had usually had one or two friends, though I had trouble interacting with them too. Most of my elementary school friends were themselves quite isolated too.
It is a myth that autistic people are not affected by loneliness. In fact, many adults with autism experience depression and low self-esteem because of their lack of quality friendships. However, depression and anxiety also commonly cause autistic people to feel lonely and to self-isolate. I, for one, did not attempt to socialize anymore after I realized I clung too much to peoople who didn’t in fact considier me a friend. By the end of eighth grade, I was seemingly fine with the fact that I had no friends, but was actually quite depressed.
Even autistics who do have friends, can feel lonely. This is because autistic people have a different perception of friendship than neurotypicals. For example, neurotypical people usually associate friendship with affection, companionship and intimacy. Autistic people often don’t experience these qualities, or experience them to a lesser degree, in their friendships. They may therefore be lonely because of having a poorer quality friendship. For example, I sometimes refer to some of my Facebook friends as actual friends in conversation, but I recognize that the relationship I have with them is not as close as that of other people with their friends.
There are many ways to cope with loneliness. For example, autistic people might want to connect to other autistic people. There are play groups for autistic children and social and support groups for teens and adults with autism in most urban areas. This not only will help autistic people connect to others, but they wil also be able to find someone whose experience is similar to theirs. Hence, they may feel less disconnected from their environments, which can also be a form of loneliness.
Of course, it is also important that autistic people develop their interpersonal skills. In the Netherlands, many mental health agencies provide specific programs for adults with autism, where they can also follow social skills training. This may help them build and keep friendships and thereby lessen loneliness.
Lastly, many autistic people find that pets can help them feel less lonely. I for one don’t have a particularly close connection to our two cats, but that is possibly because they’re at our apartment, where my husband primarily cares for them.