Social stigma harms mental health in autistic population

By Jonathan Learmont

A recent study examining the causes of poor mental health in autistic people has found that stress arising from social stigma has a negative impact on psychological and social wellbeing.

Previous research had linked autism to poor mental health because of how everyday stresses affect those on the autistic spectrum, rather than how society treats them uniquely. This was mainly due to prior academic papers viewing autism solely as a disability that required treatment, while not acknowledging individuals consider autism as part of their identity.

Focused on ‘minority stress theory’, the study sought to assess chronically high levels of stress originating from ‘everyday discrimination’ and ‘expectation of rejection’ amongst other forms of stigma experienced by minority groups. Based on those surveyed, the vast majority of whom had Asperger Syndrome, these factors were found to be predictive of lower levels of mental health beyond the effects of everyday stress.

Monique Botha, lead author of the study and post graduate researcher at the University of Surrey said, “Such insight gives us a better understanding of why people with autism may be more likely to have poor mental health and will inform ways of reducing such stresses. It suggests that taking actions within society to tackle discrimination might significantly reduce rates of poor mental health, and thus suicide in autistic population.”

Recognising stigma facing autism should play a role in future research and compel a greater focus on UK wide measures, including better education on its associated effects. According to statistics published by the National Autistic Society (NAS), at least 1 in 3 autistic adults are experiencing severe mental health difficulties due to a lack of support and 70% say that with more support they would feel less isolated.

Insufficient understanding and provision of support is prevalent in the workplace. A 2016 report by the NAS revealed 60% of employers do not know where to go for support or advice about employing an autistic person. This is likely a factor in only 16% of autistic adults being in full time paid work in the UK, which may add to feelings of isolation.

The NHS will also provide autism specific carer pathways as part of the Five Year Forward View for Mental Health. Promoting earlier diagnosis and proper support will be crucial in improving mental wellbeing nationwide.