The theme for this year’s World Mental Health Day, October 10th 2020 is “Mental Health for All”. This is a great subject for this year as so many people are struggling with the current pandemic for all sorts of reasons.
The subject means something special for me as I’ve spent my life feeling like I’m different, I don’t fit in, I don’t know how to do the stuff other people do so easily and I don’t know why.
A little while ago, we realised why – I’m autistic.
This may come as a surprise to some who know me, or it may make perfect sense to others! To me, it’s really helped things fall into place.
Previous to this, lots of things didn’t make sense, I’d had long periods of mental illness and while I’d managed to carve a recovered life (with lots of support, medication and various therapies) I still really struggled with general life and it was difficult to understand why. Below are just a few examples of things I struggle with that are now explained by autistic traits. It’s important to remember that this is my experience and that this will not be typical for everyone on the spectrum.
- I’m incredibly sensitive to sounds but had been putting this down to being “highly sensitive” and an extreme introvert. These labels helped to some extent but didn’t quite explain why I would find a noisy environment completely exhausting. My sense of smell and touch are also extraordinarily sensitive.
- I have a very small number of close friends because I struggle to make and keep friends. A lot of people see a more “socially acceptable version” of me because I feel they would judge the real me.
- I’m easily overwhelmed by misunderstandings and confused by unexpected situations. I know I have intelligence but sometimes feel I lack common sense–this isn’t true, it’s just how it feels. It’s been awful not knowing why I can’t see things the way other do.
- Things sometimes get stuck on a loop in my head. Hyper-focus and an eye for detail can be seen as a positive thing but it’s felt negative when other people can move on. It’s not that I’m deliberately holding a grudge, it’s that things affect me more deeply than they do other people.
- I’ve always understood that there are unwritten social rules but I’ve struggled to know what they are. As I’ve grown up I’ve managed to hide the fact that I don’t understand and I “laugh along” but I’m hiding (masking) a huge amount of confusion and anxiety.
As I came to terms with the diagnosis, I realised I’m actually not odd, weird or wrong, I’m just neurodivergent.
All this time, I’ve been desperately trying to be “normal” and I’ve suddenly discovered that I am!
However, learning that I’m on the spectrum has been a mixed blessing!
The downside of the diagnosis is that it comes with discrimination and stigma.
[People with] autism spectrum disorder…are more likely to experience mental health problems than the general population.
This can be because there are fewer resources…more negative life events, and [they] face stigma and discrimination from people and services… Biology and genetics may also increase the likelihood of developing a mental health problem.Mind
If you read my most recent blog (can be found here) you will have seen that I experienced horrendous discrimination at the hands of an ex-employer. This was because I disclosed to my employer the difficulties I was having in relation to being autistic, particularly in relation to the social side of things. I liked to keep my work and social life separate. You won’t find me gossiping around the water cooler or taking an extended lunch break while I chat about my weekend with colleagues.
I can understand the theory behind those “water cooler moments”. I know bonding with work colleagues is important. Unfortunately, I’ve never liked doing it and now I’ve found out I’m autistic, I know why. I find these moments excruciatingly awkward and fatiguing and I simple don’t benefit from trying to socialise with my colleagues!
There were numerous ways they discriminated against me and the fact that I’m covered under the Equality Act made no difference to my ex-employer. When just getting up and going to work every day takes every ounce every energy you have, finding energy to fight for my rights was impossible.
Autistic adults who do not have a learning disability are 9 times more likely to die from suicide.Autistica
As well as reasons in line with the general population such as difficult life events, feelings of hopelessness and physical or mental health conditions, people with autism also have additional difficulties that could lead to suicidal feelings:
- Delays in receiving a diagnosis–from personal experience, struggling with feeling there’s something “wrong” but not knowing what it is feels incredibly difficult.
- Difficulties accessing support–as with mental health services, poor resourcing means that adults with autism aren’t receiving the support they need.
- High levels of unemployment–it’s very common for people with autism to be over-educated and under-employed, as I am.
People with autism are vulnerable because the way they communicate and interact with other people is different. They have difficulty communicating their thoughts and feelings and may not be able to communicate their suicidal thoughts in a way that someone else can understand. They may not even know that what’s going on inside them is “suicidal thoughts”. I spent years in mental health services being judged for “acting out” because I didn’t have the words to explain my feelings–it now makes sense, why it took me years to find the words.
I need to remember that no matter what label or diagnosis I may have, I’m still me and that will never change. Self-acceptance is an incredibly powerful gift. If you know me, don’t worry about treating me differently. With all our similarities and differences, something we all have in common is that we’re human and we’re all stumbling through life as best we can—this is something genuinely beautiful we can connect over no matter what else is going on in our lives.
A few things you might find interesting:
- You say “autism” to most people and they think of “Rainman”, however the experience of autism is unique to every individual–Anthony Hopkins was diagnosed with autism in his 70s.”
- It is no longer thought to be “an extension of the male brain”–this is out-dated thinking.
- We are not “all on the spectrum” or “all a little bit autistic”–some people may be able to relate to some of the traits but the spectrum is not linear with non-autistic (neuro-typical) at one end and seriously autistic at the other. Check out this video or this comic strip to learn a new way of thinking about the spectrum.
- Functioning labels are unhelpful–you may observe people as high functioning because they can communicate verbally and may have “low” support needs but it is unhelpful to make a judgment about what their life is like behind closed doors.
- Autism isn’t being over diagnosed–some people with autism (especially females) are particularly good at masking therefore are more likely to go undiagnosed. These people are now being recognised.
Thank you so much for reading this! It feels huge to be sharing. It’s hard to open up about something like this; having shared with a few people, I’ve had a very mixed reaction, from blatant discrimination to acceptance and loyalty.
I hope this will be the first of many blogs that walk the cross-over between mental health and autism.