People with autism need extra help to adopt green behaviours

  • Date

    Wed 14 Jul 21

Crowded bus

People with autism might need extra help to adopt green behaviours according to new research.

Renowned environmental campaigner Greta Thunberg, whose autism has been well documented, credits her condition with giving her a ‘superpower’ that underpins her environmental attitudes and behaviours. This has fuelled speculation that autistic personality traits are intrinsically linked to environmentalism.

But a new study from the universities of Essex, Bath, Cardiff and King’s College London suggests autistic personality traits are unrelated to environmental attitudes. In contrast they can be linked to lower engagement in green behaviours.

Dr Paul Hanel, from the Department of Psychology at the University of Essex, was involved in the study. He explained: “We found those with autistic traits or mental health issues could face challenges going green because of their condition. If, for example, someone has an aversion to noisy crowded spaces, that could deter them from using public transport, which would be the better environmental choice. They may also find it more difficult to change their diet to reduce meat consumption, which is something we are all being told would be a good thing to do.

“Although there is some understanding of how physical health impairments are linked to difficulties in engaging with environmental behaviours, there is little understanding of how mental health problems or hidden disabilities may have the same affect. We need more research in this area and we also need to provide greater support for people with autism and mental health conditions to help them do the right thing environmentally.

“Our findings show that autistic traits are unrelated to pro-environmental attitudes, suggesting similarities between people with autism and people without. It is important to also keep the commonalities people with and without autism I mind, because these can improve how well they get along.”

The findings were based on data from over 2,000 people in the UK and USA. Researchers suggest practical support might include adapting cognitive behavioural therapy, which is commonly used to encourage behaviour change in people with mental health conditions, to support pro-environmental behaviours. They also say early environmental education for families and teachers supporting children with neurodevelopmental and metal health conditions is important.

Emily Taylor, lead author of the research paper, said: “We focussed on autistic traits, but many other psychological differences and difficulties are likely to be associated with barriers to personal action on climate change. For instance, those with anxiety, or high levels of stress more generally, may be unable to move towards pro-environmental behaviours and have difficulty sustaining any changes they make. We need to think harder about supporting people to manage stress and mental health difficulties, which might then give them the cognitive resources to direct towards engaging in green behaviours.”

Dr Punit Shah, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Bath added: “The ‘Greta Thunberg Effect’ has powerfully emerged in recent years, with many focussing on her autism diagnosis to explain her environmental activism.

"Intuitively, the speculation between autism and environmentalism has resonated with the public, including autistic adults who helped co-produce our new research. We also know from research that interests in animals, nature, and the environment, are widely reported by autistic individuals, which enhances their subjective wellbeing and life satisfaction. However, our findings show the link between autism and environmentalism is not clear cut."

The research was published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology.