Posted in Advocacy, autism

Ugly Autism

As always when talking about autism, I want to remind everyone that autism is not a mental illness. It is a type of neurodivergency; this basically means as autistic people our brains think and process information differently to the ‘norm’ that is expected in the world. However autistic people are more likely to suffer with mental health issues, largely in part to the fact that we are living in a world that isn’t built for us. I’ve talked about an overview on autism acceptance before – which you can read here – but today I wanted to discuss the complexity of an autistic experience and how as more people get involved in autism acceptance and advocacy (which is an amazing thing that I am thrilled to see!) we must keep in mind the spectrum of experiences and therefore the complexity of the necessary solutions.

Sometimes my autism isn’t pretty. I can still fit into the world as I am expected to, but that comes with effort which often goes unseen or under-appreciated. I can do this reasonably easily compared to some, and this is in part due to other aspects of my identity (such as my race) and the supportive people who surround me. You can view this as lucky or not; I think in a way it is unfortunate. It’s unfortunate that I have to manipulate the very essence of the way I think in order to fit into systems I often have no desire to engage with in the first place. I think it’s unfortunate that we can even frame this as ‘lucky’ because that just points to how painful life is for those who can’t, and how this pain is worse than the struggle of concealing one’s true self. While I do frame my autism as my superpower sometimes, I do not believe in the rhetoric that it is a blessing – this also lends to the rhetoric that it could be a tragedy when in reality it just is what it is. I frame it as my superpower personally because that helps me cope with its challenges, and because being autistic is so central to my identity that embracing it in a society that often doesn’t is radically self loving for me. My mental health issues are not the same as me being autistic, but since autism affects how I process everything they are of course intertwined and I have no doubt that being autistic in a world that isn’t has been part of how bad my mental illness has gotten and how confusing it has been to understand. In particular I think my early experiences of mental health issues (before they developed into a clear mood disorder of their own) were heavily intertwined with my autistic experience.

So why am I telling you all this? To give you the smallest cross-section of just one person’s autistic experience, and the complexity of even trying to begin to comprehend that experience, so that you might begin to grasp how neurodivergency and the way it is approached by society is not something that can be easily defined or explained. And that is essentially the point of this post. There are more conversations happening around neurodivergency now then ever before – and that is a joyous and wonderful thing! But these conversations cannot be dulled down to a single Instagram post, or a single profile of autism – which threatens to be the most easily palatable representation of autism. Think of how mental health awareness is sometimes boiled down to self-care, bosses offering a free yoga class to their employees, and pity for the people who can’t socialise but can still just about get through a days work. This kind of awareness fails to recognise or help those suffering in ways that are uncomfortable for us to hear about, or impede how they might function in the systems they are expected to – it doesn’t help the person who has to take a year off work, nor the person who has to call an ambulance because they are convinced they’re dying, nor the person who lashes out at others with angry words because they can’t deal with their inner turmoil. I don’t want a similar pattern to happen as we see more autistic and neurodivergent awareness and representation. We can’t afford to ignore the messy parts of autism that might make some people a bit uncomfortable, or the fact that many neurodivergent people can’t (or don’t want to) participate in traditional capitalist structures that aren’t set up to support them. As there is more awareness, we must show the full array of autistic experiences – from all races, with comorbid mental health issues, different traits, physically disabled autistic people etc etc.

Autism and neurodivergency can’t become something trendy, like a new kind of personality test for CEOs to try and enhance their team and their diversity. They just need to become tolerated, known, understood. Because neurodivergency isn’t always palatable; sometimes it’s messy and it’s different and we have to make sure we don’t run the risk of autistic and adhd people who can more easily fit into the societal expectations (and who want to, because not everyone does) getting ahead and heralded as some liberal caring symbol for employers – for example, while others continue to be ignored. 

Posted in Advocacy, autism, Personal Growth

Autism is My Superpower

I’m autistic. Having autism in a neurotypical world is not easy because generally the world isn’t built for us and proves to be confusing, but for anyone struggling with their diagnosis/ symptoms (and any neurotypicals unclear on the individual nature of autism) I want to make it clear that having autism isn’t a defect. Nor is it a mental illness. In fact, it can be a bonus in many situations, and when accommodated to autistic people can provide new perspectives and skills to the benefit of others. I, for one, like to think that my autism is my superpower, and this is my personal experience:

I learnt to ‘mask’ my autism – consciously learning how to act and react from other people’s behaviour; having to put effort into learning social rules that came naturally to others. Masking can be exhausting, so I know it’s essential that I take breaks and find time for myself, but like a superhero in a costume, it can also be powerful. How? Because my passion is theatre, and when I become the character I act out on stage, I am easily able to slip myself into their shoes – I know how they would behave and why. It comes effortless to me. The misconception is that autistic people are like robots and can only slot into certain careers. In reality we are varied like everyone else, and our uniqueness is incredible. We exist in every identity there is: every race, every gender, every sexuality, as parents and children. Our variety is often overlooked.

