How stress associated with social stigma affects autistic people

Washington: Stress related to social stigma – such as discrimination and rejection – contributes to poor mental health in the autistic community, a study has found.

The findings have been published in the Journal of Society and Mental Health.

The researchers from the University of Surrey and University College London examined how stress related to social stigma, testing the ‘minority stress theory’ conducted an online survey with 111 participants, who considered themselves autistic, to assess stressors that were thought to lead to a decline in their mental health.

Minority stress describes chronically high levels of stress faced by members of stigmatized minority groups, which the researchers believed would also apply to autistic people.

For the first time, researchers found that social stress related to the stigma experienced by those on the autism spectrum was predictive of higher levels of psychological distress and lower levels of emotional, psychological, and social well-being.

Importantly, the research showed that these unique forms of minority stress could explain the mental health problems of autistic people above and beyond the effects of general and everyday forms of stress not related to stigma. Minority stress can be addressed through better education and understanding of the autistic community.

Lead author Monique Botha said, “Traditionally autism and poor mental health were believed to be intrinsically linked, but this is not the case. These findings show that poor mental health of people with autism is instead directly connected with exposure to social stress, which goes beyond the effects of everyday stress that are experienced by others.”

“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,” Botha added.