‘Left out of birthday parties and sports’: Autism a barrier to making friends in school, study finds

Autism charity AsIAm described the findings as ‘stark reading’ of life for people with autism

Most people with autism and their families do not believe the education system is inclusive and regularly face barriers to inclusiveness such as being left out of birthday parties or sports events.

The findings are contained in a poll of more than 1,600 autistic people and their families as part of the Same Chance report, compiled by the autism charity AsIAm, which described the findings as a “stark reading” of life for people with autism.

Latest estimates put the proportion of people with autism in Ireland at about 3.3 per cent or more.

Overall, the vast majority of survey respondents (91 per cent) believe autism is a barrier to being accepted and making friends, while a similar proportion do not think the Irish public understands enough about the condition.


In education, most (61 per cent) do not believe the education system is inclusive, while a significant proportion (23 per cent) say they do not have a suitable school place which meets their needs.

The latter finding echoes previous research by AsIAam which shows many young people are in education placements which do not align with the recommendations of their assessment reports or are far away.

In the health sector, most respondents (75 per cent) say they do not believe the healthcare system is inclusive, while a similar proportion (68 per cent) are on waiting lists to access services

Adam Harris, chief executive of AsIAm, said depriving autistic people of the same chances represented a loss of diversity, talent and perspective for Irish society as a whole. “This report provides a very depressing landscape of autistic people [who] want the same chance to live long, healthy and happy lives – no more, no less,” he said.

“It is important that inclusion is not defined merely as access to services such as education or healthcare. It is about public transport, the workplace, and life in the community in a much broader sense.”

He said autistic people would enjoy equality in Irish life only if we lived in communities which were “informed, accepting and affirming of our community. Yes, there has been progress in some areas, but there is so much work still to be done,” he added.

Participants were asked to comment on their own experiences as part of the report.

“Left out of birthday parties and sports,” said one parent. “In school they are in an autism class but want to spend more time in a mainstream class but their school won’t allow this. We are trying to get him into his mainstream class more by highlighting the environmental changes that are needed but this is ongoing. His sister is able to remain in mainstream with access to the autism class if and when she needs it so we know school can accommodate this.”

Others commented on how they tried to hide their difficulties in order to gain acceptance and fit in with the rest of society. “I wish they knew how difficult simple tasks are, like going to the shops, finding a school place, participating in community activities like sports,” said one respondent.

“Just because I excel in work doesn’t mean I don’t need supports in other areas of my life,” said one.

Another said: “Being autistic is different for everyone especially for women and girls. Also what masking is. I seem fine sometimes so they think that I’m like that all the time.”

Separately, DCU’s Institute of Education has announced it is undertaking the first national study seeking autistic children’s experiences at school. Researchers are encouraging parents, guardians and their autistic children to participate in the study. The intention is the research will contribute to the future development of educational policy of autistic children. Those interested in participating can contact the research team (autismfriendlyschools@dcu.ie), led by Dr Sinéad McNally, associate professor in psychology, and Dr Mary Rose-Sweeney, both of DCU.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent