Why is belonging so important to autistic people?

CONTENT WARNING: please don’t read this if you’re not in a good state of mind. Truly, stop now and take care of yourself. Read it later, or never. This is especially true if you are autistic.

This article is about really challenging topics including self-harm and death by suicide. 

Do autistic people feel like they belong?

Very, very few autistic people make it to adulthood feeling like they authentically belong – either to themselves or someone or something else. Many have learned to fit in, to mask their true self, which, in many ways, is the exact opposite of belonging. 

“Fitting in is one of the greatest barriers to belonging” to quote Brené Brown, as it requires the person to assess a situation and become who they need to be in order to be accepted. Fitting in involves abandoning ourself, which does the opposite of create a sense of true belonging.

Sounds like autistic masking, doesn’t it? Masking or camouflaging means to hide or disguise parts of ourself in order to better fit in. Although everyone does it to some degree, the consequences for autistic people are a lot more serious and damaging. Research suggests that autistic people can end up masking the very behaviours we need to sooth ourselves, such as stimming, leaving us with fewer options to care for ourselves. 

What are the consequences of not belonging?

CONTENT WARNING: this section discusses self-harm and death by suicide.

Unfortunately, the consequences of not belonging are especially dire for autistic people. If you don’t want to read the heartbreaking statistics around self-harm and suicide then stop reading or skip this section and the next one.

An estimated 50% of autistic people self-harm at some point in their life, with higher rates among women than men (and no research yet that I can find on trans autistic people). People with alexithymia are more likely, using it as a way of dealing with intense feelings or distress, trying to feel in control, wanting to feel something when numbed out, or as a form of self-punishment.

We don’t yet fully understand the link between autism and self-harm as a distress response. This research suggests those autistic people with significantly lower regulation skills and lower social flexibility skills were far more likely to engage in self-harm. 

In England, autistic individuals make up approximately 1% of the population but 11% of suicides. In the UK, suicide is the second leading cause of death for autistic people. Autistic people with no learning disability are nine times more likely to die by suicide than the general population, and 15% of people hospitalised after attempting suicide have an autism diagnosis. 
Research suggests the two key contributing factors to death by suicide among are autistic people are feeling a sense of not belonging and of being burdensome. 

What about autistic intimate relationships?

Reading this you might think that all this would change if only autistic people could have happy romantic relationships in which they felt like they belong and didn’t feel burdensome.

Yes and no. Urgh, I wish I had some happier research findings to share with you.

Multiple studies show there are many barriers to neurodivergent adults having healthy intimate relationships. For example, autistic people are often perceived as less ‘likeable’ and trustworthy, and more awkward, making it harder to date someone autistic.

Although autistic adults have been shown to be as interested in romantic relationships as neurotypical adults, studies document that they have fewer opportunities to meet potential partners, have shorter relationships, and are more worried about future relationships. What’s really interesting is that this research shows that having fewer autistic symptoms does not seem to increase either the quality or duration of the relationships.

Things don’t get easier once in a relationship either. One study found autistic men were found to be, “substantially less satisfied with their current relationship (ASD 11.1% vs neurotypical 63.8%) and sex life (ASD 10.7% vs neurotypical 59.6%) than neurotypical peers”. 

In summary, getting into, and being in, an intimate romantic relationship is harder for autistic people than neurotypical people. These relationships are typically less satisfying and often don’t allay fears of being burdensome and not belonging, which, in turn, can lead to poor mental health outcomes.

I'm autistic and reading this has hit me hard.

If reading this puts into words and confirms something you’ve been feeling for a long time, that’s ok. Take a moment, take a deep breath, do something to comfort yourself.

I want you to know that you’re not alone. Whatever happened in the past that made you believe that you don’t belong must have been awful and I’m truly sorry it happened to you. You didn’t deserve it, regardless of what you did or didn’t do, and it wasn’t your fault. Things can be different now, people care about you. Even if we’ve never met, I care about you. 

Let me encourage you to reach out to someone who feels safe, and share what you’re feeling with them. If you don’t have someone in your life who you can trust, then try a helpline, or drop me an email. 

This is so damn bleak, why are you sharing this?

There are 3 main reasons I share this info: 

  1. Challenging Stigma
    We have so much shame and stigma around mental health, self-harm, and suicide. And not talking about it isn’t stopping people hurting themselves or ending their own lives. I strongly believe we need to have brave, uncomfortable conversations to normalise these topics.

  2. Education & Raising Awareness
    When I train therapists about working with neurodivergent clients, they’re often really shocked by these statistics. It gives them a new perspective to help them better understand and meet the needs of their autistic clients.

  3. Confronting Shame
    Personally, reading the research was actually really comforting. Suddenly, my struggles made sense and had a meaningful context (and autistic people love context!). It validated my pain, which was a real relief. It also encouraged me to reframe my suffering in a way that I could begin talking about it, and start unmasking and healing.

Who are you to talk about autism and suicide and belonging anyway?

I am a psychotherapist and I am also an autistic person. Part of the reason I trained as a sex and relationship therapist to help me navigate my own achingly brutal and lonely unmasking process. My professional knowledge makes me a specialist, but my lived experience drives me to be vulnerable and share this content. 

Put simply, this shit really matters to me, it matters very deeply to me. I am committed to finding out more and better ways to help autistic people feel they truly belong and have happier, healthier intimate relationships. 

In practical terms, I’m doing a PhD about it and I run a neurodivergent intimate relationships group, as well as courses, and trainings. If you want to know more, please get in touch, I’m here to help.