There’s much to celebrate on this World Autism Understanding Day, awareness of autism and what it means is increasing, a rise in diagnoses means people are getting access to essential supports and services, and workplaces are beginning to realise and embrace the benefits of true inclusion.

But, the reality is 70 percent of Autistic people experience a mental health challenge. This is due in part to difficulties experienced during communication and interactions, which can often lead to misunderstanding in social settings and ultimately isolation.

The A List was born following a daunting statistic only two years ago, that showed 34 percent of Autistic youth are without a friend outside their own family. It’s hard to fathom and not only does this number reflect a gap in social connectivity, it highlights the vulnerabilities these individuals face regarding their mental health, with up to 46% of autistic children aged 3-16 years and a staggering 70% of those aged 10-14 experiencing at least one mental health condition.

Social isolation is not simply an absence of social contact, although this can be the case for many Autistic youth, it’s a deficiency in quality connections that are integral to wellbeing. The nuances of non-verbal communication and the overwhelming nature of social settings for Autistic youth can exacerbate feelings of alienation. These difficulties can sometimes result in strained relationships or, in the most distressing scenarios, self-harm or intense bullying.

The impact of this isolation on Autistic individuals is significant. It can lead to feelings of loneliness, depression, anxiety, and a host of other emotional and psychological challenges.

Shifting the responsibility

Society often places the burden of social integration on the Autistic individual, expecting them to ‘fit in’ with the neurotypical world. This expectation can compel Autistic people to engage in ‘masking’, which is a process of consciously or unconsciously altering behaviour to conform to societal norms.

It can stem from a desire to fit in, avoid negative judgment, or navigate social interactions more smoothly. Masking might include suppressing stimming behaviours, forcing eye contact, or adopting scripted responses in conversations.

The reasons behind masking are deep and multifaceted, from the desire for acceptance, to necessity in environments that are not accommodating of neurodiversity. Regardless, masking is not only mentally and physically draining for the Autistic person, but can also be profoundly dispiriting, leading to mental health issues including stress, fatigue, a reduced sense of self and depression.

The efforts to maintain a façade can also prevent authentic recognition and accommodation of an autistic individual’s needs and challenges, as it obscures the true extent of the support they may require.

Autism and community

The acknowledgment of social isolation and the vastly under-represented social opportunities for Autistic youth, is not new. In 2013, Autism Spectrum Australia shed light on the experiences of autistic adolescents, revealing that only 21% were members of an autism-specific social group, while an additional 22% expressed a desire to join such groups. Fast forward a decade, and the situation remains largely unchanged. Despite clear evidence that autistic children and teens not only enjoy but thrive in autism-friendly social settings, barriers like waitlists and geographic accessibility persist.

We know from our work at The A List that inclusive spaces, where Autistic kids and teens can just be themselves, are vital. They are more than just a gathering, they represent a sanctuary where autistic youths can experience genuine understanding and acceptance – an antidote to what they often experience in mainstream environments. They offer a space where individuals can develop confidence, self-esteem, and a strong sense of identity without the pressures of conforming to societal expectations.

Based on both research and firsthand observations, it is evident that these groups foster an atmosphere where there is no need for masking. Autistic teens can interact in ways that are natural and comfortable for them, free from the fear of judgment or ridicule.

Facilitating solutions

The persistence of social isolation among Autistic individuals stresses the need for action. Expanding access to autism-friendly social groups and making them widely available is essential, as is continuing to foster greater understanding of autism and how all neurotypes can function well together.

As we celebrate World Autism Understanding Day, it is important that communities, educators, policymakers, and healthcare providers work collaboratively to dismantle the barriers to social inclusion for Autistic individuals.

Increasing understanding and acceptance, and ensuring practical opportunities for meaningful social interaction are available for Autistic youth, is a game-changer. It will help to mitigate the effects of social isolation and vastly improve the lives of Autistic individuals. And when an under-represented group is empowered, the whole of society benefits.

– Madeleine Lobsey

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