Saturday 8 April 2017

Autism is a Neurodiversity, not a mental health condition

The image above shows a set of teaspoons, each with a different coloured handle.
Which one of the teaspoons is broken because it's a different colour?

None of them?
That's right.  The teaspoons are different to one another.

That's a starting point for this blog.  That difference does not equal 'broken'.  Throughout, I am generalising.  Everyone is an individual, with their own personality.   But...what I say here is important.  

Autistic people think differently to non-autistic people.  Ours is part of the natural diversity of humans.  Our brain designs are part of a range of possible brain designs for human beings. The medical profession in the UK has reached that conclusion, and it is correct.

When people are diagnosed as autistic it is not because we are 'broken', or 'ill'.   It is not because we need a 'cure', nor training to be indistinguishable from our peers.  We are diagnosed because we have a diverse way of processing information - social and sensory.  It means that we need to approach our life differently. Carefully.  With respect to a brain that takes in too much information in busy, noisy, bright places. A brain that cannot interpret much non-autistic social interaction without it completely fusing our brain circuits.  I can interpret autistic people just fine.  And I can interpret dogs, cats and horses just fine.  Non-autistic humans?  Not a clue.  Completely different signalling system to mine.  I've learned some of it through rules and descriptions, but frankly it's a bizarre way to communicate.   Just say what you mean and how you feel.  Sorry, non-autistic friends, but it is just weird to use that much non-verbal stuff  <Joking, in friendly way>.

Assessing that set of autism needs and providing the right adaptations is something that can (in theory) be done by autism teams. That needs funding, which is why we get a formal diagnosis.  Nothing to do with being 'unwell'. 

Generalising...[Yes, I've said this before - but there are new readers...]  Autism is a sensory processing difference.  It means we need to keep our brains at a good operating temperature inside.  Literally.  We like to find a routine that keeps it at the right temperature.  So we may avoid or fear new situations, where the sensory/social overload may push our brains into 'too hot'.  When they reach 'too hot', they do what probably any human brain does....either becomes a lot of hot static, or shuts itself down as best it can, so it can cool off again.   One looks like a temper tantrum sometimes.  The other looks like we've stopped communication and movement.  'Meltdown', and 'shutdown'.  Most of us shut down for a while if in too much sensory/social pain, and do not display the 'hot static' stuff.  Most of us are excellent at avoiding shutdowns and meltdowns, by avoiding the stuff that causes them. That's why we are mostly 'invisible'.   Not obviously autistic.

Our brains are usually designed for fine detail, so we may make superb specialists, passionate experts.  Our ability to see the world in new ways means many may be hugely creative.  Our ability to sense tiny noises and smell the faintest smells is very handy for spotting the first signs of forest fires...the first hints of poisonous foods, etc.  It's a skill set that has great uses.  Autism was part of human diversity because of those reasons and many more.  It was never a fault.

Other things autistic people may be better at?  Honesty, integrity, fairness, social justice-seeking.  All with good research showing we are more likely than others to have those things.  No, not all autistic people.  Most.  And, whether we have recognised specialised abilities and useful personality traits or not, we are all valued, all loved, and all worth our place in the world.

I opened my social media today and found a well known, large children's group specialising in disability,  saying autism was a 'mental health disorder'.   No, it is not.  It has never been a mental health condition of any kind.  Yes, I am a professional.  Yes, I do know about autism. 

Lots of people have mental health conditions.  Anxiety, depression, etc.  About 1 in 4, in fact. Lots of autistic people are so badly misunderstood and so badly treated that they end up with a mental health condition as well as autism.  The mental health condition is not autism.

A small number of autistic people also have a learning disability.  So do a small number of all sorts of other people.  The learning disability is not autism.

A small number of autistic people also have a personality disorder. So do a small number of all sorts of other people.  The personality disorder is not autism.

A small number of autistic people also have a speech/language condition.  So do a small number of all sorts of other people.  The speech/language condition is not autism.
A small number of autistic people are just grumpy and unco-operative.  So are a small number of all sorts of other people.  That isn't 'autism'. 

Is this making sense?  It's important.  Because we have autism confused with all sorts of things it is not.

Yes, a child who has multiple different things will have a lot to handle, and so will the parents/carers and teams who support that young person.   But not all of those other things are 'autism'.

Why does it matter that we don't confuse autism and mental health?  It's like confusing being gay with mental health, or confusing being Black with mental health.  They are simply not the same category of thing.  Treating autism with mental health treatments will cause damage, for a start.  Same as if you treated someone for diabetes when they are not diabetic.  It's a mistake.
And, because of the way society views 'mental health conditions', there just may be an assumption that we are inventing things, exaggerating things, or otherwise not reliable as witnesses.  This is simply not so for autism, any more than it would be for any other standard category of person.  Very unfortunate indeed when people get this wrong, because it leaves autistic people even more vulnerable to predators.  "Oh, don't believe her - she's autistic, you know it's some sort of mental health thing, don't you".  I don't like it when people make that sort of assumption for friends with mental health conditions either.   I'm just saying that this is the world we live in.  We don't need to make it even harder for autistic people by mis-stating what it is.

I also see parents clutching a struggling autistic child tightly to them, making full eye contact with them, under flickering strobe-like fluorescent lighting....and then saying, "Look how autistic my child is - they won't even give me a hug or make eye contact, and they hit me!"  Well, yes, they would, if that's how little they know about the pain they have just caused the child. The poor child is terrified and overwhelmed.

Time to start listening, good people.  Listen to autistic adults who tell you what autism is, and what it is not.  Who tell you how to interact with your child.  Who tell you about the sensory environments that are painful for us, and why.

There are a lot of good specialists, a lot of good parents, a lot of good teachers and helpers of all kinds. Seek them out.

And, avoid the ones who give you a long list of negatives, and a long list of incorrect info about autism.  You'll never get a positive result out of that.

Thank you.