Is Asperger’s / autism a mental health issue?  [Mental Health Monday]

(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.

Double-whammy.

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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40 Comments

  1. I don’t think autism in itself is a mental health issue but almost everyone I’ve known on the autism spectrum has experienced depression or anxiety at some point because of the factors you mentioned.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. One of my biggest pet peeves is that ASD is considered a “disorder”. It should be classified as something else. We need a better word. It’s neurology NOT NOT NOT a mental illness. Not to dis mental illness. Growing up autistic can certainly *cause* mental illnesses but that lies squarely at the feet of NT society! Also, for whatever reason (research needed) autistic brains seem to be more susceptible to OCD, bipolar, ADHD and other mental health issues. There is nothing *wrong* with you my Dearest Dude. There is nothing *wrong* with all my other ND friends. There is definitely nothing *wrong* with my precious King Ben!!! Can you tell I feel strongly about this subject? 😏 😘😘💞✊💌💌💫🌷🌸🌹🌼🌺🌟🌈✨☮🐬🐲🕊💥💖💖

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Amen, Dearest Sister Dude!! 👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼.

      “Growing up autistic can certainly *cause* mental illnesses but that lies squarely at the feet of NT society!”

      I need to put this on an engraved plaque 😁😁👍🏼👍🏼👍🏼💓

      I love that you feel so strongly about this subject! I think you’re spot-on, girl! And I think we need a lot more NT lovelies like you who think like you do 😁😁💟💕💝🌴🌵🌸🌺💖💓💚💙💜💪🏼💪🏼💪🏼🌟

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Yes, it’s tough when we can’t even be ourselves when we’re alone because we’ve been masking our true nature for so long. I agree that being autistic isn’t a mental health issue in itself, but the environment we grow up in can definitely bring on a number of different mental illnesses. Most autistic people I’ve come across at the least deal with depression and anxiety and quite a few are traumatized just by trying to fit in a NT world, being abused out of being the way they are. I got abused in speech therapy because I have a speech impediment, and went 20 years not realizing what had happened, that they had traumatized me into communicating the way they wanted me to by instilling fear into me. It’s similar when it comes to my stimming as well, not being able to move my body naturally the way it’s supposed to move. A lot of the disability aspects of being autistic seem to be because of the way the majority of this society treats us, but don’t get me wrong sensory issues (among other things) can be very disabling, but I still don’t consider it a mental illness, rather it’s just a sensitivity to the world not everyone experiences.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Bravo! 👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼. I agree wholeheartedly 😊. I am so sorry for what you went through with people who are so-called “professionals”; their behavior is appalling and anything BUT professional, but they get the “pass”, even though they’re *dead wrong*, simply because they’re in the majority. Ugh. Majority tyranny, at its “finest”. 😳😣🌺🌺. You also bring up an excellent point about stimming! So very true 👍🏼👍🏼. I experience a feeling of disability off and on, so yeah, I can definitely relate to it on a certain level 😊💖💖

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This is so very well written and I could relate to (almost) every word (obviously not the personal things that have happened to you). But therefore do you think that to stop these feelings I just need to surround myself with people who understand and will accept me for who I am – because no two people are the same, and that is the same that everyone with aspergers is different so it would never work. But yes I agree that it isn’t a mental health condition but could be the reason for mental health problems.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words! 😊💚💙. You pose a really excellent question, and in my own (still-limited) experience, surrounding myself with other autistic/Aspergian peeps (mostly online) definitely makes life easier for me, but doesn’t eradicate all of the anxiety or passing(?) depression 💓. I think this is largely because of the past experiences that set PTSD in motion, and the fact that unfortunately, I can’t live most of my life online 😔💜. I still have to go to work, drive (I live in Texas, US lol), and interact with an NT world that is so clashingly different from the way I operate, with all of its noise, overstimulation, obnoxiousness, and drama lol 😉💞. And it’s so true that no 2 people are the same so even though many of us share a lot of otherwise-unusual traits in common, there are indeed many differences, which might create stress and conflicts 💓. I might be too blunt for some, too sensitive for others, love animals more than some, be ambivalent toward something that someone else is passionate about, be passionate about something that someone else is ambivalent toward, etc etc 😁❤️. And of course, I’m not cranky or angry, nor do I feel oppressed most of the time, and I’m not always politically correct, so I’m bound to piss somebody off LOLOL 😳😉💞💟💞

