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"I'm Trying to Reach Out, I'm Trying to Find My People": A Mixed-Methods Investigation of the Link Between Sensory Differences, Loneliness, and Mental Health in Autistic and Nonautistic Adults

ABSTRACT

Background: Rates of loneliness are substantially higher among autistic compared with nonautistic individuals. This observation refutes the persistent stereotype that autistic individuals are not motivated to seek meaningful social relationships. More plausibly, social environments systematically exclude people with higher levels of sensory differences, impeding on opportunities for autistic individuals to form meaningful relationships. In this study, we sought to quantify the level of distress associated with loneliness (Study A) and provide complementary qualitative insight into experiences of loneliness in relationship to sensory differences in autistic adults (Study B).


Methods: In Study A, N= 209 participants completed a range of self-report questionnaires. In Study B, nine autistic adults took part in 10-minute unstructured dyadic conversations around the topic of loneliness. We derived a qualitative understanding of autistic individuals’ experience of loneliness, enriched by inductive and deductive analyses.


Results: In Study A, the autistic group showed significantly higher levels of loneliness, loneliness distress, anxiety, depression, and sensory reactivity. We found significant positive correlations between variables, but no group differences in differential relationships. The effect of sensory reactivity on anxiety and depression was mediated by levels of loneliness in both groups. In Study B, autistic participants described the pain of feeling lonely and socially disconnected, while simultaneously experiencing a need for restorative solitude after social overstimulation.


Discussion: Our results indicate that sensory differences are related with higher loneliness and associated poor mental health in both autistic and nonautistic adults. This effect was exacerbated in autistic adults due to higher levels of sensory reactivity. First-hand reports from autistic adults on intense loneliness and the obstructive role of sensory environments refute stereotypes about a lack of social motivation in autistic adults. We conclude that to enable meaningful and inclusive social interaction, a societal effort is needed to create spaces that consider the sensory needs of all neurotypes.



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