If there is one piece of knowledge that has to be taken away, it is that autism and mental health conditions are by no means one and the same thing. For many autistic people who are living with the difficulties that come as part of mental illness, too often it is assumed that how autism may present itself is the cause behind mood or behavioural changes. From the errors which can result in overlooking these health concerns has directly made suicide a leading cause of autistic people dying, with autistic adults at least nine times more likely to die from this reason compared to the general population.
At the recent Mental Health Takeover day, a workshop looked deeper into the state of vulnerable (or oppressed) groups within our society who have to endure mental health problems. Within that, disabled people broadly too often experience barriers to access essential support to treat their mental health. But as an autistic person who is familiar with what hardship can occur for those in the spectrum, it is important to develop support from the needs of an individual and other related conditions.
As reported in findings by the Westminster Autism Commission on healthcare last year, autistic individuals are misdiagnosed because of the lack of understanding that professionals have. It’s quite common that ‘some people do not receive a secondary diagnosis of a mental health issue because their symptoms are dismissed as being ‘part of autism’.
It should not be underestimated how serious the poor mental health provision in many parts of the country can harm young autistic people. Whether it is the lack of resources in schools, finding timely support, or having a distrust of health services already, having poor mental health can almost become a way of acceptance for this group of people. Crucially, what is needed in most of these settings is some form of basic training and awareness. This does not require a specialist level of expertise, but for teachers and clinical staff to feel they know enough to help an autistic person to the right pathway of support.
From research I have been working on with Ambitious about Autism, as part of our ‘Know Your Normal’ campaign, we have been in the process of structuring a report that reveals the extent of the struggle which young people have when it comes to locating good support. An immediately obvious trend, like so many who are non-autistic, is the stigma and sense of being let down by services. What we want to ensure is that while someone may become ill, and this is correlated with autism, it is not something that should just be tolerated and left to worsen as time goes on. The sooner that all figures who are part of that person’s life - from doctors, parents and teachers - are informed to see the difference and help much sooner, the better chance of reversing the damage later on.