Autism and Depression

I Am Paggliacci

Yes, I know everyone is probably overusing Robin for various reasons, but I saw this and couldn’t help thinking about myself and my children, and applying it to the things I am learning. I’ve seen it or something similar before, but that was before I understood myself as I do now. Before I understood myself as autistic.

I have (since a small child) always dealt much more with anxiety than depression, but depression was a significant part of my teenage experience (which I hid from in intense interests and explained away as other things), haunted me through my twenties and thirties (and it was much harder to ignore), and almost debilitated me after the death of my mother, my one solid anchor and advocate in life. For six months I got up and went through motions, was even able to teach reasonably well (I think – I have no memory of that whole period except for darkness and drowning) and wondered if I’d ever feel “normal” (or what passed for normal to me) again.

My saving grace in life since my mid twenties, apart from my faith (the importance of which I in no way want to minimalize) has been my children. Through my rocky marriage, subsequent abandonment and divorce, severe financial need, and trying to rebuild our lives, I kept going because I had to. I know a lot of people in the same circumstances have not been as successful.

I’m not going to try to guess the causes of Robin’s depression. Nobody will ever know for sure. But I do want to say a word about understanding and acceptance. About autism and other differences. Now that I understand myself as an autistic woman, I find it easier to accept myself. No, I don’t use it as an excuse for negative behaviors, but I can allow myself to be myself. It’s very liberating. It has not banished the anxiety, but I understand it now. Knowledge is empowering.

One of the greatest stressors for autistics is the pressure to conform, to try to appear and act and even think “normal,” which is to say, neurotypically. It’s emotionally and mentally exhausting. It can be extremely depressing.

I attended a meeting yesterday to talk about the new school year. It was only a few hours long and it was great to see and connect with my colleagues again, but after a summer of relatively free expression and low interaction with others, I had myself on a very tight rein. I stopped myself from commenting so many times and still seemed to say something wrong at times, or maybe just at the wrong time (I still struggle HUGELY with this). By the time I got home my brain was shutting down and I couldn’t think straight. I slept for most of the afternoon in a dark room. At one time, that would have caused depression as well.

A prevalent comorbid condition for women on the autism spectrum appears to be depression. This depression can be caused or at least exacerbated by the constant struggle and exertion it takes for acceptance, to fit in, to seem “normal;” dealing with constant fear of bullying, sarcasm, teasing, ridicule; and the constant questioning and analyzing of ourselves (often in a negative context), wondering why we don’t understand others and situations we find ourselves in.

In fact, it is becoming clear that many women might be misdiagnosed with a host of conditions including depression, anxiety disorder, OCD, ADD, and others, that may indicate that they are actually on the autism spectrum. Remember that 1:4 ratio? Many women (and some men) do not present as clinical (predominantly male) Aspergers/autism, but a closer examination of their traits and history and a wider understanding of the way females (and some males) present these traits make the diagnosis more likely. Regardless of “why” people are autistic (and I DON’T see it as a negative thing), just knowing and accepting that you are can be extremely liberating, comforting, and validating.

I haven’t thought about depression in an immediately personal way since I began to understand what has made me different all my life. And since I’ve begun to understand and really accept myself in this context, I have not experienced any significant depression or deeply negative thoughts. Maybe I’m just resilient that way. But for those of us on the spectrum, or for those who are becoming aware that they might be on the spectrum, accepting ourselves, allowing ourselves to be ourselves even if we are still chameleons in public, can be liberating. Maybe even life-saving.

I’m sure there are many causes of depression and all kinds of people can experience it and suffer from it to different degrees. It is a human condition not exclusive to one type of person or another. But, as with any other condition/disorder/disability/difference, we shouldn’t patronize or punish the person experiencing it.

I hope that, if you are diagnosed with autism or suspect you should be, you will find out all you can about it, embrace it, find your strengths and glory in them whether others understand or not. And know that you are not alone. You’re not broken. You’re not “wrong.” You’re just different, and that’s okay. You are an incredible human being and, no matter how others see you, you are amazing.

To the person on the outside looking in: Regardless of underlying causes, to the person dealing with chronic depression, don’t just say, “It’ll get better,” “Chin up!” “Tomorrow’s another day.” That’s like throwing a life preserver that doesn’t fit to a drowning person who still has no way of getting out of the water. The sentiment is nice but is less than useless. You have no idea the depth of their pain and struggle. You certainly don’t know the reasons for it. Accept and support them anyway you can, but don’t trivialize their experience.

I’d be interested to hear from others who have successfully managed depression.

B B Shepherd is a musician, educator, and author and can also be found at Glistering: B’s Blog

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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