My increased sensory input is a key feature of my superpower. I observe more, hear more, taste more. This translates to a benefit in so many situations. You don’t know your train time? Don’t worry, I glanced at the board quickly and noticed it. You’re lost and don’t know the way back? Don’t worry, I spotted landmarks along the way, I know where we’re going. You’re trying to remember where you put your glasses? Never fear, I spotted them. And if we’re thinking about sound and music, my greater sensory input comes to my aid once again – that along with my ability to spot patterns as part of my autism, and my synaesthesia (which is far more prevalent among autistic people than the general population). When I hear a piece of music, it is alive to me. It is full of colour, I hear every layer of the rich instruments, and I can see the patterns the notes are forming. If I want to then play that piece on piano, I need only translate the pattern onto the keys – give me a bit of time and I can paint the picture I hear all by myself. This is my superpower. 

Not to mention the fact that I am quite simply neurodivergent. I think experience the world in a way that is different to ‘the norm’, or rather the majority. Why is this a feature of my superpower? Because I can come up with new ideas and perspectives that may have been overlooked or not thought of at all. In certain situations this can become the way I overcome challenges or help others to do so; in the right combination my divergent thinking could be innovative. Us autistic people have a place in this society, no matter where our traits lie on the spectrum, and if we are accommodated we may even be able to offer solutions, certainly valuable contributions at the least. 

Like a superhero may have an emblem, sign, or symbol, I have my stims. By stims I mean self stimulatory behaviour. Why is this so amazing? Well, it indicates to me how I am feeling (different stims, like tapping my fingers on my palm or twirling my ankle, correspond to different moods). Not only this, but should I start to feel an uncomfortable emotion, stimming freely can help calm me down. There’s a lot of people out there that don’t have something so simple in their toolbox, so this is powerful to me. It’s also such a pure form of expression, and can even help me release my creativity, tapping into my flow. Furthermore, my stims evolve over time – hitting my head morphed into covering my head and now I need only put on a hat to feel at home. How awesome is that? 

This barely scratches the surface of my positive autistic experience, but I hope it has enlightened you. Autism is not a bad thing – quite the opposite. And the beautiful part of it is that no one autistic person’s experience is the same as another. We have a place in this world, and we’re not going anywhere, so the more that neurotypicals begin to understand and help us meet our needs, the more we can give.

Posted in Advocacy, Mental Health

Reducing Mental Health Stigma

I have been fortunate that I have not personally come up against too much explicit stigma throughout my mental health journey so far – and when I have, there has been an incredible amount of supportive people surrounding me. However just a quick trip online reveals how much stigma still exists around mental health, and backhanded comments such as ‘just snap out of it’ or ‘you don’t look mentally ill’ are far too common. Sometimes I am afraid that I will be left out from job opportunities or educational experiences in the future because of my struggles. And so it is important to me, for my benefit and the benefit others, that I do what I can to reduce stigma in my advocacy. For me that means sharing my story, educating myself (especially on the intersectionality of mental health in society), and being open in conversation. Here is my quick guide on what anyone can do to reduce mental health stigma.

  1. Change your language

It might insignificant, but language holds power. What I mean by this is avoiding calling someone who is mentally ill ‘crazy’, and instead validating their experience. Another way to adapt our language is to avoiding using conditions as adjectives. For example instead of saying ‘I’m a bit OCD’ say ‘I like things to be tidy’, and instead of saying ‘She’s so bipolar’ say ‘she’s a bit moody today’. Changing our language can signify a shift in how we approach topics, and encourages us to be more mindful of how what we say can impact someone.

2. Educate yourself

Education is a powerful tool. Educate yourself on the warning signs of mental health issues, different conditions, and the reality of the lived experience of those struggling with their mental health (they’re not the dangerous, horrible people that some media may lead us to believe they are). And educate yourself on the fact that everyone has mental health, and everyone deserves to look after it. Furthermore, educate yourself on how mental health is intersectional with identity and social issues. Here is a post from my instagram that has some basic statistics on this.

3. Listen

When someone speaks up about their mental health, listen. Actively listen. Do not try to shut them down or tell them to toughen up. Listen to what they need and what they are experiencing.

4. Speak up

If someone says something ignorant in a conversation about mental health, try to gently educate them. If you are able to, speak up in your workplace or school to ask for better training for employees on mental health, and policies to support employees/ students.

5. Speak to power

Sign petitions that lobby for better and more inclusive mental health support nationwide and in our communities. Write an email to your MP (or other political representative) about improving mental health systems.

8. Support mental health charities

Whether this is by donating, sharing their campaigns, or engaging with their programmes, their work is so important.

7. Carry openness in your life

Include people in your workplace; continue to invite friends with mental health issues even if they don’t always come along. Treat everyone with dignity and respect, and offer them encouragement in their day to day life and when seeking professional support. Never blame anyone for their struggles. Be kind.

Thank you for taking the time to read this post. All of my love and support to you today,

Millie xx