      I think you’re definitely onto something there! 💚💙💜

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This makes a lot of sense to me. Naturally. 🙂 Autism itself has never troubled me or felt disabling on the face of things. It’s just the way we operate around here. BUT, the burden of expectation, the abuse encountered, the energy depletion, the constant masking, the sensory issues? Yes, THAT has troubled me a great deal over the years-hence the PTSD, the depression, the anxiety. Very few times in my life have I ever been allowed to simply be. In those times, I could taste the joy and breathe easy for a few beats. I was truly peaceful with myself and my space in this world. But, unfortunately, these times don’t last long in a place that is honestly not designed with our sort of minds in mind. So…I have had to face adapting where I must, seeking the balances where I can, and the retreats where they can be found. A lot of the things I have dealt with and look out for myself and my loved ones on in this life are for mental health’s sake, but autism’s not the cause so much as all those side issues that can crop up as result of being autistic in an NT world.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Amen, girl 👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼. You said everything so perfectly!! 😘❤️👍🏼. Same here – I think it’s not the autism itself that’s the issue – I think the issue is having to contort oneself into the moulds of the NT world and put up with the abuse from various sources 💞🌷💞

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi Laina,
    This may seem very unrelated but it’s not (for me). Did music help you to get through school?The Smiths were my support system as they were for a lot of people who didn’t fit in, perhaps because their brain, diet, and/or gender image didn’t meet with norms. I’m going though a minor obsession with reliving some of their music this week. Here’s a performance from 1984 that captures how a lot of us outsiders felt: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yq3Hi6htzk4

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Whoops, I hit enter too early lol 😉

      Throwing Muses got me through my early college/university years, along with Oasis, Blur, etc. Oh and I forgot to mention the Charlatans UK–they were crucial from Grade 7 all the way through university 😁😁💚💙💜

      Thank you soooo much for posting the video link!! You totally made my day 👍🏼👍🏼👍🏼💟🌟💟

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I have a different frame around “mental health.” I don’t make it the opposite of “mental illness” but more like the sweet spot for positive wellness and functional ease. Those of us with what I call “alphabet disorders” exist, right now anyway, in a community of brains that have more in common with each other than with many of US. Since they outnumber us, right now anyway, it *seems* that they get to call the tunes to which they expect us all to dance.

    “Disability” is a legal term, to my mind. If we could avoid their dance halls, many of us wouldn’t need ADA-mandated “reasonable accommodations” – but we must often dance in their halls too. Accommodations aren’t covered – by law – for “differences,” only for “disabilities,” so I don’t think we do ourselves a favor quibbling about it.

    In other words, only in the eyes of the sighted are the blind “disabled” – but it sure makes sense to accept the word to make sure that “reading” doesn’t end up meaning only “reading by sight.” Not a perfect analogy, of course, but I’m trying to respond in a comment that is shorter than your excellent post. 🙂
    xx,
    mgh
    (Madelyn Griffith-Haynie – ADDandSoMuchMORE dot com)
    ADD/EFD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder
    “It takes a village to transform a world!”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Omg I love this!! Holy cow, you nailed it 👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼. I love your more inclusive model! I wish their dance halls were simply designed better 😉😁👍🏼 (that way, everyone would benefit) 💞💖💞

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Some scientists believe that we possess what they call “forward adaptive genes” – meaning that we can expect to see more of us “diagnosed” as time moves forward. Some day, if those scientists are correct, we’ll be in the majority.

        Thom Hartmann first said (several decades ago now) that if ADDers ran the world, those folks who are now called neurotypicals would be diagnose with OFD “over focusing disorder” — i.e., those hunters who stay tracked on the rabbit and miss the larger animals with more “meat.”

        The missing concept, of course, is that THEY are not the best ones to do the hunting – they’re farmers!

        I love that concept! I hope that when we run the world we will be kinder to them than they have been to us. 🙂
        xx,
        mgh

        Liked by 2 people

        1. “Some day, if those scientists are correct, we’ll be in the majority.”

          This would be TOO COOL!!

          I heard something like 50% of all CEOs are ADD; so you’re already partway there!

          And I wonder how many are Aspie?? 😊😊

          “I hope that when we run the world we will be kinder to them than they have been to us.”

          Me too ❤️❤️

          Liked by 1 person

          1. By “we” I wasn’t speaking only of ADDers – just using them as an example.

            Our species is evolving — and I like to think that many of the front-runners are “diagnosed” with something simply because their feet don’t slip easily into NT shoes.

