An alarming statistic that indicates 34 percent* of Autistic youth will not have a friend outside their own family circle is heartbreaking so here’s why autism-friendly social groups are so important..
Why autism-friendly social activities are a necessity for Autistic youth
An alarming statistic that indicates 34 percent* of Autistic youth will not have a friend outside their own family circle is heartbreaking. The impact of social isolation on wellbeing and mental health is significant. And data shows that up to 46% of autistic children between 3-16 years and 70% of children aged 10-14 experience at least one mental health condition.
The fact is, many Autistic teens find socialising challenging, particularly as common Autistic traits are not understood by neuro-typical peers. Difficulty maintaining eye contact, a dislike of ‘small talk’ and social anxiety are some of the challenges experienced by Autistic teens, which can sometimes lead to strained relationships or in worst case situations self-harm or severe bullying.
Unfortunately, the onus remains on the Autistic person to ‘fit in’ and adapt to their surroundings, leading to masking, which is exhausting and in itself results in feelings of fatigue, disheartenment and depression.
The struggle to participate in mainstream social activities is not a new discovery. In fact, research conducted in 2013 by Autism Spectrum Australia into the experiences, needs and service requirements of Autistic adolescents showed 21% of adolescents at the time were members of an autism-specific social group and 22% of adolescents wanted to join one.
Findings showed waitlists prevented some adolescents from joining while others faced geographical challenges in accessing a group.
Alarmingly, ten years later, this is still the case, despite extensive research demonstrating Autistic children and adolescents not only enjoy these groups, but benefit immensely from them with a sense of increased overall wellbeing.
Why are autism-friendly social groups so important?
Personally, I knew demand was high for autism-specific social groups because of the many enquiries received at The A List, but research a decade ago only serves to validate this.
These groups work because they provide the exact opposite to what many Autistic youth experience in mainstream interactions.
According to Autism Spectrum Australia’s research – and my own observations – they create a safe place where Autistic teens can experience understanding, acceptance and encouragement, along with developing their confidence, self-esteem and identity. There is no masking, no trying to ‘fit in’, no pretending, no right or wrong way to be – except for one’s authentic self.
During our A List Social Hubs, which are designed purely for social interaction among Autistic youth, we have seen a sense of relaxation and enjoyment replace the usual pressures to conform and the positive impact this has on self-esteem and overall wellbeing is enormous.
But it’s not just about short-term benefits.
Further research by Autism Spectrum Australia into the experiences, needs and aspirations of Autistic adults showed a strong connection between the level of social support received during respondents’ education years and their subsequent expression of need for support with social skills.
Seventy-one per cent of respondents who retrospectively reported insufficient social support stated that they now needed support to improve their social skills. The corresponding figure for those who felt they had received adequate support was significantly lower, at 37 per cent.
Until there is increased understanding in the wider community about how to engage with Autistic people and better support us, we will see increased demand for environments where our adolescents can socialise with like-minded friends and peers and connect on a level that is authentic to them.
We need to continue building a world that works for the neuro-divergent, because this will translate to a better world for all of us.
But don’t just take it from me, here’s what some of our participants have to say about our A-List Social Hubs….
“The environment that it has is so nice and its judgement free. I remember the old school that I used to go to, they weren’t very accepted of me. I was bullied out of mainstream schooling, but with this whole group…I found out that I am able to connect with people my age and there are opportunities out there to go and you know get, get life you know? Really just go for things and get out there.”–Emily 17
“It’s just people I relate to. Feels like I can actually talk to people. You just sort of sit around and socialise and really just exist. My top 3 things about the social hub. People are funny. It’s not too clinical. And I can actually talk and not be restrained.”– AJ 16
“It’s very safe and welcoming. It’s always like whenever I walk in I can just let loose, be whoever I want to be and I’ll be welcomed here.”Remus – 17
“I hate going to everything. I can’t wait to be here.” – William 14
Session 1. “I need to keep my phone so I can text Mum if I need them to get me.” (10mins later) “Can you look after my phone, I don’t need it anymore.”Ruby 11.
Ruby has not brought their phone with them since.
"Hi Inge. We'd love to help connect your daughter with a great online social group - if you haven't done so already, feel free to send us an email including her location and interests and we can forward through some information!"
—The A List
"My 10 year old girl is looking to connect with a group online, any suggestions?"