"I'm trying to reach out, I'm trying to find my people": Loneliness and loneliness distress in autistic adults

Lisa Quadt, Gemma Williams, James Mulcahy, Marta Silva, Dennis Larsson, Andrew Arnold, Hugo Critchley, Sarah Garfinkel

Research output: Working paperPreprint


Despite the persistent stereotype that autistic individuals are not motivated to seek meaningful social relationships, rates of loneliness among the autistic population are higher than in the non-autistic population. In this two-part, mixed methods study, we sought to 1) quantify the level of distress associated with loneliness in autistic and non-autistic adults and 2) gain qualitative insight into autistic experiences of loneliness. In Study A, 209 participants (encompassing a group of autistic individuals and a group of non-autistic comparison participants) completed questionnaire ratings of their level of loneliness, associated distress, trait anxiety, depression, and sensory sensitivity. Results indicated that the autistic group scored higher levels across all measures. Both groups manifest strong correlations between loneliness and loneliness distress. In the autistic group, but not the non-autistic group, regression analyses showed that loneliness and sensory sensitivity predicted levels of anxiety, wherein the effect of loneliness on anxiety was partially mediated by the level of sensory sensitivity. In Study B, nine autistic adults took part in ten-minute, unstructured dyadic conversations around the topic of loneliness. Inductive and deductive analyses enriched qualitative understanding of the experiences of loneliness of autistic individuals. Our results broadly oppose the social motivation deficit hypothesis and we instead frame our findings within the larger context of ‘ethical loneliness’, concluding that a concerted effort is needed to overcome the fundamental disconnect with the neurotypical world experienced by many autistic people.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages23
Publication statusPublished - 27 Oct 2021


  • autism
  • loneliness
  • loneliness distress
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • sensory processing
  • ethical loneliness


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