Autism And Mental Health - Getting personal

April 27, 2019
Imagine being 16 and being told that you will and have been living with a learning disability all your life. You never knew you had or even suspected. You learn that the disability had been colouring your every interaction you had made with the world. From the way you perceive sensory things like sounds and lights to the way you communicate with others.
This was the position I was put in at age 16, almost 2 years exactly ago. Not only now did I have: depression, anxiety, an eating disorder and dyslexia. But now too had autism. I was confused. 

Autism otherwise more known as ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) is a developmental disability, just like dyslexia and it  exists on a spectrum. It isn't experienced by any two people the same. Each individual is affected differently by social interaction, communication and the way they receive sensory input. Autism isn't something that can be cured or treated and it can't be developed by vaccinations (like some once thought) but it's the way the brain develops, the condition is from birth. Autism is thought to affect 1 in 100 people, though it is now believed that it may be more common than that. It is now being recognised how underdiagnosed autism is, especially amongst young girls and women. 

Why is it that it is underdiagnosed in girls and women? 

Well, there are two reasons: first that the diagnostic tools are more tailored towards autistic boys and it is now recommended that autism assessments should be adapted for girls and women as it is now recognised that they might not fit the 'typical' profile of autism. Girls and women are more likely to 'mask' their symptoms for example social difficulties as they teach themselves how to socialise.

It is fortunate that I was ever diagnosed because I fall into the bracket where I 'mask' my symptoms of having autism. I never actively looked for a diagnosis, which some fight for years to get. It only came about for me as a doctor I was working with at the time picked up on the small things about my life/ behaviours, which I never knew were autistic traits. 

I never realised that my struggle with being overwhelmed in loud or bright environments, my repetitive behaviours, my obsessive interests (which helped create and the rigid structure I liked and the breakdowns I had if I thought I was going to be late for anything or plans changed last minute. Little did I or my family know these were all clear signs I was autistic. 

It took me a year to come to terms with my diagnosis. Why, I'm not sure. I just brushed it under the carpet and 'didn't want to realise' that actually my difficulties growing up weren't personal failings to me, but a symptom of my condition. Now, accepting my diagnosis was a step towards me understanding myself more. 

Autism by itself isn't a mental illness. However people who are autistic are more likely to experience a mental illnesses than the general population. In particular they are more likely to have: anxiety, depression, OCD and eating disorders. A combonation of biological differences in the structure/ makeup of the brain of an autistic person, communication difficulties, social differences and low self esteem often are contributing factors in the poor mental health of autistic people. 

Frustratingly, there are very few, if not no mental health services providing specialist support for autistic people in the UK and many of us struggle to get the appropriate levels of support. Personally, I find there is lack of knowledge by mental health professionals around autism though some have been great. However, I am lucky to have a team who try and understand my autism. 

For some they end up with no support and go without any diagnosis and this isn't good enough. We need to make sure that everyone with autism have access to a formal diagnosis and should they want/ need it the appropriate services which are easily accessible. 

If you have autism just like me, please don't be afraid to tell people you have autism. I don't use my autism as an excuse, but it is helpful to let people know as at times situations can arise where someone would need to know how to support me in the correct manner and not get frustrated or angry at me. It can be so frustrating to me when people don't understand autism but usually people are very helpful and try and understand as much as they possibly can. 


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