Wednesday 3 May 2023

How a diagnosis of Autism aided my mental health

Oscar shares how learning that he’s autistic has impacted on his mental health recovery.

- Oscar Sharples

I started experiencing symptoms of depression around age 11, and for the next eight years, my life was consumed by the difficulties that these diagnoses presented as I grew through my teenage years.  

But the journey to another diagnosis also made a huge difference: learning that I am autistic has been one of the most transformative things in my mental health recovery.

Before this revelation, I collected a long list of other diagnoses that never fully explained what was happening to me. The diagnoses described my symptoms, and I started on medications that have drastically improved my life, but I was always left asking “Why?”. No one could give me any answers as to why I had amassed these disorders, and these diagnoses still didn’t explain a large part of what I was struggling with. I never fully understood what I was going through, I was never able to find a community to relate to, and it felt like every treatment I tried didn’t work the way it was supposed to.   

Then, in a lockdown-motivated deep-dive into researching autism, I found some answers. I finally found an explanation that linked together all the disparate diagnoses and hardships. I was already familiar with autism, and this wasn’t the first time someone had considered that I was autistic. But it was the first time I truly considered it myself and appreciated how being undiagnosed for so long had impacted my mental health. It became clear that years of not understanding how my brain had developed differently was the root of a lot of the struggles I had been experiencing. The overwhelm and fatigue, mutism, anxiety, issues with relationships, and all the maladaptive ways I had learned to cope, finally made sense. Not only that, but I finally had a community of people that I could relate to, and a long list of ways to cope that were actually designed for brains like mine. 

Discussions of mental health recovery are often focused on mindfulness, exercise, and reaching out to friends and family. And for many people that genuinely works! But as someone in the depths of autistic burnout, these didn’t work for me. I was plagued by such deep hopelessness as it felt like everything that should have helped only made my symptoms worse. 

My autism diagnosis gave me a new direction to take. I started taking care of my sensory needs, investing in special interests, and giving myself strict routines. I started forgiving myself for those traits that I had tried so hard to remove from myself only to find that they were just autism and a part of who I am. I was only able to benefit from medication, therapy, and relationships with others once I understood the fact that I was autistic and began to shape my life around my needs.  I was lucky enough to receive a formal autism diagnosis after around a year of knowing that I was autistic but waiting lists vary and can often take longer than this as NHS diagnostic services are overwhelmed and underfunded. By talking more about my challenges and my recent diagnoses, it ignited a cascade of my family and friends becoming aware of neurodiversity and actually being diagnosed with autism and ADHD themselves. 

But, a diagnosis doesn’t always work in our favour - certain mental health services are not equipped to provide the right support to autistic people who struggle with their mental health and are quick to deny us treatment. For these reasons, I don’t believe my diagnosis aided my recovery. It was simply a confirmation (one I was lucky to have) of knowledge that I had already integrated into my life.

I would encourage anyone who believes themselves to be neurodivergent to allow themselves to be free of expectations of what recovery looks like. It’s okay if certain coping skills, treatments, or therapies don't work for you and we are constantly growing as a society to find inclusive neurodivergent-friendly alternatives to the mainstream therapies. Whether a medical diagnosis is accessible to you right now, or not, there are options:  there is a community for you, and it’s okay if recovery looks different to how you, or others, expect.

Whether you are looking for support for your own mental health at university or supporting a friend, help is available.

My name is Oscar, I’m a second-year undergraduate studying sociology and social anthropology, as well as a youth voice advocate and campaigner. I am passionate about empowering marginalised people, specifically neurodivergent people and those diagnosed with a mental illness. I also create art in my free time! 

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