Managing mental health as an autistic person

A page from my journal.

Managing Mental Health As An Autistic Person

Daisy Shearer, who has autism, tells us how she manages her mental health.

When you’re autistic, it can be very hard to manage your mental health alongside the challenges that autism presents. Especially at the moment with the unpredictable nature of the pandemic we’re experiencing, looking after your wellbeing is so important.

While autism isn’t thought to be a mental illness itself–  instead it is a neurodevelopmental condition—there is widespread consensus that autism often co-occurs with various mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression. Anxiety is particularly prevalent and may be exacerbated in autistic individuals due to factors such a sensory overwhelm and processing differences. Due to a propensity for all-or-nothing thinking, many autistic people catastrophize and find it hard to keep their worries under control. For women on the spectrum in particular, there is also growing evidence that the ‘masking’ behavior frequently seen in the female phenotype may be linked to mental health concerns.

For those of us with differently wired brains, conventional mental health support may not suit us. This does not mean that we shouldn’t seek out support though! It’s been my experience that through experimentation with different techniques and being open about my autism with mental health professionals, we’ve found some techniques that work for me. Of course, it must be noted that all autistic people are different so naturally there isn’t one rigid, one-size-fits-all answer. But it can be very helpful to recognize that autistic people have a different neurological backdrop to allistics when treating and managing any comorbid mental illnesses they may have.

In light of this, here are some of the ways I’ve been looking after my mental health as an autistic person:

  • Journaling

 

A page from my journal.

Every morning and evening I spend 10 minutes reflecting in my journal. In the mornings I offload my thoughts, and in the evening, I look back on my day. This helps give my day structure no matter where I happen to be and helps me recognize times where I may potentially experience autistic burnout or periods of depression. Looking back on it helps me identify patterns in my own behavior and thoughts so I can see what has helped me in the past and what hasn’t helped. Taking a small amount of time daily to journal has helped me a lot with processing my thoughts and experiences which is something I struggle to do usually. I also use my journal as a place to make lists which can combat executive functioning problems and also soothes my anxiety surrounding forgetting things.

  • Accessing support

My support network is key to maintaining my mental wellbeing. For me, this includes a small number of close friends and family members as well as autism professionals. Recently I’ve been having a remote meeting with my specialist mentor weekly where we talk about the challenges I’ve been encountering and work on management techniques to overcome them. My mentor also keeps tabs on my mental state, as do my parents. It’s so important to be open about your mental health with those close to you as they can support you through it.

  • Making time for special interests

Knitting a cosy cardigan– I love the bobbles on the arms of this pattern and often stim by rubbing the arms when I’m wearing it.

For autistic people our special interests keep us grounded. I’ve come to realize that indulging in my interests is key for my wellbeing. Instead of feeling guilty when I spend an entire Saturday reading about a very niche subject, I try to allow myself that time and appreciate that it’s important for me. At the moment one of my special interests is knitting so I’ve been making a cardigan as well as reading about different types of stitch and ways that knitting can be used to explore mathematical concepts like manifolds.

  • Connecting with nature

Some of my photos from nature.

I’m the type of autistic person who has a huge affinity for nature. I’ve always been drawn to places like the ocean and forests where there’s a whole host of soothing sensory experiences. There’s lots of scientific studies exploring how things like going for nature walks and gardening can help improve mental health, but not much that focuses specifically on autistic people (yet). I find that spending even a few minutes daily to stand outside and listen out for bird song, go for a walk in a green space, or doing some gardening can make the world of difference to my mood and my self-regulation.

  • Using sensory items and stimming

Weighted blanket tea break!

Some of the sensory items I keep on my desk.

As I become more attuned to the physical and behavioral symptoms of anxiety and depression that I experience, I’ve realized how often these are linked to sensory or emotional dysregulation. Something that I have been trying to embrace recently are sensory items and stimming. If I’m starting to feel overwhelmed and anxious, I might start spinning or flapping a hand. Equally, I might use something like a tangle, putty or weighted blanket to overcome sensory over- or under-stimulation. As I allow myself to indulge in these kinds of behaviors that I’ve suppressed since I was a child, I’ve been finding it easier to ‘unmask’. This has had a big difference on my propensity to depression as there is less of a disconnect between my natural self and my ‘mask’.

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