Positive self-identity and Autistic mental health

If there is one recurring theme I come across time and again in my work, it’s that reduced psychological wellbeing in Autistic people is inherently linked to our sense of identity. As Autistic people, we consistently treated poorly by wider society, and we internalise the attitudes that are projected onto us. These internalised negative attitudes, in turn, drive many of the experiences we have that are labelled as “mental illness”.

Of course, I must admit that I have a complicated relationship with the concept of psychiatric malady. I have for some time now advocated for the depathologisation of mental health and recognition of such experiences as the neurodivergence that it is. To read more about that, click here and here.

I am not just Autistic (I’m not even just AuDHD for that matter). I am also psychotic. Not always actively, but due to the nature of my neurology and psychology, certain triggers can result in me losing touch with reality. It can be difficult to ascertain the difference between truth and delusion. This in itself can affect my sense of identity.

Thus, it has been necessary to take time, and use my privilege of good insight, to deconstruct my delusional thoughts and consider their origins. On the journey to understanding the origin and nature of my delusions, however, I have stumbled upon some truths that may be somewhat universal in the world of Autistic Wellbeing.

I know of very few (if any) Autistic people who do not have what a psychiatrist might deem “mental illness”. This is not because there is something fundentally wrong with them. They are not broken. They do not need to necessarily change anything about them. In fact, it is my fundamental belief that labelling us as “disordered” (in the psychiatric sense of the word) incorrectly centres the problem on the individual, when instead we need to consider the environment that the person exists in.

Autism + Environment = Outcome

Back to the point; our sense of identity is largely constructed through our interactions with our environment and the people within that environment. If we wish to give an Autistic person the opportunity to have a positive self-identity, we need to give them an environment that is providing positive interactions.

So, when considering Autistic people who struggle with their sense of identity, we have to take the approach of deconstructing the interactions they jave had with their environment. What are the narratives they are being given? Is their communication with people in that environment allowing them to think positively of their authentic Self?

Once we have deconstructed those experiences, it then becomes necessary to construct a positive identity.

The most vital part of this process is access to neurodiversity-affirming communities. Autistic people need other Autistic people who will help them understand themselves outside of deficit-based models, and outside of medical setting that centres the problem in them.

For me, having access to such communities has been the single most important part of recovering my wellbeing. Research such as that by Monique Botha (2020) has shown that significant importance of community connectedness in the reduction of minority actress, and improvements in our wellbeing. Beyond academic models however, we should be taking humanistic approaches that allow people to feel comfortable in who they feel they are, and not what society wants them to be.

Autistic people, sadly, often do not have access to such spaces. One of the issues with being deep in the Autistic community is that we are blind to the fact that a huge number of Autistic people don’t even know we are here. That is why we have to make our voices heard, and be visible (where we are safe) to wider society. We owe it to the Autistic people out there struggling, we owe it to the Autistic people yet to come.