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Another Voice: ‘Loner’ adults may be exhibiting signs of autism

By Coleen Hanna

The Buffalo News reported two weeks ago that a retired Williamsville schoolteacher, Lucie McNulty, was found in her home in Wells, Maine, deceased for more than two years.

The story described McNulty as having never married, with no children or family. She was characterized as a “loner” and some of the people who knew her believed she preferred to be by herself, not welcoming others’ friendships. In fact, some thought McNulty didn’t know how to make or keep friends.

On the other hand, McNulty was known to be a gifted flutist who devoted much time and effort into helping her music students succeed.

The picture so artfully painted of McNulty resembles that of an individual on the autism spectrum. Autism was not even included in psychiatry’s diagnostic manual until 1980; thus McNulty missed the opportunity for diagnosis and treatment that children have today.

Like other similar adults, she was on her own to craft a life that would give her meaning and purpose. She apparently did her best, unaware that she likely had a mental disorder.

Some research reports that today, one in 68 children are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Assuming a similar number of people would have carried the diagnosis in the past, had it been available, it is likely that today we all interact frequently with older adults who, like McNulty, are limited in their ability to engage with others.

Adults on the autism spectrum who are high functioning appear odd, or different from most. We can recognize them by their lack of understanding of how language is used socially (e.g., McNulty asking, “You seem nice. Do you like me?”).

They don’t necessarily want to avoid others; they simply do not know how to go about being involved. They have difficulty interpreting others’ emotions, and reading facial expressions and body language gives them a great deal of trouble. This often results in feelings of being an outsider or a misfit, and can result in other mental disorders such as depression and anxiety.

They may appear to lack compassion for others, but in fact they do experience feelings of compassion, as shown in McNulty’s devotion to her music students. If you know people like McNulty, it is helpful to give them a lot of grace, and offer friendship knowing it may come with some frustrations and difficulties.

Thinking of people like this as having a challenging mental disorder rather than simply being rude or impolite can make it easier to be accepting of them. And more importantly, you may help them avoid McNulty’s fate of dying alone and forgotten.

Coleen Hanna, Ph.D., is a retired licensed psychologist with Constellation Energy in Baltimore who worked with adult employees on the autism spectrum.