            I believe I’ve heard that Aspies are more abundant among scientists, engineers, etc. – but I’ll bet an Aspie CEO or COO would be great. Those jobs are, essentially, detail-oriented, metrics tracking/interpretation /direction re-setting jobs. ADDers tend to be “allergic” to details – lol (great leaders, lousy managers – different strengths needed).
            xx,
            mgh

            Liked by 1 person

          2. Yep! 😊. “many of the front-runners are “diagnosed” with something simply because their feet don’t slip easily into NT shoes.” – Totally!! 😁😁

            It’s been rumored that Steve Jobs was an Aspie, given the personality characteristics described by people who knew him well. And he was a dang good one 👍🏼👍🏼💚💙💜

            Liked by 1 person

  8. Laina, you are helping me understand more about autism and for that I thank you. Your post is telling me that general society is harming the emotional and spiritual spirit of many people with autism and that makes me sad. Hopefully with more awareness more people will understand that we are all human, only with some biological differences (which unfortunately get socially impacted often for the worse right now). I would find wearing a mask exhausting and feel compassion for what you go through, Laina. Please keep posting as you are making a difference ❤

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Omg thank you so very much for sharing your thoughts! I feel so heartwarmed and encouraged, way more than I can ever say with words 🤗❤️🤗❤️

      Your observations about general society are spot-on, at least in terms of myself and many of the Aspie/autistic people I’ve talked with 💞. Depression rates are generally much higher in people on the spectrum than in the general population 💜

      I think you’re totally right – awareness, especially the right *types* of awareness (awareness of the correct/accurate info) is key 💚💙

      I’ve been wearing my mask at work (the only place I even bother to mask anymore, and it’s only out of necessity 😉), so I won’t ramble, but please know that your kindness and openness are so very much appreciated! The world would be a such better place if more people were like you; I know that sounds cliché but if only I could tell you how genuinely and intensely I mean that… 💖🌟💖🌟💖

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Hi
    Nice post! I’ve made a post “what does your pee says about you?” and other scientific explanations so if you have time and will please go and check it out! If you like it pls follow me, I follow you.
    Thank you! 😀

    Like

  10. You described this so well. It really does remind me of Tourette syndrome. TS feels like an umbrella. Under it you have OCD which makes the tics worse, anxiety, which make the tics worse and it all snowballs together to morph into some mental health issues but that is not the root of it at all. Definitely a neurological disorder. Runs in my family so seems genetic in so many ways. The anxiety can cause one to not want to leave the house. It can be very separating from others. Which ofcourse leads to depression and loneliness.
    Two completely different things but so many similarities. Thanks for your post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much! 😊❤️. It’s interesting how so many different things can share so many similarities! I wouldn’t doubt that much of what you describe is under genetic influence 👍🏼. I totally agree! I can see Asperger’s traits in my dad, too, and a couple in my mom 💙. I hear you on the snowball/domino effect of anxiety, loneliness, and depression, too. Boy, can I ever relate! 🌺🌟🌺

      Like

  11. Excellent post. You are so very right how one can lead to another, and another, and another.

    I know I am getting a bit nitpicky here but please hear me out.

    I have Major Depression and Generalized Anxiety disorder as well as Aspergers. This is the first time I have heard of Aspergers not being called a mental health condition. I am a bit confused by it.

    To me they are one and the same. Aspergers is a neurological condition but mental health is also a neurological condition. Both are caused by anatomical and physiological differences in the brain. The only difference is how they effect a person.

    I help facilitate a support group for people with mental health conditions including Aspergers. these posts could have easily been written by the people who attend the group for they have the very same complaints.

    To separate Aspergers and mental health sounds to me like the aspie world is doing the same thing to the mental health world as the NT world is doing to the aspie world.

    Aspergers can be a disability. I have it and have graduated college, am married, have two kids and a good job. My nephew also has aspergers and will never be able to live on his own. It all comes down to how it effects an individual since we are all unique including the ones in the NT world.

    I know it is a bit nitpicky but it bothers me to see the two groups separated when we can do so much more together. After all we are all in the same boat.

    Jerry Hiebert

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Hello. I came across this blog the other day and saw you were struggling. I believe I have “cracked the code” to the secret of the neurotypical world and wanted to share my thoughts on the matter. I’ve come up with a phrase that sums it up nicely: “absolute empathy means thinking that nobody needs to be empathetic whereas an absolute lack of empathy means not thinking that anybody needs to be empathetic”. The relentless mockery seems to be intentional and thought out, entirely based in cultural aspects. However, we’re also a multicultural society. In other words, it is all a circus. So keep thinking because concern shows potential.

    Liked by 1 person

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