How my autism diagnosis helped my mental health treatment
I first started getting help for my mental health when I was 13, but after years of therapy and trying many different medications, my mental health hadn’t really improved and nobody quite knew what to do with me.
I’d picked up many different diagnoses including bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and personality disorders, but none of them quite fitted. I was finally diagnosed with autism on 23 September 2015 at around 4.03pm, and it felt like everything suddenly made sense. I’ve been autistic all my life, but it took until I was 19 for anybody to suggest that I could be on the spectrum.
My diagnosis came about when I was doing group therapy in hospital. A particularly observant therapist noticed my interactions with other patients and listened to the things I was saying and advised me to get tested for Asperger's Syndrome. Part of the reason my autism was missed for so long was because I put a lot of effort into masking my difficulties, which was exhausting and probably contributed to me becoming unwell.
Part of the reason my autism was missed for so long was because I put a lot of effort into masking my difficulties.
The link between autism and mental health
Although autism itself is not a mental health condition, many autistic people such as myself also suffer from mental health conditions. Ambitious About Autism recently found that four out of five young people with autism have experienced mental health issues, a figure which is extremely high but which unfortunately doesn’t surprise me.
Many autistic people such as myself experience bullying, but I couldn’t understand why I was being targeted and assumed it was my fault, meaning that my self-esteem plummeted and my mental health got worse. I now know that bullying is never the fault of the victim, and that I was likely being targeted because my autism made me vulnerable.
At school, I struggled to know what to do between lessons and at lunch, and found it difficult to make friends. I also found the lunch hall quite overwhelming as there was always a lot of noise and the lights were very bright, so I often got anxious and upset. I now recognise that these social difficulties and sensory issues were traits of Asperger Syndrome, but I wasn’t diagnosed at the time. I think if I’d been diagnosed earlier, I would have been able to learn strategies to use at school to manage social situations and sensory overload, but back then I didn’t even know what autism was.
At school, I struggled to know what to do between lessons and at lunch, and found it difficult to make friends.
The right support
Being diagnosed later in life also meant that I went through several years of relatively unsuccessful treatment for my mental health problems.
Ambitious About Autism found that two thirds of autistic young people had little to no confidence that they would get the help they needed for their mental health, a figure which reflects the lack of knowledge about autism amongst some mental health professionals and a serious lack of resources specifically for autistic people. As I discovered, the therapies used to help non-autistic people are often not very helpful for those of us on the spectrum, so it’s vital that we’re able to access specialist mental health services if we need them, and for mental health professionals to have a better understanding of what autism is so that they can spot when a patient might be on the autism spectrum.
I’ve been extremely lucky to have found a therapist who knows about autism and how to adapt therapy to fit my needs, and with that support I’ve made incredible progress in improving my mental health. This shows how with the right support, autistic people can recover from mental health problems, but it’s vital that there are specialist services in place to support us.
With the right support, autistic people can recover from mental health problems, but it’s vital that there are specialist services in place to support us.
Autistic people can do incredible things
Although autistic people often experience mental health problems, it doesn’t have to be that way. Being on the autism spectrum has many advantages for me, such as being able to hyperfocus on tasks, solve problems in unique ways, having an excellent memory and enjoying intense special interests but in order to be the best version of myself, I need to be able to manage my mental health effectively.
For autistic young people, it’s crucial that mental health professionals are aware of how autism affects us and are able to refer us to specialist services, because with the right support, autistic people can do incredible things.