Social effects of friendships for people with learning disabilities and/or autism

Thursday, March 10, 2022

In our latest article, our Divisional Chief Nurse, Clare, discusses the social effects of friendships for people with learning disabilities and/or autism and the importance of those friendships. She also discusses how COVID-19 and the different restrictions have affected people with learning disabilities and/or autism and how best to support them.


The importance of friendships

The friendships we make during our lifetime can sometimes be taken for granted. Forming strong connections and a sense of belonging with friends, family and people in the community can have a major impact on our physical and mental health and wellbeing. Having strong friendships in your life can bring about many benefits, such as:

  • Feeling happy, included and valued
  • Reduces loneliness
  • Improves mental health and wellbeing
  • Promotes person-centred care and support

According to research by the Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, adults and children with learning disabilities and/or autism have fewer chances of being involved in activities or socialising with others and will naturally have fewer friends.


The reality of friendships for people with learning disabilities and/or autism

In 2001, the government released a paper called ‘Valuing People’. The paper outlined a strategy to support people with profound and multiple learning disabilities and/or autism. It identified four key principles, which consisted of rights, independence, choice and inclusion. The emphasis around the paper was to ensure people with a learning disability and/or autism have the same rights as the general population.

However, the reality is that creating a social life and being a citizen in the community continues to be difficult for adults and children with learning disabilities and/or autism. According to Mencap, a total of 34% of adults with learning disabilities have no more than yearly contact with friends. This is due to the personal and social challenges they may encounter throughout their lives which consists of:

  • Social isolation
  • Fewer opportunities to meet new and existing friends
  • Friends may live far away
  • Not receiving the guidance they need to support them in becoming a part of the community and understanding social cues
  • Limited accessibility to transport, information and toilets

People with learning disabilities are seven times more likely to feel lonely than the general population and have fewer opportunities to take part in social and leisure activities with their peers. Those with learning disabilities and/or autism may not feel welcome in mainstream social settings and might require communication and social skills support to help them meet and talk to others and develop long term friendships.


How has the lockdown and COVID-19 impacted the lives of people with learning disabilities and/or autism?

The impact of COVID-19 has been difficult for many due to changes in daily routines and the restrictions of not seeing loved ones who live in other households. It has had an emotional and physical impact on people with learning disabilities and/or autism.

Due to the difficulty of communication and the need for consistency and structure, people with learning disabilities and/or autism are most at risk of social isolation, increased anxiety, and mental health issues.

As we have previously highlighted, people with learning disabilities and/or autism experience high levels of loneliness and social isolation, which will sadly be heightened by the restrictions. As we move into the future away from the COVID-19 restrictions, support staff must acknowledge and prepare for this. They should provide stability and a sense of normality to ensure the mental health and wellbeing of their client is at the forefront of everything they do.

A survey conducted by Mencap showed the effects of COVID-19 on people with learning disabilities and/autism. They learned the following:

  • ⅓ of disabled people spent too much time alone during lockdown. We know that for people with a learning disability, this is likely to be worse and long lasting.
  • The closure of day services, loss of routine, difficulties staying in touch with family and keeping active meant that they struggled to cope.
  • Nearly two thirds (65%) reported that concerns around COVID-19 are affecting their wellbeing.


What can we do to bridge the gap?

In the past two years, everyone’s lives have been altered and limited. People have made changes to the way they live at home and in the community. The general population is mostly able to contextualise this impact and can successfully invest in their own strategies to help them cope with the daily challenges.

People with a learning disability/and or autism will often rely on others to make some decisions within their best interests. This is to ensure their mental health and wellbeing is maintained and prioritised.

We need to make sure that people with a learning disability and/or autism are involved in discussions and decisions regarding the impact COVID-19 has had on them, so they have the best chance of understanding what is happening and can stay in control of their lives as much as possible.

Things to consider when supporting people with learning disabilities and autism at this time.

  1. Encourage the use of daily routines to maintain consistency based on what is available in their surroundings.
  2. The World Health Organisation (The WHO) recommends that people exercise daily. Daily walks or runs can boost your mood, energy levels; and have a positive impact on your mental health and wellbeing.
  3. People must continue to have a choice and control over their social life, who they spend time with and who their friends are. Be creative and utilise social networks to ensure contact is maintained.
  4. Society needs to continue to recognise that having friends is valuable to people with a learning disability and or/ autism.
  5. It’s important to explain to anyone with a learning disability and/or autism that the changes are not forever. They are only for a short period of our lives, and we will go back to normal.
  6. Make use of resources from organisations such as Learning Disabilities England, The National Autistic Society and Books Beyond Words.
  7. Remember to review and incorporate the Positive Behaviour Support plan (PBS) and incorporate strategies relating to COVID-19.
  8. If PPE is required, explain this to the individual and why it’s being used. If a mask is required, utilise name badges and pictures of staff to help clients visualise and reduce the opportunity for confusion.


At Thornbury Community Services, we understand how important it is that we move forward from the COVID-19 measures and continue to maintain social networks that already have formed and encourage our clients to create new relationships that may develop into meaningful friendships.

People with a learning disability and/or autism cope better in an ever-changing world. They need us to be proactive and positive now more than ever to ensure that the risk of loneliness, mental health concerns and further isolation is significantly reduced.

If you are interested in receiving care from us and would like to find out more about our services, view our services page here.

If you are interested in joining the team at Thornbury Community Services register with us using the form below. Or contact our team on 0333 323 3762