Autistic people can experience social isolation. We'll look at the possible reasons for this, and ways in which people, their family, friends and carers can improve matters.
Possible reasons for social isolation
Many autistic people experience social isolation. This may be due to a range of reasons. For example:
- they may prefer to be on their own and enjoy their own company
- they may want to engage with others but lack the skills to do so
- they may find it difficult to maintain contacts due to a lack of understanding of small talk and other conventions of social behaviour - find out more about social skills
- a bad experience in a social situation in the past may have been generalised and the person is now trying to avoid a repetition of this negative experience
- some autistic people need a higher level of support for activities than their family, friends and/or carers are able to provide
- an autistic person may live independently, without family, support workers or a social network
- the person or their family, friends and/or carers may not know about suitable activities in their local area.
Ways to deal with social isolation
Encouraging social interaction
If you are supporting an autistic person who feels isolated, try discussing why this is the case. Some people may need time to themselves if they find it difficult to be around others for long periods of time. It is important to respect this. But it is also worth talking about the benefits of having a network of contacts, for when they want company or need support.
If you feel that the person is engaging in an activity on their own for an unusually long time (eg playing computer games), you might discuss drawing up a person-centred plan, to include their hobby in a timetable which includes other activities. In some cases a visual timetable can be a useful way of showing how much time is reserved for a certain activity. Find out more about organising, sequencing and prioritising and obsessions, repetitive behaviours and routines.
If the person needs a more structured plan for support, look for a person-centred planning facilitator. These are skilled people who involve everyone in the person's life in their 'relationship circle'. They also encourage and support the individual to take control of their own plan.
Social groups and special interest groups
There are lots of different types of social groups around the country, many of which focus on their members’ shared special interests (such as sports, reading, art or religion). Autistic people may find joining a social group where the members have similar interests to their own very beneficial. Having a common ground, something all members enjoy talking about, makes it easier to start and maintain a conversation.
Here are a few tips on how to find out about local groups.
- Local councils are often a good starting point for enquires as some list all activities in the area.
- Local newspapers or specialist magazines often have a section about groups and activities taking place in the area.
- Libraries, cafés and adult education centres often have noticeboards with details of local groups.
- If you are interested in sports or keeping fit, contact your local leisure centre or swimming pool. Details of these services can be found on council websites and in local phone directories.
- If you are interested in the arts, contact your local arts centre and enquire about group talks and activities.
- If you are in employment you can ask your manager or other members of staff about after-work activities.
- Going on holiday can be a way to meet others.
- Social skills groups offer practical help to better understand social interaction.
- Daytime hubs often arrange activities and trips.
- Age UK can help you to find local services for older people.
- The University of the 3rd Age provides learning opportunities and activities for older people.
Many autistic people need a great deal of support if they are to get involved in social activities. Family, friends or carers may be unable to meet these needs. If the person doesn’t have a support network or needs additional support, it is a good idea to request a community care assessment from the local social services department. Adults who do not have a formal diagnosis of autism are still entitled to a needs assessment in line with the principle of the NHS and Community Care Act 1990. If the person had an assessment when you were younger, they are entitled to ask for another one, particularly if you feel that your needs have changed.
Our charity runs a number of befriending schemes. Befrienders are trained volunteers who spend a few hours each week with an autistic person or their family. Some spend time in the person’s home, others go out and about. This regular contact can make a real difference to the life of an autistic person and their family.
We also have an e-befriending scheme. An e-befriender can offer regular online support and social contact. E-befrienders exchange emails with you or another member of your family, chatting about things that interest or concern you and offering a friendly, supportive link with the community.
Overcoming restrictive routines
For many autistic people the world is a very confusing place. Routines can provide reassurance and comfort, but can limit social interaction with other people. In order to overcome restrictive routines, try to gradually introduce change by identifying one new place to go to every week, for example a local shop. Try to focus on places where it is possible to meet new people. In time, a person may move on to getting to know the people they see regularly. Practising a few bits of small talk, such as 'How are you today?', can help to reduce anxiety about making social contact with people.
If the person has difficulties with social skills and anxiety, these will need to be addressed if they want to develop their social life. This can be done in a variety of ways, according to the person’s specific needs. For example, if they are experiencing extreme levels of anxiety in social situations, it might be useful to talk about this with the person's GP. A medical professional should be able to offer support and advice and may be able to signpost them towards support services.
Qualified counsellors can often offer information on techniques that may reduce anxiety and improve social skills. Sometimes advice can be provided via the phone or email or a home visit may be arranged.
The NHS often offers counselling following a GP’s referral. It is important to contact a qualified counsellor with specialist knowledge and understanding of the autism spectrum.
It is important to keep safe when going out. If you are going to a new place, take your mobile phone or small change to use a public phone in case of an emergency, or if you need to call someone for any other reason.
It can be useful to carry an Autism Alert card, especially when going out alone. The card can be used in situations where it may be necessary to make members of the public, the police or emergency services aware that the cardholder is on the autism spectrum. The Autism Alert card is available from our online shop.
Meeting other autistic people
There are autism-specific social and support groups around the country. We also have online community that autistic people , their family and friends can join to discuss a wide range of subjects.
Asperger United is a quarterly magazine written by people on the autism spectrum, including Asperger syndrome, or (occasionally) by professionals with this group specifically in mind. Contributors share their experiences in the form of articles, poems, artwork and short stories. There is also a pen pals section.
This national charity offers support to people of any age who are isolated or at risk of isolation. A circle of support, sometimes called a circle of friends, is a group of people who meet regularly to help an individual accomplish their personal goals. The circle acts as a community around the 'focus person' who is in charge, and decides who to invite to be in the circle. Find out more about Circles Network.
Preparing to take part in a group or activity
- Once you found an activity that interests you, get in touch with the group leader, find out what the format for the activity is and ask for a brochure or information pack.
- You may need to become a member of some social groups to attend meetings, which might mean paying a fee. You should ask the organiser about this and find out whether you'd need to make a one-off payment or commit to a weekly, monthly or annual fee.
- If you are attending a group that isn't specifically for autistic people, it's up to you whether you tell people about your condition. Giving people this information can help them get a better understanding of your needs and the group may be able to offer additional support, should you need it. However, deciding to 'disclose' is a big decision and some autistic people have told us that, for them, disclosing left them vulnerable to bullying. So if you are joining a group where you don't know anyone, you could try talking about this issue with your family or friends, or with the person who organises the group.
- The social group or activity may take place some distance from where you live so it is important to think about transport. The organisers may be able to tell you about transport links and routes and possibly give you a map. You can also contact your local council to find out about support with transport.
- Add the activity or group meeting to your calendar.
- To make sure the activity is right for you, you may try going along as an observer at first.
- If you feel you may need additional support to take part in the activity, ask if a family member, friend or carer can come along or if the group could provide some extra support.
- Don’t feel pressured to attend for the whole of the activity or meeting, or to go on your own - especially at first. Over time you can increase the length of time you stay, eventually aiming to attend the whole session without additional support.
- Some autistic people find it useful to have a prompt card with them that lists key information on how to start and end a conversation with others. The card may also list ways of dealing with situations that cause anxiety.
- If you have any issues at the group, discuss these with the group leader so that they can be resolved as soon as possible.