Written in April 2023
The subject of Sunday 2nd March on Spectrum Voices Conversation (more on that in my next post) was autism and loneliness. The group had been approached by a researcher looking at the autistic experience of loneliness for the PhD thesis – there is a lot of clinical literature on loneliness in older adults (neurotypically-focused) as a result of the ageing process, and some on loneliness in autistic children due to challenges with social activities and conventions, but there's a gap in the research when it comes to autistic adults (of a range of ages).
I wasn't able to take part in that broadcast because, and this is rather ironic, I was on holiday on my own, but was meeting an online friend that evening as they lived closed to where I was staying. Holidaying on my own is something I do a lot of and to me it has never seemed odd, but I know it does rouse a reaction of concern and surprise from others.
My friends don't really ask who I'm going away with now, because they know I enjoy solo trips but to begin with (so, in the early days after I was no longer in a relationship) they did assume I would be going with someone. My mum's friends are still surprised by my solo travelling if she mentions I'm going away, and notably so as she says they can't seem to understand that I prefer it. It's like there's a standard part of having a holiday that says it has to involve someone else and I have never understood that.
I love my solo trips. I can go where I want and do what I want, even change my mind about what I do on a particular day because I don't have to factor anyone else in. It is a lovely respite from everyday life where I can feel unfettered by responsibilities or social arrangements – I am completely in control. It's lovely to be stress free, without having to think about taking food for two, or having enforced changes to my plans because the other person doesn't want to do what I want to do. I'm never lonely, because there's always someone to chat with whether that's at the campsite sink, or in a pub, or a cafe. I also don't have to chat with anyone if I don't want to – I can take a book, or find a secluded corner.
I count myself lucky to have the social skills to have unscripted conversations with strangers – I had a lovely chat with a man outside a pub on this trip, and it wasn't all small talk and weather. We talked about his late wife, my late dad and topics that weren't “routine”, including dog cheese (and you just had to be there for that bit as I can't really explain it!).
On this particular trip there was another reason I wasn't lonely, because I met up twice with a friend from social media who lives nearby. We've been Facebook friends for years and we're in the same group chat so there was no worry that they'd turn out to be dangerous or weird (at least not weird in a way that was unexpected!) but it was really nice to have some company and meet them in the flesh.
I think this is something that autistic people are often assumed to struggle with, and in fact a lot of the testimony of autistic people online is that they do fare much better with online friendships than in person, and that meeting people for the first time in real life can be very anxiety inducing. I don't have that same experience and wouldn't say I was any more nervous than I would normally be about falling over my own feet. I didn't have to worry about saying something tactless or offensive so it was easier in the sense that I wasn't trying to create a first impression.
I can't say I've never felt lonely, or that I don't feel lonely from time to time, but I do enjoy my own company and am never annoyed by cancelled or changed plans that give me more free me-time. Times I have felt lonely have often been when I have been part of a social group, and I tend to avoid that kind of mutuality in friendship groups now because I know I am much better one-on-one or in a small group. I have friends I connect with individually throughout the year, some with more frequency than others due to circumstance and distance, and that's just right for me. I get connection, which is the antidote to loneliness – it's not just about spending time with people.
If any autistic people reading this do feel lonely, reach out and connect with other autistic people through social media, or through Hiki, an autism-only friend finding and dating app. Shared interest groups are a good way to feel some connection with people – I'm part of a voluntary conservation group where there's three openly autistic people (including me) and some other shades of neurodivergence and while there is conversation, the main focus is on the work we're doing so it's socialising-lite.
Dealing with loneliness doesn't just mean being around people, that's not right for everyone. Finding connections with a handful of people (not necessarily as a group) can be enough to reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation. The key is not to compare your social limits and needs with those of others but to do what's right for you. You may even find a way to embrace periods of isolation as a respite from the world, filling them with your own interests and passions that you can share with others when the time comes.