Unpicking autism and mental health
Rachael, 22, explains how her autism intersects with her mental health, and how the two things are - and aren't - related.
Autism is part of what makes me, me. It gives me my amazing memory, my connection to animals, my brain's unique way of working. But autism has also given me many struggles in life that have affected my mental health.
Growing up and going to school I was bullied a lot, to the extent that I moved schools for a year at the end of primary school. Teachers always seemed more interested in how I'd treated other students than how they'd treated me, and I was forever being punished. At school I had no friends, meaning during group work I would either choose to work on my own because it was easier, or the teacher would put me into a group and tell them they had to work with me. I spent a lot of time alone, which made me feel isolated. The constant bullying also dragged me down, though as I grew up I spoke up less and less as I knew nothing would come of it.
Finally as I entered my teenage years, the bullying mostly stopped. Unfortunately, no one in my family, including myself, knew that female autism and teenage hormones can be a horrible mix. Just as I was able to escape the situation at school, I was suddenly in a world where nothing made sense, nothing I ever did was right, and everything I did wrong was blamed on moodiness rather than misunderstanding. I became withdrawn and began having panic attacks, the start of my real battle with mental health. If I'd had some guidance, some knowledge of what I was going through and why, I think it would have been a lot easier to deal with.
If there was one thing I'd like people to know about autism and mental health it would be that my autism doesn't define me, or my struggles. So often I've been told that what I'm struggling with is my autism, rather than my mental health, which has sometimes stopped me getting the help I need. I wish that more people understood that while autism can cause anxiety-filled situations, the problem isn't because we have autism. We deserve support with our mental health as much as anyone else.
For autistic people, senses can be really important. Two big ones that help me when I'm struggling are sound and touch. Putting headphones on and getting immersed in music always helps me escape the present for a while; usually I end up not wanting to take them out and go back to the real world because of the security it brings. With touch I have a box of important things, often called a self-soothe box. I have lots of things to fidget with, some things like classic fidget toys but other things like a dog harness with buckles to clip or a small toy to squish and squeeze. I also find hugs immensely helpful. With the pandemic obviously this hasn't been an option (my family don't really do hugs), but fortunately I have my dog. She's the sort that was literally born to be hugged, and is quite happy to be scooped up and cuddled at every opportunity. Having her as a friend is also brilliant; I still really struggle with my social skills and have trouble making friends, so having one that follows me around the house even if I'm only going to get a drink, and that I can take out and spend time with, is really valuable to me. I'm never truly alone and I honestly love it!
If you're autistic and struggling I think a really important parting message is that you're not alone. I know I can often feel like the odd one out in life and like I'm the only one, but it's not true at all. Find people (or animals) in your life who appreciate you for who you are, because, though a little different sometimes, we're all just as special in our own way.
Author: Rachael, 22
Where to get help
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