Up to 70 per cent of autistic people experience mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety, according to some research. Unfortunately, we still don’t know why autistic people are at a higher risk for mental health problems than non-autistic people. But one important factor is whether an individual’s autism is recognised and accepted by those around them. My colleagues and I recently published research that shows a lack of acceptance can significantly impact on the mental health of autistic adults.
While medical professionals have become much better at diagnosing autism, many people with the condition feel it is still not accepted as a potentially positive aspect of who they are. Autism is a lifelong neurodevelopmental condition, meaning that the brain develops differently. This results in differences in social communication and interactions, sensory experiences and restricted interests. For our research, we surveyed 111 cognitively able autistic adults about how their experiences of autism acceptance related to their mental health, and many commented on experiencing a negative reaction.
“Since being diagnosed I have found that mention of autism is met blankly or dismissed,” said one participant. Another explained how searching for acceptance from others could be incredibly draining: “As the years pass, I suffer increasing anxiety for lack of even casual acceptance by my species.”
Take a moment to think about a crucial part of who you are. For example, I am Scottish, and that is a very important part of me. Now think about whether other people accept that part of you. Perhaps you feel a disconnection between how much you accept yourself and how much others seem to accept you. If you feel like others don’t accept you for that part of your identity, this could impact on your mental health. As human beings, we have a natural desire to be accepted and to belong.
For people who have a diagnosis of an autism spectrum condition, autism can be an integral part of who they are. This is why many prefer the term “autistic person” rather than “person with autism” (just as I prefer to be called a Scottish person rather than a person with Scottishness). But do other people accept autistic people for who they are? Recent research suggests not, and that first impressions of autistic people tend to be negative.