Individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) experience significant difficulties in social functioning, including deficits in core social abilities and problems establishing and maintaining peer relationships. These social and interpersonal problems generally persist and sometimes worsen in adulthood, contributing to functional impairment. Despite the steady increase in ASD prevalence, few studies have focused on the experiences of adults with ASD, or on the factors that may relate to their social and emotional functioning. For example, there is considerable evidence that loneliness and social support have a strong influence on overall well-being in the general population. However, this has yet to be examined among adults with ASD. Contrary to historical assumptions, individuals with ASD do not always prefer solitude and social isolation. They often want to develop relationships but face barriers in developing relationships due to social competence difficulties. Thus, loneliness appears to be a clinically important consideration for adults on the autism spectrum.
A study published in the journal Autism examined the relations among loneliness, friendship, and emotional functioning in adults (N = 108) with autism spectrum disorders. Participants completed self-report measures of symptoms of autism spectrum disorders, loneliness, number and nature of friendships, depression, anxiety, life satisfaction, and self-esteem. The results indicated that loneliness was associated with increased depression and anxiety and decreased life satisfaction and self-esteem, even after controlling for symptoms of ASD. In addition, greater quantity and quality of friendships were associated with decreased loneliness among adults with ASD.
These findings lend support to the idea that loneliness may be a secondary consequence of social difficulties for individuals with ASD, and that these consequences may have emotional consequences above and beyond the effects of social impairment. Adults with ASD who desire social connection, but who perceive that those social needs are unfulfilled, may be particularly vulnerable to depressed mood and a decreased sense of self-worth. Alternatively, it is also possible that underlying depression and anxiety may give rise to feelings of loneliness and increased social isolation. The finding that friendship was associated with decreased loneliness for adults with ASD is also highly consistent with findings from studies of children and adolescents in the general population
This study provides an important evaluation of the social and emotional experiences of adults with ASD. The findings extend current knowledge and highlight the clinical importance of loneliness. Significant correlations were found between loneliness and a number of negative emotional experiences, including increased depression and anxiety, and reduced well-being. Because individuals with ASD are already at increased risk of anxiety and depression, loneliness may represent an important factor in the developmental course of internalizing problems through adolescence and adulthood. A better understanding of the developmental course and consequences of loneliness is essential to inform our understanding of social and emotional well-being in individuals with ASD. Lastly, strategies to reduce and prevent loneliness in adults with ASD should be important objectives for future research and clinical practice.
Mazurek, M. O. (2014). Loneliness, friendship, and well-being in adults with autism spectrum disorders. Autism, 18, 223-232. doi: 10.1177/1362361312474121 http://aut.sagepub.com/content/18/3/223
Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, CPsychol, NCSP, AFBPsS is a licensed and nationally certified school psychologist, chartered psychologist, registered psychologist, and certified cognitive-behavioral therapist. He is also a university educator and trainer, and has published widely on the topic of autism spectrum disorders both in the US and internationally. Dr. Wilkinson is author of the award-winning book, A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Schools, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. He is also editor of a recent volume in the American Psychological Association (APA) School Psychology Book Series, Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children and Adolescents: Evidence-Based Assessment and Intervention in Schools and author of the new book, Overcoming Anxiety and Depression on the Autism Spectrum: A Self-Help Guide Using CBT.
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