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New research study exploring loneliness of Autistic adults

19 June 2023

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By Dr Abbey Love, Research Officer at the Aspect Research Centre for Autism Practice (ARCAP).

Loneliness is a feeling of emptiness that arises when our social needs aren't met by our current relationships. It can lead to various negative consequences such as anxiety and depression and is linked to substance use and physical health conditions like obesity, increased cancer risk, and higher mortality rates.

Loneliness is common and on the rise

Loneliness is a common experience, but it can be felt by different people in different ways. Even individuals who seem to have strong social networks can feel lonely too. In Australia, a research initiative called The Loneliness Project focuses on studying and addressing loneliness. This project aims to tackle the expected rise in loneliness, with the Australian Loneliness Report (2018) revealing that one in four Australian adults experience loneliness.

Autistic people desire social connections

While everyone experiences loneliness at some point in their lives, certain groups may be more vulnerable to feelings of loneliness. It was previously believed that Autistic individuals preferred to be alone, but recent understanding has shifted. In fact, most Autistic people desire social connections, and the difficulties they face in making and maintaining friendships and relationships can have negative impacts on their wellbeing.

Emerging research shows Autistic individuals experience more intense and frequent loneliness compared to non-Autistic individuals.

Additionally, researchers predict that loneliness will persist into adulthood for Autistic individuals due to a lack of available support during the transition into adulthood. Although there has been an increase in research interest regarding the loneliness experiences of Autistic individuals, there is still much we don't know. By gaining a better understanding of how Autistic individuals experience loneliness and identifying contributing factors, we can develop effective supports to reduce loneliness within the Autistic community.

New international studies to understand and reduce loneliness

ARCAP’s 2021 research priorities project informed us that mental health and relationships were two areas where Autistic people and their families desired more research and attention. Within these broad areas, the ARCAP team identified loneliness as an under-researched area and one that deserved further attention from a research and practice perspective. To broaden the reach of our work in this area, we sought collaboration from international researchers from the United States and Japan.

With the team in place, we are embarking on a series of research studies designed to “take a deep dive” into loneliness among Autistic people with the aim of better understanding the experiences of loneliness and how to reduce social isolation and feelings of loneliness. Our work will scrutinise the assessment tools used to gauge loneliness among Autistic individuals and then to adapt and use one of those tools to learn more about loneliness for Autistic adults.

Find out more or take part

Participants of this study will be both Autistic and non-Autistic adults and will involve completion of an online survey, with accessible formats available. If you are interested in hearing more about this project or joining as a participant, please register your interest and we’ll contact you when the study is live.

About this author

Dr Abbey Love

Dr Abbey Love is a Research Officer at ARCAP.

Abbey is an Educational Psychologist with experience working as a teacher, advocate and researcher. She has worked as a lecturer in inclusion in the international context, and has experience teaching school-aged students with a focus on teaching students on the autism spectrum. Currently, her research aims to impact the lives of Autistic people and their families/carers, and her project include work within criminal justice, education, and adulthood.

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