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Autistic people experience barriers to ‘going green’

14 July 2021

Autistic people can “face barriers” to taking positive environmental action – and need greater support to help them do so, according to a new study.

Researchers from Cardiff University, along with the universities of Bath, Essex, and King’s College London, explored the links between autistic personality traits and environmental attitudes in a study of 2,000 people in the US and UK.

The findings, published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, suggest that people with many autistic traits have similar pro-environmental attitudes to the rest of society – but that they may face barriers to engaging in action.

The authors are calling for more research on the topic and greater support for autistic people to “ensure nobody gets left behind”.

Climate activist Greta Thunberg’s autism has been well documented and has been used to explain – as well as criticise – her campaigning.

This has fuelled media speculation that autistic traits are linked to environmentalism but, until now, there has been no research to test this.

Dr Lucy Livingston, who is based at the Wales Autism Research Centre at Cardiff University and is co-lead of the GW4 Neurodevelopmental Neurodiversity Network, said: “Our findings suggest that autistic people are likely to care about the environment and climate change just as much as non-autistic people, but there may be challenges for them in translating their pro-environmental attitudes into their everyday behaviours. Our research suggests we need a much more inclusive approach to environmentalism and climate action.

“Barriers to engaging in green behaviours are unlikely to be limited to autistic people, and likely exist for individuals with other neurodevelopmental and mental health difficulties and hidden disabilities.

“Moving forward, we need to include these individuals in the conversations we are having about environmental policy and climate science, to establish how we can make personal action on climate change more accessible for them. If we want to move towards a Net Zero future, we need to make sure nobody in society gets left behind.”

The authors discuss several reasons why people with many autistic traits might have difficulty engaging in green behaviours. This includes sensory challenges that make it difficult to use noisy and crowded public transport, as well as issues over changing diet to reduce meat consumption.

They also suggest support for these individuals to engage in green behaviours could be psychological, financial, or involve more structural change, for example making public transport more autism friendly.

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