Autistic Adults Find Meaningful Connections in a Variety of Social Settings
A study funded by the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR).
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 5.4 million adults in the US are living with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ASD is a developmental disability, which can be marked by challenges of social interaction and communication difficulties. Social participation is an important consideration for people with ASD. Prior research has shown that children and adolescents with ASD are more likely to engage with their neurotypical peers (i.e., peers without disabilities) than with other children/adolescents with disabilities, while adults with ASD may be more likely to prefer relationships with other adults with ASD. However, there is very little research seeking to learn more about the social interactions and experiences of adults with ASD, and how these adults perceive these experiences.
In a recent NIDILRR-funded study, researchers wanted to learn about the range of social participation experiences of adults with ASD. The researchers wanted to understand these individuals’ perspectives on where and how meaningful social interactions occur.
Researchers interviewed 40 adults who identified as being autistic or having an ASD and who were participating in a larger study about community participation. Participants were between 24 and 62 years old. Data were collected via semi-structured interviews in person and via video conference. The primary questions in the interviews included, “Where do you typically see your friends?”; “Are there any activities you wish you were more involved with?”; “Do you feel a part of your community?”; and “Who is your biggest form of social support?”
Through the interviews, the participants described a variety of contexts for social interactions and participation. Some of these contexts offered opportunities to interact with a variety of people, others allowed participants to interact primarily with other autistic adults. The researchers identified several themes in these places and contexts:
- Vocational participation: Many of the participants described work, school, and volunteer settings as great places for positive interactions with others. For some, these places offered a sense of belonging. They also described these places as ideal settings to practice and develop their social skills.
- Neighborhood interactions: Participants described interactions with neighbors in their local community and feeling a sense of safety in getting to know and interact with their neighbors. Having a pet enhanced social interactions in their neighborhood, such as taking their dog for a walk and having impromptu interactions with others in the neighborhood.
- Common interests: Participants described meeting and interacting with other people who shared personal interests such as faith communities or gaming groups. Places of worship offered belonging and connection with others around their shared faith. The gaming community offered experiences that were good for building social skills.
- Support services and support groups: Participants said disability support services and support groups also provided a sense of belonging and environments that felt safe and free of judgment. They also reported that being able to interact in these safe spaces often led to making friendships with others in these groups.
- Online networks and apps: Participants said that Internet-based groups and platforms such as Meetup and gaming platforms provided easier ways to have social interaction on their own terms without having to be as self-conscious about social skills. Many of these interactions led to the building of deeper relationships.
The authors noted that many, though not all, of the adults with ASD in this study wanted and pursued social connections. These adults were intentionally taking advantage of a variety of methods to achieve these desired social interactions, from engaging with many different people at work to joining groups with shared interests or life experiences. Many of the participants in this study reported meaningful social interactions in a variety of contexts that gave them a sense of belonging, even without deep or close friendships. The authors suggested that it may be beneficial to consider the broader context of where meaningful social interactions occur.
The authors also noted that the study appeared to confirm the importance of adults with ASD to connect with peers with ASD. They suggested that these connections were significant, whether in-person or online, as adults with ASD may be more open and speak more freely to others with ASD compared to speaking with their neurotypical peers. The authors acknowledged that not all the participants desired social interaction. Indeed, some participants preferred to avoid interactions with other people with or without ASD. But the authors noted that this study may suggest the need for individuals with ASD to have structured opportunities and additional supports for these important social interactions if they desire. Future research may be beneficial to further explore the wide range of social interaction opportunities to improve the well-being of adults with ASD.
To Learn More
The MyLife platform, developed by Cognitopia under several NIDILRR-funded grants, helps people with cognitive and developmental disabilities improve independence, self-determination, and transition success.
Centers for Independent Living (CIL) are organizations run by and for people with disabilities that offer a range of opportunities and resources to connect with the community. Visit https://www.ilru.org/projects/cil-net/cil-center-and-association-directory to find the CIL serving your area.
To Learn More About this Study
Chan, D.V., Doran, J.D., and Galobardi, O.D. (2022) Beyond friendship: The spectrum of social participation of autistic adults. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 2022. This article is available from the NARIC collection under Accession Number J90593.