Volunteers make a huge contribution to the lives of autistic people and their families, particularly in reducing isolation and loneliness.
Evidence from the Scottish Volunteering Forum tells us that it has a positive impact on mental health, in particular through increasing individuals’ engagement within their community and wider society.
This can also help address and alleviate possible problems relating to loneliness and social isolation. Our latest research suggests there is a hidden crisis, with autistic people four times more likely to be lonely than the general public. Our previous research in 2016 suggested that 79 per cent of autistic people felt socially isolated.
More than 1 in 100 people are on the autism spectrum in the UK, including around 58,000 people in Scotland. Most autistic people want more friends and connections but many find forming and maintaining social relationships hard and confusing.
The difficulties autistic people can face filtering out sounds, smells, sights and information can leave them feeling overwhelmed and anxious in busy public places.
Combined with anxiety about the public misunderstanding their distress, it can be hard to go out at all. We highlight these issues in Too Much Information, our biggest ever public understanding campaign .
Without appropriate and accessible support and services, autistic people can fall into isolation and this can lead to loneliness. Social isolation has been linked to both mental and physical health problems, with the impact of loneliness estimated to be as damaging as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Our social group, mentoring and branch volunteers, to name a few, provide essential community support to autistic people.
Our social groups and peer support services support hundreds of autistic people and their families from across Scotland, bringing people together in a supportive and understanding environment. Many of the adults who have been supported by these services now volunteer, including 18-year-old Calum Deverill.
Calum is autistic and was diagnosed when he was ten. He decided to volunteer for the National Autistic Society Scotland to give something back and to help others similar to himself.
Calum initially volunteered as a collection tin co-ordinator. This may seem straightforward but approaching businesses and asking them to display a tin can be very daunting – particularly for someone who is autistic.
He went on to arrange bucket collections at his local cinema and organised a collection in his town centre. To date he has raised more than £2,000.
Calum has also represented our charity at a cheque presentation and volunteered in our campaigns team. Like all of our volunteers, he is an asset to our charity. I’m pleased that his tremendous efforts were formally recognised when he was named our Volunteer of the Year.
Calum said: “Volunteering has allowed me to demonstrate what can be achieved by individuals on the spectrum, provided the correct supports are in place.
“I have developed many skills through volunteering and my confidence has increased. These are skills which I know will be transferable to the workplace when I graduate from university. I really enjoy volunteering and I think my life is richer and more meaningful as a result.”
Formal volunteering roles expose volunteers to rich interpersonal experiences, thus building understanding and empathy. The Scottish Volunteering Forum tells us that 79 per cent of volunteers report that it helps to develop their interpersonal skills.
This Volunteers’ Week we will be saying a big thank you to all of our volunteers for the important contribution they make throughout the year to support and deliver our vital work in Scotland.
If you would like to learn more about volunteering opportunities with the National Autistic Society Scotland please go to www.autism.org.uk/volunteer
Fiona McGrevey, branches and volunteering development manager, the National Autistic Society Scotland.