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Autism, Depression & Mental Health Through the Eyes of an Autist

Autism comes with many challenges. Brian understands this as both an autist, teacher, and therapist. These are some of his insights.

Kids Being Kids

Me at the age of 14 or 15 playing around with a webcam that my family just barely got with one of my few friends.

Me at the age of 14 or 15 playing around with a webcam that my family just barely got with one of my few friends.

Reflecting Back

Looking at this picture, you wouldn't think I was struggling with depression—with feelings of self-loathing, frustration, and more. That smile says a lot, and in this particular moment, at the age of 14 or 15, I was having fun and connecting with a friend in a way that I never had before. Sure, my friend was younger than me by about a year and a half, but we could be silly together, have fun without holding back, and our parents were happy to help us travel the 15 or 20 miles that separated our homes because we connected.

But in just two years, a friend that I thought was the best friend I would ever have grew a little distant, chose to hang out with other kids, and basically drifted away from me. The worst part about that entire experience was that, at the time, I had not idea why. I felt abandoned, alone, and afraid—just like I've with each friend before him, and many after.

Autism: Myths and Stereotypes

The problem was not my childhood friend. It was me. I am autistic. However, at the time, autism meant something very different than how we understand it now. But even now, we have this idea of someone who wants to be isolated and do their own thing. We think of Sheldon Cooper from Big Bang Theory, or perhaps Raymond Babbitt from Rain Man. These are stereotypes of autism. Stereotypes are based in reality, but they are not 100% true.

Autists are like most other humans. We want to connect. We just struggle to connect, which is frustrating.

Autists are like most other humans. We want to connect. We just struggle to connect, which is frustrating.

What Autism Is Really Like

For me, and many high function autists, I want to be social. I want to connect, but I struggle. Over the years, I have learned the skills needed to succeed socially, and I do very well. Most people find out I am autistic and say something along the lines of, "I would have never know" or "You don't act autistic." It's sort of a backhanded compliment; on the one hand, I have mastered some skills that are fairly difficult, but on the other hand, it demonstrates the complete lack of understanding so many people have on the topic. But rather than get offended, I use it as an opportunity to teach.

Yet, as a teenager, I had no idea about this stuff. I just knew that no matter how hard I tried, my friends kept leaving me, even when we were in the same room. I was missing social cues, non-verbal language, and more. And so, when my friend started maturing and growing up, instead of wanting to be around that friend who did not seem to be maturing at the same rate, he just drifted away. I don't blame him for this. It's natural. But it was—and still is—painful for me.

Pain in Expression

Anger. This is my proverbial kryptonite. It seems to be a family trait, but I am convinced that autism is a genetic characteristic of my family. When reflecting on the stories I hear about my grandfather and seeing the struggles of certain other family members and myself through the lenses of autism, it makes a lot more sense.

The sense of helplessness that comes from being in social situations where the rules seem to always be changing; where peers and even adults seem to be laying traps of mockery and shame; where at any moment, a friendly connection could be turned on its head and become something aggressive and painful. When helplessness seems to be the norm, it makes a lot of sense why anger is a common emotion to feel.

Anger releases chemicals that make you feel powerful. Others might shy away from you, even give you what you want (at least temporarily) when those loud tones and hurtful words are thrown about. And when it came to my relationship with my parents, and even some peers, anger was the most common emotion.

And what better way to express anger than through politics. I loved talk radio because I could hear and express anger in a socially acceptable manner. I could connect with like-minded people—people who also felt the way I felt. That wasn't the only way I could do this, but it is the most memorable.

Anger Is There to Hide Feelings of Loneliness

But under that anger was loneliness. That angry teenager that was a straight-laced kid who made Eagle Scout just three days after turning 15 was scared and craved anything that could help him feel like he belonged. Perhaps the only time I could find solace was when I was with my dogs.

My dogs, Barney and Kamm, were perhaps the most mismatched dogs a boy could have. I can perhaps talk more about them in another article; the important part was that they were my friends. And this is important, because when I was in the deepest depths of despair; when I was sitting on top of my second dog Lady's grave (Lady died after being hit by a car many years before, my first real experience with death); when I was holding the kitchen knife against my wrists and thinking how easy it would be to let the pain end; my dogs coming to me was what saved me.

I can't remember how many times I contemplated that very permanent solution to what I now know is a very temporary problem, but the reality is that if it were not for my dogs, I would not be typing this now. My dogs saved my life. Multiple times. Just by being my friends.

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Depression in autism can be related to many things, but isolation is certainly among the highest reasons.

Depression in autism can be related to many things, but isolation is certainly among the highest reasons.

Depression and Suicide Risk Is High Among Autists

When I told my family about my depression and suicidal thoughts, they are shocked. They had no idea. This isn't because they were neglectful or bad in any way. Quite the opposite. My family is pretty fantastic. Sure we have our problems, but we all try to work them out, and I feel bless to be a part of my family.

The issue lies in the fact that depression and suicide risk are extremely high among autists. And I am not convinced it is a "natural" risk. It goes deep into the disconnection that most autists constitutionally feel even though we may not know what to call it. In my years of teaching and working with autistic and developmentally delayed youth of many varieties, I can tell you that they improve when they feel like they belong.

The Sad Truth (and Simple Solution)

The sad, sad truth is that, in many cases, depression in autism can simply be resolved by teaching social skills and cultivating community, not just with those who are autistic, but also with their peers who do not have the same challenges.

How many autistic boys and girls (and there are many more autistic girls than you might think, but that is topic for later) have taken that permanent solution to a temporary problem because they felt isolated, alone, and helpless? We may never know because we can't identify autism postmortem—at least not easily.

The risk of suicide in the autistic community does not go away with age. It only goes away when the isolation does.

My Hope

By writing this article, my hope is that some parent, teacher, or autistic peer might read this and understand that this problem has a solution. The solution is two-fold.

  1. The people who surround the autist need to reach out, offer support, and model pro-social behavior. They need to provide clear and loving feedback on how to connect with others, then make sure to reinforce that behavior AS SOON as they see it.
  2. Autists need to learn the skills needed to connect with others. We can advocate for each other. We can push for earlier interventions as well as inclusion of interventions in middle and high schools for those that previous screenings might have missed. We can push for clubs, communities, forums, conferences, and other methods of education and support. We can teach ourselves and teach others.

When we educate and support each other in these ways, it builds communities with clear communication and solidarity for not only autists to thrive, but other neurotypes as well. My hope is that the sense of community—of unity—is cultivated after you read this article. I really hope so.

Preventing Suicide in the Autism Community

Autism & Suicide Risk

Autism Community Resources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2018 Brian Middleton

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