Today we’ll be discussing the link between Autism and mental health. We’re going to take a look at some statistics, discuss possible coping strategies and common triggers for autistic people.
At first glance
At first glance, autism and mental health problems seem to have nothing in common – one concerns social skills, and the other concerns a person’s emotional state. The fact of the matter is that there is much crossover between these two areas because Autism can severely impact a person’s life, making it difficult to manage day-to-day activities as well as manage feelings such as depression or anxiety. This article will explain what those difficulties are exactly.
It’s important to remember that everyone experiences their mental health differently, but it is also important not to assume that just because someone has Autism that it means that they cannot experience mental health issues. Autism is a spectrum disorder, and as such, everyone with the condition will have a different experience of it – much like how people with red hair are not all exactly the same, despite having hair that is a similar color.
The main issue with assuming that autistic people can’t suffer from mental illness stems from the way that many people view those who live on the autistic spectrum as being ‘disabled’ or ‘lesser.’ According to research from 2012 from Scottish Autism, only 22% of parents thought of their child as having a mental health problem even though 41% had been diagnosed. In addition to this, 33% of adults surveyed said they would be unhappy if their child was mentally disabled even though they do not have Autism. This is problematic because it shows that many people assume autistic individuals are somehow less human when in fact, many of them feel the same emotions as everyone else – sometimes more strongly due to things like sensory issues when the person tries to express themselves or to have difficulty with managing various situations.
The other issue surrounding mental health concerns is the fact that Autism impacts daily life in a number of ways which can increase stress levels and make interacting with others difficult, especially if the individual also has learning disabilities. Autistic people may find social functions confusing or uncomfortable or spend too much time trying to process these feelings instead of dealing with them. It’s important to remember that this doesn’t mean that the person does not want to attend these events or that they cannot function as well as everyone else – it simply means that the social situations take more work. This may be exacerbated by sensory sensitivity and can lead to people becoming overwhelmed very easily, which, as you can imagine, is incredibly distressing for them.
Another way in which Autism impacts mental health concerns is that the constant struggle to fit into a world where many things are done differently than how an autistic individual may like can leave them feeling exhausted and misunderstood. Pacing (something which we’ll cover later) can make Autistic individuals seem withdrawn or shorter tempered because of how much effort this takes, but again, this has nothing to do with wanting to be left alone – many autistic people love spending time with others or doing activities which they enjoy. Instead, this is about having to expend so much mental energy on things like different noises and social situations that the individual feels like they’re constantly running uphill. This can lead to feelings of worthlessness, anxiety, and depression as it becomes harder for that person to function in the world around them.
Pacing (or stimming) is something that autistic individuals do because it helps calm their systems down when they are feeling overwhelmed by sensory experiences or emotional overload – which includes happiness/excitement as well as sadness/frustration. It’s important not to tell an autistic person not to pace or stim because these activities are how they deal with their emotions, and you would never try to tell a non-autistic person not to do the same. Instead, focus on helping them through their current issue so that they can calm down and then find something else to occupy them until they are able to function normally again – this might be suggesting they read something calming or play with their favorite toy for a while.
Another thing that can impact mental health concerns is hyperfocus. Hyperfocus occurs when the individual is unable to differentiate between important things and unnecessary ones – this means that they may end up spending hours trying to complete one task because everything else has faded into the distance. This makes it very difficult for an Autistic child or adult who lives at home as there still needs to be routine in order for life to run smoothly, but they also need to complete tasks that are important for their self-care. This means that the parent or carer may end up having to focus more on household changes rather than emotional support as they try to encourage the child to stop hyper-focusing. This is not their fault – they simply need time to calm down before they can function normally again or deal with issues of anxiety/depression, so it’s important for everyone around them to remember this.
Finally, let’s talk about meltdowns.
Meltdowns look different depending on who has them and how severe/complex an Autistic individual’s feelings are, but one thing which most have in common is that it isn’t under anyone’s control. A meltdown can be triggered by something seemingly small to the outside observer, but it doesn’t mean that they are trying to make a scene. It’s important to remember that Autistic individuals cannot simply stop having meltdowns because any interruption in their routine can interfere with all of their coping mechanisms and lead to them spending even longer processing everything which is going on around them – this is both mentally and physically draining for them, so you need to be very delicate when dealing with these situations.
During a meltdown, an Autistic person may become distressed and try and isolate themselves from the world around them, so it’s important not to crowd or touch them during this time – if your child goes into a corner away from everyone else, give them space while you work out how best to proceed. If they’re self-injuring or self-harming, make sure to keep a close eye on them and take the self-harm away before they can hurt themselves. Other ways in which you can help include holding a soft toy for them to cuddle/play with while explaining that it’s okay and they’ll be able to calm down soon – it may also be helpful to remove any triggers from the area if possible until they have calmed down. This will look different depending on who is having a meltdown, how severe it is, and what has caused it, but the general idea is the same: Allow them to have their space when things get too much so that they can calm down without being disturbed by anyone around them.
You needn’t be there for them the entire time they are having a meltdown but keep an eye on your surroundings so that you know what is happening to them. If they need medication, you can give it to them once they’ve calmed down or asked someone else to do it for you (depending on whether or not you’re comfortable with this). Once the individual has calmed down and is able to communicate again, talk about what happened during their meltdown – even if none of it makes sense, try and figure out why they reacted like that. Try looking into things that may have triggered it (you shouldn’t push too hard, but asking “What would make you feel better?” might be enough) and refer back to these when similar situations arise in the future. As long as you follow the steps I’ve outlined here, you should be able to work out how best to assist your child, which will hopefully reduce the frequency of meltdowns.
In conclusion, remember that those with Autism deserve as much respect as anyone else regardless of their ability to socialize or communicate with people – it’s also important not to feel guilty for being unable to understand everything they have tried to tell you and instead focus on what you do know: They are a person who deserves unconditional love and support regardless of whether or not they live up to your expectations.
Remember these points when communicating with Autistics, and you’ll find it easier than ever before – any extra effort is worth making if it means that Autistic individuals can get the emotional support they need to come out of their shells and interact with the world around them.