Loneliness and Social Support in Adolescent Boys with Autism Spectrum Disorders

1 Sep

ResearchBlogging.orgLonliness in boys with ASD’s. That’s the subject of a recent paper in Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

Loneliness and Social Support in Adolescent Boys with Autism
Spectrum Disorders

Mathias Lasgaard, Annette Nielsen, Mette E. Eriksen and Luc Goossens

Abstract Loneliness and perceived social support were examined in 39 adolescent boys with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) by means of a self-labeling loneliness measure, the UCLA Loneliness Scale (third version), and the Social Support Scale for Children. Twenty-one percent of the boys with ASD described themselves as often or always feeling lonely. Compared with 199 boys from regular schools in a national probability study, ASD was strongly associated with often or always feeling lonely (OR: 7.08, p < .0005), as well as with a higher degree of loneliness (F(1,229) = 11.1, p < .005). Perceived social support from classmates, parents, and a close friend correlated negatively with loneliness in ASD. The study, therefore, indicates a high occurrence of loneliness among adolescent boys with ASD and points at perceived social support as an important protective factor.

Somehow I never thought of loneliness as a quantifiable entity. It’s very sad reading about loneliness, even when it is broken down into clinical terms.

The authors describe loneliness as:

Loneliness is an aversive experience that affects an individual’s social, affective, and cognitive functioning. The phenomenon has been defined in many ways, but most scholars agree that loneliness is a subjective, unpleasant, and distressing experience resulting from deficiencies in a person’s social relationships

The ASD boys were chosen from special ed schools, but were considered “high functioning” as rated as having at least five-word sentences. They were compared to boys in regular schools.

The key result, not surprisingly, more ASD kids are lonely than typical kids:

Twenty-one percent of the adolescents with ASD described themselves as often or always feeling lonely and another 38% reported that they feel lonely sometimes. Four percent of the controls described themselves as often or always feeling lonely and another 19% reported feeling lonely sometimes.

This was independent of whether a child was diagnosed autistic, Asperger, or other ASD. ASD kids with 2 or more siblings reported less loneliness. But, contact with peers outside of school and perceived teacher support level do not affect loneliness. Social support from classmates did help reduce loneliness.

Having difficulty making friends was seen to result in more loneliness for boys in regular schools, but, interestingly, was not seen to have an effect on loneliness for the ASD kids.

The authors note that further study is needed to determine if loneliness is attributed to ASD or learning disability.

I would add–how much is is loneliness attributed to being in a separate school? While related to the question of learning disability, I think it is a separate question.

Lasgaard, M., Nielsen, A., Eriksen, M., & Goossens, L. (2009). Loneliness and Social Support in Adolescent Boys with Autism Spectrum Disorders Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders DOI: 10.1007/s10803-009-0851-z

10 Responses to “Loneliness and Social Support in Adolescent Boys with Autism Spectrum Disorders”

  1. Jake Crosby September 1, 2009 at 06:36 #

    “The study, therefore, indicates a high occurrence of loneliness among adolescent boys with ASD and points at perceived social support as an important protective factor.”

    -Tell me something I don’t already know.

    • Sullivan September 1, 2009 at 08:44 #

      Jake Crosby,

      I realize there it is easy to say, “that’s obvious” about this paper. But, I was surprised that, for example, loneliness was not associated with the ability to make friends or access to peers outside of school time or having a single sibling (but having 2 or more was helpful).

      Unfortunately research into autistic adolescents and adults has been neglected for a long time. I’m encouraged to see research in this area and to see a new researcher (Mr. Lasgaard) working on his Ph.D. in the field.

  2. Irene Burton September 1, 2009 at 12:12 #

    I have a daughter, not a son, but loneliness has always seemed to me to be a presence in her life, as her difficulties with communication isolate her from all but a few who have found a way into her world, albeit fleetingly sometimes. Research into this, particularly with adolescents and adults, can only help us to understand and perhaps be more positive in our attempts at advocacy. This sort of research should be encouraged.

  3. dr treg September 1, 2009 at 15:17 #

    The feeling of loneliness is not related to how many people are surrounding you as evident by the phrase “the room is full but the room is empty”.
    The feeling of loneliness and self-obsession is related to loss of connectivity to the external environment and self due to the neuro-inflammation of the brain which occurs in autism and most if not all other psychiatric diseases.
    The loss of connectivity may well be related to loss of dendritic spines and their synapses with other neurons and subsequent reduced firing rates.
    It is interesting that increasing the firing rates in fragile X syndrome reduced autistic behavior in mice.
    http://www.pnas.org/content/104/27/11489.abstract?maxtoshow=&HITS=10&hits=10&RESULTFORMAT=&fulltext=Susumu+Tonegawa&searchid=1&FIRSTINDEX=0&sortspec=date&resourcetype=HWCIT

  4. daedalus2u September 2, 2009 at 14:07 #

    dr treg, the connectivity that is important is functional connectivity. That is the connectivity which is observed in fMRI as local vascular perfusion mediated by NO activating sGC and making cGMP and causing that vasodilation.

    Social neural pathways have a higher NO component that do non-social neural pathways, which is why neuroinflammation hits social cognition first.

  5. dr treg September 2, 2009 at 21:16 #

    Functional and structural connectivity at neuronal level is probably related to the number of dendritic spines and synapses upon them in the minicolumns.
    The cause of functional MRI abnormalities at molecular level seems to remain uncertain and may also be related to neuro-transmitters as well as blood flow, nitric oxide etc. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Functional_magnetic_resonance_imaging
    Not sure of the definition of a “social neural pathway”.

  6. Mike Stanton September 4, 2009 at 21:16 #

    I would be interested to read the full study. The first thing that occurred to me was, “Where these young men using lonliness to describe feelings of isolation or in a more factual manner to describe solitary existence?”

    It is possible to be alone without feeling lonely. Conversely, as Dr Treg pointed out, it is possible to feel isolated and lonely in a crowd.

    Feelings of loneliness in autistic adolescents deserve to be studied as this is often a source of unhappiness. If we can quantify the scale of the problem it will be easier to argue for resources to meet their needs. At the same time w ehave to make sure we are studying feelings of loneliness rather than the state of being alone.

  7. dr treg September 5, 2009 at 00:33 #

    At a recent lecture the lecturer stated that one of the patients didnt have any “friends”. In fact the patient had many “friends” in the conventional sense but as they were not “perfect” in the patient`s eyes they were not “friends”. Such is the nature of perfectionism when there is neuro-inflammation.

  8. Mathias Lasgaard October 13, 2009 at 21:44 #

    Hi Mike Stanton
    If you are interested in reading the paper please send me an e-mail and I will be happy share it with you.
    Bw Mathias
    mlasgaard@health.sdu.dk

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