(Beginning note: this post uses a lot of “we” and “us”. I must qualify that with my usual disclaimer that I’m not trying to speak for everyone on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum. I’m merely aggregating and distilling the information I’ve gathered through my own experiences, coupled with what I know of that of many Aspergian/autistic people I have personally interacted with or read thoughts from. Moving on…)
My answer to the $64,000 question posed in the title of the post is…
Yes and no.
True to predictable form, I’ll explain.
It’s not a mental disorder, that much we do know. It doesn’t arise from bad parenting, refrigerator motherhood, abandonment, antisocial-ability (merge words), schizophrenia, oppositional defiance, obsessive compulsion, or anything remotely like that.
The way I see it, it has its roots in good old-fashioned neurology. Where anatomical wiring meets up with physiological function, and does a three-way cha-cha with the frolicking interplay between genetics and one’s environment–and probably the preconception or in utero environment at that.
So I would argue that no: on its face, considering its definition alone, the Asperger’s/autism spectrum is not in itself a garden-variety mental health issue.
Well, it’s not a garden-variety mental health problem, anyway.
I would say, however, that during (or throughout) the course of one’s life, it can become a mental health issue. That is to say that various traits and their effect on the Aspergian/autist themselves can impact one’s mental health status.
This can take several forms (these are merely examples, not necessarily intended to be an exhaustive list).
People on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum are said to be more likely to experience communication issues.
That doesn’t mean that we have “problems” with communication, as so many loudmouthed “experts” would like us to believe. It simply means different communication methods, forms, rules, norms, and styles.
Among the online community, we frequently communicate amongst each other just fine, even without the purported benefits of nonverbal cues. We send and receive messages perfectly competently, possibly even better than many members of the neurotypical online community, simply because they have developed to be more reliant on the nonverbal context, whereas we, generally speaking, have not.
The ugly head rears itself at times when the two neurotypes crisscross. Since the communication styles differ so significantly (again, in general), the atmosphere is ripe for misunderstanding, misinterpretation, and a different code of social norms that ultimately result in faux pas attributed exclusively to our side, only because we’re so drastically outnumbered.
This can create an ugly snarl of emotions, a Pandora’s Treasure Box of embarrassment, self-consciousness, shame, loneliness, and in many cases, depression and isolation.
Another way in which being on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum can become a mental health issue involves the extreme distress and discomfort many of us often experience when we find ourselves in an environment that overwhelms our senses.
This can stir up a tortuous cloud of irritation, desperation, helplessness, powerlessness, and even physical pain for some. If this happens often enough, the above-mentioned isolation can set in, providing a second possible route to depression.
And then there’s the mind blindness. An Asperger’s/autism neurotype can’t usually hope to understand the operating system of the nonautistic world. But that’s only half of the equation; top secret: they can’t see the world through our lens, either. Of course, due to the outnumbering part, this doesn’t create any distress for them; we’re aware of ours, and we get sacked with theirs, too.
This can play out at home, at work, with family or friends, in social gatherings, in seemingly-everyday public places, you name it.
This penetrates deeper than a “simple” communication glitch; this permeates our entire lives. It becomes much more of a core issue when you live your life knowing that no matter what you do, say, or think, you’re surrounded by people who can’t ever hope to have a clue. They’ll never think how we do. Our whole being is a mystery to them. To make the situation a little more bitter yet, since they get by just fine, they don’t realize that they need to get a clue. The most distressing aspect for us is the personality type who doesn’t have a clue and has no plans to get one.
And then there’s the phenomenon of masking, the action that many of us end up feeling the pressure to take, because somehow we were sent–and we successfully received–the message that the way we are just won’t do. Our natural inclinations just don’t cut it. And we’re sent the PS that in order to get ahead in the world, it is we who must do all the conforming. Once again, the NT world gets a pass, and we’re stuck with the tattered self-esteem…
… And the frayed nerves and depleted energy from having to keep the mask on, all day, every day, whenever we’re not alone.
And some of us understandably forget to take the mask off when we finally do find ourselves alone.
Essentially, we can end up masking so habitually and effectively that we mask to and for ourselves.
This can catch up with us, descending upon us in sneaky, cumulative ways. We may not realize that the reason we may not feel like doing anything is because we’re actually tired. The very idea of taking on one more task or activity exhausts us even further.
Since the brain demands more than its fair share of energy, this energy drain can impact memory, learning ability, physical coordination, and even mood/emotional wellbeing.
In addition to the fatigue and energy-draining that takes place, there are more facets to the intersection of Asperger’s/autism and mental health.
Anxiety is a big one. Personally, I don’t know a world without anxiety. I don’t know what it’s like to not have a little Hypervigilance/Anxiety “app” running in the background of the Asperger’s/autism spectrum operating system that is my brain. Not even (and especially not) when I was little.
I reckon it installed itself when I was around two to three months old and I was abused by a caretaker. I may not consciously remember that (I was told years later), but my nervous system sure does. And the anxiety and hypervigilance took up more permanent neuro-residence around age two, when my home life became notably more volatile.
It kicked up a few more notches when I started public school and was suddenly thrust into a routine I couldn’t control and had no say over, surrounded by many more children of similar physical age than I had ever encountered before–and wasn’t prepared to handle.
Anxiety grew as I attempted different strategies of people-pleasing, namely my peers and teachers, scoring 0 for 2 despite my best efforts, and got verbally pummeled at home as well.
You can imagine what happened at puberty.
Adulthood hasn’t lessened the anxiety, merely traded in one set of sources for another. I have, more recently than I would like to dwell on, been extremely concerned about meeting our basic survival needs.
And then there’s depression, another “app” found easily wherever anxiety and hypervigilance are found. In the brain’s “app store”, they’re probably listed under “related apps” in each other’s profiles. They don’t necessarily co-install, but they’re never far away from each other.
The depression can hit especially when the anxiety-driven strategies have failed and the person is continually sent the message that no matter what they do, they’re not good enough. Although the Asperger’s/autism spectrum does not hold a monopoly on that phenomenon, it certainly seems to tend to affect us with greater prevalence; I raise my own hand in the affirmative.
Maybe that’s why I’m triggered when someone nitpicks something I said, did, or wrote, without considering or acknowledging the rest of the context or package.
Periods of low mood definitely plague me, almost in cyclic fashion, although I have yet to nail down any specifics. No, I don’t think it can be written off as “hormones”. For now, it just is what it is.
The highs and lows might be evidence of an ebbing and flowing supply of energy available to attempt to navigate the turbulent waters of a world that doesn’t operate the way I do, having to mask at times (yes, still) in order to blend in in public places or say the “right” things in the “right” ways to other people.
That’s my theory, anyway. And it sounds plausible enough to stick to. 😉
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(Image Credit: Steven Irwin)