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The Problem of Loneliness for People With Autism

Could learning to listen help solve the crisis?

Key points

  • Loneliness is a major issue for people with autism.
  • Social skills training can make feelings of isolation worse.
  • Treatments for autism need to focus on the voice of people with autism.
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Over the last few years in my practice working primarily with adults with autism, I have learned and grown so much. I have learned that if a person with autism is allowed to be themselves in a safe environment, they are a magical garden of knowledge and insight.

This may require that you allow them to communicate in nontraditional ways. You may have to text back in forth in session or allow them to write in a notebook instead of speaking. You may have to let go of traditional back-and-forth conversations. But the beauty is there.

I have listened to people with autism teach me about foreign lands, ancient history, book series, video games, Dungeons and Dragons, tarot cards, and online communities. I have learned so much that I feel like most people will never know just because I have learned how to listen to the autistic community and give people a space where it is okay to be truly, deeply themselves.

I get to watch them light up when they have a safe space to explain the intricacies of the Star Trek universe or the details of the Civil War. I get to watch them glow when they explain the beauty of a nebula or the details of the wars in Iraq. I have learned so much, and I am deeply grateful and lucky to be the one who gets to hear these infodumps and stories, but I have to wonder why other people often don’t try to be part of this listening experience.

In listening, I have observed many variables that seem to cause the most chronic despair in people with autism. One of the most universal variables is loneliness. Every adult or adolescent client I work with that has autism struggles with profound loneliness and a sense of isolation.

Yet, according to Hollocks et al. (2019), there is insufficient research to conclusively say that people with autism have a “disproportionate risk for developing mental health conditions.” Additionally, according to Umagami et al. (2022), “there is a paucity of research” that shows adults with autism struggle with loneliness.

This is a bitter pill for me to swallow because almost every client I have with autism describes loneliness as a regular issue and describes it as being present even when they are with people. Some of my clients say it is actually worse when they are with people because they feel like they must camouflage — hide their autistic traits — to feel accepted and that people will dislike them if they stop camouflaging.

South et al. (2021) concluded that there are “extraordinarily high rates of death by suicide in autistic youth and adults.” My work with people with autism is consistent with that. Almost all of my clients describe constant suicidal ideation, and most of them describe this as being linked to loneliness and not feeling like they can be themselves.

Although hard research into the area may be lacking, a brief walk-through of YouTube and TikTok show that loneliness is a problem for people with autism. There are thousands of videos by those with autism discussing loneliness online. Many have thousands of views and comments from others with autism.

One video from Autism From the Inside (2021) shows a YouTuber commenting on how lonely it is for someone with autism to be with people. This rather profound and personal video has over 21,000 views. Comments come from others with autism struggling with the same issues and saying things like, “Yep, this always happens to me.”

Another YouTuber called HAG: High Autistic Guy (2021), in a video called Autism and Loneliness, discusses how loneliness consumes him. He says loneliness is his “life’s shadow.” There are thousands of videos made by people with autism with thousands of comments that show that loneliness is a huge issue for them. Yet research articles say things like there is a “paucity" of findings.

A look at the National Institute of Health’s website shows what the main treatments for autism are: behavioral management therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, early intervention, social skills training, medication treatment, etc. None of these treatments address the issues of loneliness, isolation, or feeling like you have to pretend to be someone else to be loved. So why aren’t we focused on what the people with autism are saying? They say it in therapy. They yell it on TikTok and YouTube. They say it online. They are yelling, “We need to be seen, heard, and listened to. We need human connection.”

Autism is a very lonely place. I have written about my experiences with loneliness many times. There have been times in my life when it has consumed me. So why don’t researchers, clinicians, and neurotypicals do the simple thing I do in sessions? Why don’t we listen to people with autism? The solution many clinical communities present is often social skills training, but if you listen to people with autism online or in person, social skills training only seems to make the problem worse. It worsens the loneliness because we feel like we are never seen, loved, or even liked for who we are. This feeling makes the loneliness even more profound. With social skills training, we can learn to surround ourselves with people, but we feel even more isolated because we hide everything about ourselves that is real.

Learning to listen to people with autism is the easiest solution to many problems, and the beauty of the solution is that it is a win-win. Anyone who has spent time with someone with autism can tell you there is beauty in their hyper fixations and their ability to find magic in the stranger peripherals of life.

I would never have known about a game called Pathfinder if it weren’t for my work with the autistic community or about the intricate beauty of a plethora of fantasy series. Listening and trying to communicate in novel ways is easy; if we all did it, it would address the deepest problem for people with autism. It would address our loneliness. Our communication may be different, but with time and patience, we have things to offer. We have voices that are unique.

And it all starts with listening to us.

If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7 dial 988 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


Autism From the Inside. (2021) Autism and Loneliness. Youtube Video

HAG: High Autistic Guy (2021). Loneliness and Autism. Youtube Video

Hollocks et al. (2019). Anxiety and depression in adults with autism spectrum disorder: a systemic review and meta-analysis. Psychological Medicine Mar;49 (4) 559-572

O'Halloran, L, Coey, P., Wilson, C. (2022), Suicidality in autistic youth: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Clinical Psychological Review. Vol. 93 April 2022

Umagami K, Remington A, Lloyd-Evans B, Davies J, Crane L. (2022). Loneliness in autistic adults: A systematic review. Autism. Nov; 26(8):2117-2135.

National Institute of Health (NIH). (2021) What are the treatments for autism?

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