Autism and mental health. There are those who will tell you that the two are separate. Autism is not a mental health problem, with the underlying implication that mental health can’t be the realm of neurodiversity. However, it is not that simple; what we know as “mental illness” has been positioned as such for a reason. Autistic people are privileged that our community is making space between autism and illness, but what of those whose neurology is still widely pathologised?
How many Autistic people have a mental health problem?
Finding accurate estimates on this are difficult for a number of reasons. Chiefly, studies only look at those who have been formally identified as Autistic, ADHD is usually included as a mental health problem (more on that later), and they also do not account for the many Autistic people excluded from the knowledge of their own “mental health issues”.
What I did find was that Autistic people are much more likely to have co-occurring mental health issues. It is important to note this as it sets the scene for why this is an important topic to Autistic people.
How “mental illness” mitigates the benefits of the neurodiversity movement
Autistic people have spent decades trying to liberate themselves from the pathology paradigm. While that work is not complete, we are significantly distanced from pathologisation compared to half a century ago. The pathology paradigm, however, is insidious, and slows our progress in other ways.
Autistic people experience much higher rates of trauma than the general population. Trauma almost inevitably leads to mental health issues. From depression to psychotic disorders; these diagnoses keep us tethered to the systems of the pathology paradigm.
Consider that innocuous name; “mental health”. Health has long been the remit of the medical establishment, which itself is a tool of the pathology paradigm. This creates a dependent relationship between the “mentally ill” Autistic person and the medical world. While we work to liberate autism, we have allowed ourselves to be chained to the very system we seek to escape.
The oppressive systems of the world have done a very good job as well. Even insinuating that “mental illness” isn’t actually illness can bring you backlash from various groups and individuals. The world has just accepted that this very human reaction to suffering is something to be eradicated. We have become complicit in our own oppression.
How do we escape this?
Think back to my earlier comment about ADHD being included in studies of mental health. Neurodivergent people almost all agree that ADHD is not a mental health issue, and yet researchers and medical professionals still position it as such. This, along with the ongoing liberation of Autistic identity, proves that an identity is only a psychiatric disorder while we allow it to be.
Never forget that homosexuality was also in the DSM at one point.
We have to recognise that what is viewed as mental “illness” is acquired neurodivergence. We can’t have this discussion, also, without mentioning the immense monetary value of the concept of “mental illness”, particularly in the Western world. We have created an environment where it’s become okay to take away a person’s right to consent to medication if they are deemed mentally unwell enough.
We need to give our mental health the same treatment that we give our being Autistic. We need professionals to effect meaningful change in our lives. Not just prescribe us medicine. I am not in any way saying that medicine doesn’t have its place. The antipsychotics I take have become an important tool for managing my traits in a world that can not accommodate them. What I am saying is that we need to tackle the issues that cause psychological distress.
Autistic people are weighed down by their own oppression because we have been told it is illness. The blame has been shifted from a neuronormative society and placed onto those injured by its violence. If we as Autistic people want to be free of the pathology paradigm, we need to be free of all systems of oppression.