SPOTLIGHT ON:  2-8th April 2024 Autism Awareness Week

What is Autism?

Autism is a neurodiverse condition that affects how you interact with others, communicate, learn, behave and experience the world. It’s a spectrum condition, which means it affects people in different ways. It’s sometimes called autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or a ‘developmental disability’. You may also hear the term ‘Asperger’s syndrome’, but doctors don’t diagnose this anymore. Although autism can be diagnosed at any age, it is described as a “developmental disorder” because symptoms generally appear in the first 2 years of life.  The National Autistic Society note more than 1 in 100 people are on the autism spectrum and there are around 700,000 autistic adults and children in the UK.  It isn’t clear what causes autism; many experts believe it isn’t caused by just one thing. It can affect people in the same family, so researchers think that genes may play a significant and complex role. 

Although it is legally recognised as a disability, contrary to common misconception ASD doesn’t equate to impaired intelligence (only half have a co-occurring intellectual disability).

If you’re autistic you may experience the world differently to non-autistic people. For example, you may interact with people differently (or outwith societal “norms”).  You may have very specific sensory needs that if not attended to can cause distress.  You may need more consistency and routine to cope with day-to-day life.  The way you experience the world as an autistic person will be unique to you and is one (maybe very big) part of your identity.

Diagnosis

Although ASD is present from birth, we are becoming increasingly aware of the number of adults who have not been diagnosed until adulthood. With the National Autistic Society recording over 150,000 people in the UK on the waiting list for an autism assessment, a recent Guardian article (“NHS faces ‘avalanche’ of demand for autism and ADHD services, thinktank warns”) outlines the “avalanche” of those requiring an ASD assessment from a service that is quite simply not equipped to meet this demand.  This has forced many to seek support privately, often when not in a financial position to do so. 

Whilst not always looked for or considered necessary, a diagnosis can help to reframe previous experiences through and educated and compassionate lens, allowing them to potentially process years of shame and feelings of not fitting in. It can support forming an identity as a person with autism, perhaps understanding yourself for the first time. With greater understanding, tools and access to supports that can assist with living the fullest life may be more available. Ultimately, it is up to you whether you decide to seek a diagnosis; indeed some people are happy to remain self-diagnosed and others view it as an unhelpful label.

Autism and Mental Health

Autism isn’t a mental health problem. But if you’re autistic you may be more likely to experience a mental health problem.  The National Autistic Society note 70% of people with ASD experience mental health problems.  You may also experience other conditions such as ADHD, or a learning disability or difficulty.

There is a high co-occurrence between neurodivergence and mental health conditions – such as depression and anxiety.  This is often a consequence of societal attitudes, self-blame, barriers to receiving support and misdiagnosis.  Aired last year, Chris Packham’s two-part documentary series “Inside our Autistic Minds”, it was shockingly stated that intelligent autistic women are 8 times more likely to die by suicide.

My experience supporting ASD clients

I have worked with many neurodivergent adults and children in my career, both as an educator and therapist. Whilst I work with each person as an individual, there are common areas of challenge additional to what has already been outlined.  Clients often talk about not being “believed” by family and friends, with a diagnosis being considered a fashionable excuse for not meeting life’s challenges.  Understandably, this can be incredibly detrimental to a person’s sense of self and does not account for the often very courageous challenges an autistic person has to overcome to be fully seen and understood.

I work with an increasing number of women who have been diagnosed as an adult or are awaiting diagnosis.  ASD has historically had a much higher diagnostic prevalence in males, but more recent research notes this is more likely a 3:1 or 2:1 ratio (male to female).  In my experience, many women I have worked with were diagnosed with depression and/or anxiety before ASD was even considered.  In part, this may be down to women being more socially motivated to “mask”, a process of altering one’s behaviour to fit in with peers.  The upshot of this is often the person masking is left with a sense of being “wrong”, invalidated as a person and utterly exhausted with the effort this requires, often leading to emotional burnout.

How counselling can help

A counsellor who has a good understanding of ASD is undoubtedly helpful, who will understand the common challenges you may face but also appreciate that you are unique, and will appreciate your story and see YOU beyond an ASD diagnosis.  Unless your counsellor is also qualified to make a diagnosis, then they will not be able to formally do so but will be able to explore the traits and experiences that may be presenting challenges in your day to-day life.  You may want to consider how you feel about being autistic – which can bring a range of emotions.  They are all valid and processing them can be supported in therapy.  You may be holding a lot of loss and pain around not being understood or supported previously (including childhood), even by those closest to you.  Without the appropriate supports, you may have been unable to live the life you want, and this can be very painful.  Counselling may support you to work towards developing coping strategies that can help you move forward, as well as accepting autism as part of your identity.  It is my hope that should you wish to consider counselling as a way to better understand yourself as an autistic person, you will also be able to find ways to thrive in life – as we all deserve.

Kirsty 

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