Loneliness and Autism is often misunderstood. It is a common misconception that autistic people prefer to be alone however many people with autism actually do want to share time with other people, share thoughts, feelings and ultimately be understood.
With autism, there’s a constant struggle between wanting to spend time alone, be absorbed in narrow interests and repetitive behaviour, and wanting to connect with others.
I have always struggled with loneliness. and I think it is very much due to my autism. I think I felt most lonely at school. It’s hard to be friends with people when you are the odd one out. Even when I was with people, I felt like I didn’t belong.
People know the definition of loneliness, but there’s a misconception that it means being alone. Not quite. I am quite empowered by solitude. Often, people feel lonely when surrounded by people. I think I felt most lonely at high school because I compared myself to the sociability of others.
Loneliness is the most awful feeling. It feels like being the person who nobody wants to pair up with; being the third wheel; sitting people watching at lunch, wishing you could be like them; lt feels like crushing disappointment; doubting every ounce of your being; being full of things to tell people but realising you have no one to talk to; It is making a fool of yourself in front of people because you’re socially awkward; It’s realising that no one needs you or wants to be with you; You’re in a busy room, laughter surrounds you in a suffocating chorus, but no one notices if you are there because you’re not funny enough, not happy enough, not cool enough, you’re not enough; You try to smile at people as you walk past, for a small reassurance that you do exist, but they always have other people to smile at; It’s sitting there, surrounded by people, eyes glazed over and your throat constricting.
The thing I’ve come to realise is that I don’t feel lonely when I’m alone. I feel lonely when I am surrounded by people who don’t understand me. It is this lack of understanding that builds a wall between me and other people. I know that when I can relate to people, I don’t feel lonely. It is human nature to have social interaction, even for introverted people like me.
People always tell us that it is good to be different and that we should embrace it but despite their nice sentiment, it’s usually only meant within certain parameters. You can’t be too different – only the type of different that fits within social norms.
I think the common causes of loneliness in autistic people are related to the way society treats people who are different.
People are afraid of what they don’t understand and what is different. It is something that protected us in the past. People try to eliminate differences because they pose a threat. They like their communities to be uniform because it makes them feel safe. Seeing someone different forces people to examine themselves and their own beliefs which most people dislike doing so rather than change themselves, or accommodate person who is different, people like to exclude and alienate them, further exacerbating their loneliness.
I think communication can also be a big barrier to not being so lonely. I really struggle being in a group of people and often end up third wheeling. I prefer to meet people one on one. I think it’s hard to explain this to others. If friends are meeting in a group it can be hard to explain that I do want to meet them, just not in a group. I might also struggle to explain that i’m not declining an invite somewhere because I don’t want to meet them but more because I don’t like the activity. I can be very blunt over text as well which can unintentionally offend people. When trying to make friends, my lack of eye contact can put people on edge or make them think i’m anxious. All these differences make it really hard to maintain friendships and lead to me feeling lonely.
I still struggle with loneliness these days just not so much as I did before and for the time I was in a relationship, I didn’t really feel lonely at all.
When you are lonely, you can be your own best friend.”
To try and stop myself being lonely I try to be part of communities that have the same sort of goals as me. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll find someone exactly like you (and if you do you are extremely lucky) so it is good to think about any interests you have that other people may also have. For example a really enjoy running and Parkrun (a free, weekly 5k run) is a really friendly community I am part of, and where I have met some great people. A lot of the steps towards alleviating loneliness involve putting yourself outside of your comfort zone – which is hard but so so worth it. Sometimes, you’ll put a lot of effort into people and they won’t reciprocate but you’ve got to realise that it isn’t so much a reflection on you but them and you’ve just got to persevere. You will find your people eventually!
The first hurdle in getting into a good group of people is getting over the initial stage of first meeting them. Here are some tips:
- Focus on the other person – rather than focusing on yourself and how you are coming across, focus on the other person, it’ll make you less self conscious.
2. Ask open ended questions that can’t just be answered with yes or no. Think about ones that start with the Ws, What, where, when, why etc
3. Comment on the surroundings, things like “I really like the food here”.
4. Make small talk – it’s best not to talk bout heavy subjects or anything provocative when you first meet people but instead talk about things like the weather or anything interesting in the news.
5. Ask questions about things you have in common.
6. Laugh at yourself – humour is a great way to get over any embarrassing thing you do.
7. Be an active listener – show that you are listening to people by asking follow up questions and showing that you’ve understood.
8. Fake it till you make it – sometimes you’ve got to act confident to start feeling confident!
I think that one of the reasons that I like to be so busy all the time and taking part in so much social action is because I try to get over my loneliness by having a sense of purpose. It is a good thing to do however it can limit your chances at having a good social life! So it’s all a balance really.