Research at the University of Waterloo recently conducted a study in which they talked to children and teens who have severe allergies. The study is believed to be the first to explore the social implications of allergies. They found that many of the children they talked to faced loneliness, social isolation, and a persistent stigma.
University of Waterloo professors Nancy Fenton and Susan Elliott interviewed 20 children and teens, ages 8-18. They found that for young people, being diagnosed with an allergy can have a huge social impact. Robert, a teen with life-threatening allergies, explained “Automatically, you are tagged as a person who is different…you are on the outside.”
During a recent presentation about the research, Fenton said that the discussions revealed “The barriers every day that made them feel excluded” despite recent advances to protect those with food allergies in schools and other public settings. Sara Shannon, whose daughter Sabrina has food allergies, explained “At school, Sabrina was instructed to sit alone, away from all of her classmates at a table, well removed from other students. Despite showing a brave front and a positive attitude, I believe that this exclusion at a tender age was very harmful and hard on her.”
During the interviews, Fenton found that the isolating effect of food allergies appeared to affect some students more than others. “There were a couple participants who didn’t eat at school and were anxious about the thoughts of going to university in unregulated environments,” she explained. A 16-year-old boy with allergies to nuts and shellfish said he spends his school time in the music room as often as possible, because food is not allowed in there.
While some of the students said they felt relatively safe at school, eating at other public places remains a challenge. “The results in our study show the events and travel to a restaurant outside of environments at home were still considered very isolating,” Fenton said.