Christmas can be an exciting and fun time of year, and yet it can also be a time when depression and suicide rates increase, and people who normally feel lonely or down in their lives can feel even worse. Being bombarded by constant images of happy people enjoying themselves can`t be easy for somebody who is lonely, and it is loneliness that this blog is about, and how it can sometimes go undetected in younger people.
Why is the problem of loneliness prevalent in autistic people?
Loneliness can affect anybody, but because autistic people can struggle to socialise and communicate anyway, they are more susceptible to it. It may be that even if the autistic person goes to school or college they find it hard to interact with those around them, and are not included in social groups. Some autistic people may also find dating and relationships challenging, and so may not be able to get companionship that way. Having said this a lot of autistic are not lonely, and a lot of lonely people are not autistic.
Why does this sometimes go un-noticed?
The reason for this is probably best illustrated by looking at a scenario such as the one below – take a twenty one year old autistic woman who could go to university, and communicate with people as and when she needs to. She could have a job, and communicate with people professionally, but may be that is as much as she can do. Maybe she doesn’t know how to have a laugh, and a joke. Maybe when she tries to find somebody to talk to about her special interest all she gets is blank looks. Let’s even suppose that she is invited to nights out or parties – maybe the sheer force of will and energy that it takes her to get up and go in to university or work, and interact with people daily, means that she doesn’t have anything left to go out and socialise. People may begin to think she is unfriendly, and in the end stop inviting her to things. It should be stressed that this is not representative of all young, autistic people, but if you can hold it in your mind, it is an example of how somebody can be around people all day, and hold conversations with them, but at the same time still be profoundly lonely. It might be a cliché, or even the lyric to some cheesy, eighties song, but like many clichés it has a ring of truth to it – sometimes the loneliest place to be is in the middle of a crowd.
What has this got to do with Christmas?
It is a problem that can affect people all year round, and sometimes for their entire lives; a state of isolation in the middle of hordes of people. But at Christmas, when every image you see is of happy groups of people enjoying themselves and socialising, it is little wonder that the feelings can intensify. Neuro-typical people will probably be going out and socialising a lot more over this time, and many adverts on TV even run with slogans such as `you don’t want to be alone at Christmas`. Therefore the message that is generally sent out, and drummed in to people is that Christmas is a time to spend with others, and that if you don’t have someone to spend Christmas with there is something wrong with you. The human mind tends to focus everything inwards, so if there is a problem it is only a matter of time before the person with autism blames them self, and begins to feel there is something wrong with them. To not be able to find anybody to spend Christmas day with could easily generate feelings of self-hatred – it can be embarrassing, and difficult enough for a person with autism not to be able to find somebody to sit with in a canteen at work or college. As with many other things, there is such a social pressure put on to Christmas that it can make what is already a difficult and complex mix of emotions much worse – sometimes even to the point where it becomes fatal.
(This blog is about raising awareness of the subject of loneliness, and not giving tips on how to deal with it. However I will post another blog soon that will give tips which may be helpful)
What can people do to help?
The most important thing is to not think that only elderly people can get lonely at Christmas; there may be teenagers who don’t want to spend time with their families, and feel lonely because they have no one to speak to. People in their twenties, thirties, or any age can feel lonely. Loneliness, especially over the Christmas period, can be the start of a dark road that can lead to depression, and even suicide. What society as a whole can do to help is first of all just understand, and realise that it is a genuine issue. The actual solutions of how to help people to stop feeling lonely are more complex, and difficult to implement. But if society grasps the concept that people of all ages, genders and races, can have the same sets of feelings, then it would be a big step in the right direction.
The stereo-type of autistic people always wanting to be alone is something that should be out-dated. A lot of autistic people need to take breaks, where they need to spend time on their own to clear their minds, and there are some people with autism who could happily spend Christmas and even the entire year alone, but this is not all autistic people. It is hard to face up to other people`s loneliness, and harder still when it is at a time when all you want to do is sit in front of the TV and eat chocolate. But this blog isn’t even asking people to do anything really, it is simply letting you know – in what I hope is a clear and concise manner- that loneliness is a problem faced by some autistic people, and especially around Christmas time. If you are involved in the autism community, and can think of anything you can do to help, then you should definitely do it – even if it is something as simple as just talking to somebody.
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