Monday, 9 March 2020

The benefits of a peer group

Research shows that autistic individuals may derive benefit from being part of a group with other autistic people. This does raise questions about the popular policy of `inclusivity within education establishments.` How may a minority group be successfully integrated into a larger, more typical group?


"The results align with previous research on the challenges that autistic people face when interacting with non-autistic others, but highlight that interactions with other autistic people are fundamentally different. All participants reported that spending time with non-autistic family and friends involved specific difficulties, which were not experienced when interacting with other autistic friends and family. This aligns with the double-empathy theory of autism which suggests that autistic and non-autistic people have a mutual difficulty in understanding and empathising with one another due to differences in how each person understands and experiences the world, rather than because of a communicative deficit on the part of the autistic person (Milton, 2012). Neurotypical people have been shown to overestimate how ego-centric their autistic family members are (Heasman & Gillespie, 2018), and overestimate how helpful they are to autistic people (Heasman & Gillespie, 2019). Our findings suggest that this translates into real-world difficulties in interactions with neurotypical friends and family that may affect the mental health, well-being and self-esteem of autistic people."

"One example of how interacting with non-autistic peers could have a negative impact was that it made them more acutely aware of their own minority status within a majority neurotypical society. Having to adapt to neurotypical ways of interacting and socialising caused feelings of inadequacy and shame. Similar findings have been described by Humphrey and Lewis (2008), who found that autistic adolescents surrounded by neurotypical pupils in mainstream secondary schools experienced negative self-image relating to autism. After time spent with majority neurotypical peers, autistic pupils often characterised their differences negatively, believing they had a ‘bad brain’ and wanted to ‘fit in’ with their peers (Humphrey & Lewis, 2008)."


"These results suggest that spending time with other autistic people and within autistic spaces may be beneficial to the mental health of autistic people. In the context of calls for better mental health interventions (Cusack & Sterry, 2016), it is important to develop evidence-based, feasible and acceptable models of autistic peer support and evaluate these for potential mental health benefits. These findings may also be helpful for autistic people in environments in which they are a social minority, such as in education and employment, by enhancing understanding of autistic communication. We hope that a greater understanding of the contexts in which autistic people can have comfortable, natural and easy social interactions will contribute to an evidence base that service providers can draw on to develop better healthcare and education for autistic people."

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