Value of Support Groups for Autistic LGBTQIA+ People
January 31, 2024
By: Sherri Alms
In November, OAR’s Board of Directors authorized funding for eight applied autism research studies in 2024. These new grants, totaling $297,569, bring OAR’s total research funding to more than $5 million since 2002. This article is the first of eight previews to be featured in The OARacle this year.
Autistic people are more likely to identify as sexual and gender minorities, such as lesbian, gay, or transgender, than their non-autistic counterparts. People who identify as both autistic and LGBTQIA+ have reported experiencing stigma across multiple domains, including healthcare, education, and social settings.
Autistic adults have been found to experience significantly more stressful life events and higher perceived stress compared to a neurotypical comparison group. Compared to non-autistic transgender people, autistic transgender, nonbinary, and gender-diverse people have worse mental health outcomes, including higher stress, depression, and anxiety.
Although these stressors are pervasive, there are both individual and community-level coping mechanisms that can reduce their effects. An OAR-funded two-year study, Evaluating the effects of virtual support groups for intersectional autistic individuals, led by Meredith Maroney, Ph.D., will evaluate the effects of peer-led intersectional support groups for autistic individuals. In the first year, she and her research team will conduct qualitative interviews with past participants and facilitators of autistic/LGBTQIA+ focused virtual support groups run by the Asperger/Autism Network (AANE). Based on the results of those interviews, in the second year, the research team will conduct a survey to examine changes before and after participating in virtual peer-led support groups.
Conducted in collaboration with and through support from AANE, this study aims to inform how support groups are delivered and develop recommendations for creating community-led support groups for autistic LGBTQIA+ people. The goals of the study are to:
Dr. Maroney is a licensed psychologist and an assistant professor of counseling psychology at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. She conducts social justice-oriented research on sexual and gender minority individuals, with a particular emphasis on the intersection of autistic and LGBTQIA+ identities. Specifically, her research focuses on understanding minority stress and intersectional stigma, promoting well-being, and developing interventions.
Phase one: Dr. Maroney and her team will recruit participants through AANE to participate in interviews. She plans to recruit between 20 and 30 individuals who attend AANE support groups and up to 10 facilitators of support groups to participate in semi-structured qualitative interviews. They will recruit participants who are racially and ethnically diverse as well as diverse in terms of age, sexual orientation, support needs, and communication abilities.
The one-hour interviews will explore what the participants have learned about themselves, what it was like to share space with others with shared autistic LGBTQIA+ identities, insights they learned from others, and any suggestions for improving support groups.
The group facilitator interviews will focus on the successes and challenges of leading identity-focused support groups, changes they experienced, and changes they observed in group participants.
Phase two: In the second year of the study, Dr. Maroney and her team will create and disseminate a 20- to 30-minute survey to explore changes participants experienced as a result of their participation in a support group. Survey questions will include demographic information and questions to measure change in factors such as community connectedness, self-esteem, and internalized stigma. The exact factors will be determined based on the results of the qualitative interviews. The goal is to collect data from 60 to 100 participants across the one-year period.
Phase one: Dr. Maroney will analyze the interview transcripts using a method to recognize patterns within a dataset in order to find and define themes. She and her team will also ensure the trustworthiness and integrity of the data by using multiple strategies, such as asking credibility questions at the end of each interview focused on the experience of the participant. The research team will also share a list of themes developed in the data analysis and ask participants for feedback on how well these resonate with their experiences.
Phase two: Data analysis in phase two will focus on changes in community connectedness, self-esteem, internalized stigma, and any other factors included based on qualitative findings from phase one.
Findings from the study will inform community-led support groups and clinical services about the unique needs and experiences of autistic LGBTQIA+ people engaged in peer-led support groups. It will also provide information on how to improve access to community-led supports. In addition, AANE and other community organizations will have data that can help them refine and strengthen support groups for autistic people.
Sherri Alms is the freelance editor of The OARacle, a role she took on in 2007. She has been a freelance writer and editor for more than 20 years.