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.
I still struggle greatly everyday with my mental health, and that can be enormously frustrating. It can also make it feel like the smaller things I can do to help myself are useless in the long run. However, I know this isn’t true. I know that when I add up all these little bits and pieces (like writing and walking for example) they do make an impact. And, yes, sometimes it’s a very small impact – but I know how much more hopeless and desperate it would make me feel if it wasn’t there. One of my favourite things I ever did to help myself manage my mental health was to make a ‘Happy Kit’ (as I call it). The great thing is that it’s totally unique to me and my needs, so I thought I’d share a little guide on how to make your own Happy Kit to suit you. I really love mine and I would recommend that everyone make something like this, because we all have mental health and challenging days – or simply just bored days. In my case it has loads of stuff in it to help me manage my anxiety, depressive episodes, sensory overload, and boredom; I keep it in my school bag at all times. So here’s how I made it:
My ‘Happy Kit’ is almost like a summary of all the tools I’ve gathered over the years to help myself. However, before you decide on the specifics of what will be in your kit, decide how you want to use it. Do you want it to be a box full of stuff that will keep you entertained when you’re bored at home? Or something you can always keep in your bag? Or maybe it’s something you use to help you wind down in the evenings? Once you’ve decided this, you can then choose what container you’re going to keep it in. I keep mine in a black makeup bag with sparkles sewn into it – I like the texture and the way it catches the light. You might choose to keep yours in a box or on a shelf in your bathroom cupboard for example.
Before I go further, here’s an overview of the contents in my own Happy Kit to give you an idea of what to keep in mind when making yours:
Fiddle toys – they help me focus in lessons, ease anxiety, and remain grounded during sensory overload. I have several different kinds with different textures
A list of distractions – I have so many different activities on this list! And they range from things that are easier for me to do when I’m feeling low, more creative for when I’m hyper, and calming for when I’m anxious. I have this list because I’m learning that if I can direct myself towards an activity, it eases how I feel, but sometimes I can’t think of anything to do, so I refer to the list. And if I still can’t decide, I can always just pick a random number and do that activity!
Gemstones – I’m not entirely sure if I believe gemstones work, but I do believe they can act as a placebo at least, and I find it very calming to hold them, if only as a way to remind me to try and bring myself back into a more neutral place mentally
Items with sentimental value – To remind me of good times and the love of people in my life
A toolkit list – This is a list with easy to follow steps that summarise particular tools I’ve learnt to help me manage and think more clearly, like how to accept emotions and reduce judgements
Sweets/ mints – Sometimes I have Rescue Remedy sweets in my kit and sometimes I just have normal sweets, but something that tastes nice and I can suck on is just pleasant and calming for me
Something smelly – not smelly in a bad way! Just something that smells pleasing to me, like lavender or essential oils or a mini perfume. Sometimes because they’re calming scents, and sometimes just because they make me feel fancy. As someone who’s autistic smells can also help when I am sensory seeking (kind of the opposite to sensory overload/ avoiding such) in a really simple way
Obviously all of that is specific to what helps me, but it might give you some ideas. If you like fiddle toys or nice textures then put something like that into your kit. For me they represent something calming and soothing to me that I can also use to engage my brain. I’d definitely recommend you to make a list of distractions/ activities regardless of what you’re using your Happy Kit for – you can tailor it to yourself but it comes in really useful in lots of situations. For example if you are making your kit to help you relax in the evening it could have a a list of ten things that you can do to help you relax and you could pick one each evening. If it’s to calm anxiety, then put down a few distractions and a few activities that might calm your anxiety – like breathing exercises, colouring, or reading a book perhaps. And if you’re making your kit for when you are bored then throw down a load of different activities, and make sure to include some you might not usually do (for example, writing a song even if you’re not musical). My list includes a mixture of all these different things! Here’s some of the things on my list:
I hope this has inspired you to think about making a little toolkit for yourself (or even for someone else). Please feel free to ask for any advice or share your ideas for your own happy kit. Sending all my love and support. Xx