autism and mental health
a condition marked by differences in social communication, repetitive behaviours and sensory processing, often contributing to isolation, anxiety and depression
Content Warning: Quoting of slur is written for informational purposes.
Autism influences how people engage with the world and communicate, presenting differences that affect their social skills, sensory processing and behaviour. You might be familiar with the diagnostic name Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC), but the following article will refer to it as ‘autism’.
Autism extends beyond a diagnostic label; it’s a spectrum of diverse experiences. Autistic people bring a unique approach to social interactions and their sensory experiences hold distinct qualities. Recent reports show that more than 1 in 100 Scottish people are autistic.
While autism is not a mental illness, autistic people have a higher risk of experiencing mental ill health and higher rates of suicides. It’s estimated that 70 to 80% of autistic people experience or have experienced mental health problems in their lifetime.
myths about autism and mental health
autistic people should just use coping strategies
What works as a coping strategy for one may not for another. The best thing in any situation where an autistic person is struggling mentally is to be patient and offer a choice of how the person wants to communicate.
autistic people are exceptionally skilled
Some people on the spectrum may possess exceptional skills or talents, such as in music or mathematics. But not everyone with autism has these abilities. Each person’s experience is unique.
Autistic people may express empathy differently but they are fully capable of experiencing and demonstrating empathy. However, understanding and expressing emotions may look different for them.
Autism is a condition with no single known cause. It is believed to result from a combination of genetic and environmental factors, but there is no known specific cause for autism.
It’s important to note that autism is not caused by bad parenting, trauma, vaccines and other bizarre things you might have read on the internet or heard from your friends. Ongoing research is focused on understanding the intricate interactions that lead to the onset of autism.
Whilst the symptoms of autism can vary, they are typically grouped into three core areas: social communication difficulties, restricted and repetitive behaviours and sensory processing issues.
Social communication difficulties
Autistic people often have a hard time making and keeping friends. They might find it tough to have back-and-forth conversations, read body language and understand social rules. They might not look people in the eye, use their hands a lot or prefer to be alone. All of this can make them feel left out and lonely.
Restricted and repetitive behaviours
Autistic people might do the same movements or say the same things repeatedly, stick to strict routines or become really interested in specific topics or objects. Some autistic people may not like change and prefer predictability in their environment. These behaviours can help them feel better but can also make it harder for them to do things they need to do and be accepted by others.
Autistic people may be hypersensitive to specific textures of clothing, loud noises or bright lights, leading to sensory overload and discomfort. On the other hand, some people might not react enough to certain sensory stimulation and might prefer deep pressure, intense touch sensations or seek out strong flavours and textures in food.
Diagnosing someone with autism can be quite tricky. This is because autism presents itself differently depending on the person. For instance, research has shown that more men are diagnosed with autism in comparison to women. This could be because previous studies surrounding autism have primarily focused on men. For autistic women, their way of communicating will look different from men, which can lead to misdiagnosis.
For example, one way they can differ is through social masking. Social masking refers to the effort people put into concealing their difficulties in social situations, often by imitating or copying others to appear more ‘typical’. Studies have shown that women are more likely to mask, which is why they are less likely to be diagnosed. In the case of children, they can be diagnosed with autism as early as age two, but not everyone receives an early diagnosis.
In Scotland, diagnosis can be difficult to get due to waiting times. It might look different depending on your location, but it usually involves getting a GP appointment and then taking an autism assessment. You can read more about this on the NHS website or the National Autistic Society website. If you (or someone you know) would like to be assessed for autism, it’s important to speak with your GP directly.
How does being autistic affect my mental health?
Unlike depression or PTSD, autism is not a disorder. As such, there is no ‘cure’ or ‘therapy’ for autism. However, recent studies do show that autistic people are more likely to have anxiety and suicidal thoughts. For instance, studies have shown that autistic people are four times more likely to experience depression in their lifetime compared to the general public.
It’s also important to acknowledge that autistic people are more likely to experience burnout in traditional work settings due to their heightened sensitivities. The sensory demands of the workplace can be overwhelming, leading to stress and exhaustion. This can affect the way that they interact with their coworkers or managers, further making it difficult for them to progress in their careers.
This has nothing to do with their autism diagnosis but because of the misunderstandings and experiences that autistic people face. This could range from bullying to social isolation, which often leads to mental health conditions. Therefore, it is important that we take active steps in supporting the autistic community and making sure they are included, respected and given the opportunities they need to thrive.
How can I support the autistic community?
Mind your language
One way that we can support the autistic community is through the language that we use. Here are some things to note about discussing about autism and autistic people:
- Avoid calling it a ‘disorder.’: You might be familiar with the term Autistic Spectrum Disorder or ASD. However, it is important to destigmatise the idea that autism is a disorder. Recent clinicians have been shifting to using more inclusive language. Instead, you can say ‘autism’.
- Say ‘autistic person’ instead of ‘person with autism.’: Studies show that autistic people prefer ‘autistic person/people’ as it is less patronising and discriminatory. However, it is important to ask how people like to be referred to, just like with names or pronouns.
- Don’t say ‘high-functioning,’ ‘low-functioning,’ ‘severe,’ ‘moderate,’ ‘mild’ + autism: There are no set levels when it comes to autism. Some people might struggle with communication, whilst someone else might have difficulty focusing. Instead, focus on the specific needs of the autistic person.
- Don’t say that someone looks autistic: Autism does not have a look, nor can anyone look autistic. Autistic people look different in the same way that people around the world look different.
- Don’t say the r-word: Words like ‘retard’ are slurs. Remember to be sensitive when it comes to language surrounding autism.
It’s important to know that, even though autism itself is not called a disorder, autistic people might have mental health conditions. If you or someone you know shows signs of these conditions, getting a diagnosis is a key step to finding support. This helps in understanding and addressing any challenges for better wellbeing, such as providing additional support in school or the workplace.
For instance, there are certain ways you can support the autistic community at work. This could include giving reasonable adjustments, such as allowing them additional flexibility in their work schedule or providing a quiet and designated workspace to accommodate sensory sensitivities.
Promoting clear communication channels (for example, being direct about what’s expected of you) can contribute significantly to their success. Establishing mentorship programmes or support networks within the organisation can help provide guidance and assistance, fostering a sense of belonging and professional growth.
Stand up for others
Taking a proactive stance in support of individuals is critical. Championing the rights and dignity of others is a responsibility we all share. This involves not only recognising neurodiversity but also actively advocating for an inclusive society where everyone is treated with respect and understanding.
Autistic people are protected under the Equality Act 2010, which means that discrimination against autistic people is illegal. If you or anyone you know is experiencing discrimination based on autism, it is essential to be aware of you or their rights and act.
Our Advice and Support Service is open Monday to Friday, 10 am to 4 pm, where advisers can signpost you to local support that most fits your needs, including our Change Mental Health services. We offer initial advice on money worries and help to deal with emergencies.
Contact 0808 8010 515, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or fill out the enquiry form on the Advice and Support Service page.