Announcement: I was in a really bad mood when I came up with this title. I’ve been turning an idea over in my head. I wanted to write about the intersection between autism and mental health and how it’s affected me personally. It sounded like a professional topic. And then I had to get pissed off and name it something petty.
My therapist and I are taking this summer to do a bit of inventory. Basically, we’re going through each diagnosis one by one to see if we need to spend more time with anything or if certain areas need new goals. Is it exciting? No. But it’s more interesting than you’d think. It’s sort of like organizing your desk. You find cool things that you forgot you had, and it the end, the important things are much easier to find. It’s a win-win.
Imagine a 3 circle Venn diagram, with each circle labeled with one of my mental illness. It goes like this- Bipolar Disorder, OCD, and Anorexia. And at the middle of it all, Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Even thought diagnostic manuals like the DSM and ICD make it seem like each mental illness exists in its own tidy little squares, that just isn’t the case. Mental illnesses are messy and they find a way to interact with everything around them.
And all of this mingling makes diagnosing and treating mental illnesses and other disorders, developmental disabilities, neurodivergencies, and learning disorders a complex endeavor. There are so many crossovers going on in my brain, it probably looks like a subway grid.
Autism and OCD:
Once upon a time, most psychologists and psychiatrists wouldn’t diagnose both autism and OCD in the same patient. There was considered to be too much overlap. It’s more flexible now, but when you really think about the similarities, you can almost see where they were coming from.
Autism and OCD overlap in two main ways. One, both of them are incredibly inflexible, and two, both have routines that they compulsively adhere to. Individuals with either disorder (or both) are also usually highly anxious, in a general sense and over specific situations. I have a lot of trouble knowing if I’m obsessing over something in an autism way (which my team and I agree is an okay thing) or if it’s in an OCD way (which isn’t good and generally needs intervention).
Autism and Anorexia:
An individual having autism and an eating disorder is actually quite common. A few decades ago, they would have been called ‘picky eaters’, but these days, it’s often diagnosed as Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Syndrome. I, however, have spent the better part of two decades with Anorexia Nervosa. It mimics autism symptoms surprisingly well though. In fact, I started on the road to an autism diagnosis because I was struggling with eating disorder recovery.
There’s an awful lot of overlap. Both disorders cause issues with rigidity (when it comes to food). Neither likes to have food routines changed and often have a short list of safe foods. And autistic meltdowns about eating or food can look almost identical to eating disorder panic attacks. Thanks to MRI studies, we even know that autistic brains look incredibly similar to those of patients with anorexia.
Autism and Bipolar Disorder:
Out of everything we’re talking about, autism and bipolar disorder are the only things that can sometimes be considered ‘fun’. The beginnings of mania, with its extra energy and hyper creativity, is right up there with autism’s special interest joy and sensory bliss. Eventually, though, mania starts to become overstimulating and rub the autism raw. Even worse, depression can weight the autism down, forcing you into your head. The similarities are mood based and subtle, so it’s very possible for things to escalate quickly.
When we put it like that, rigidity, obsession, and control are common themes.
It’s so easy to feel like just one single thing is the complicating factor, but I’ve had enough therapy to know that it just doesn’t work that way. They say in regards to mental health that nature loads the gun and nurture pulls the trigger. I was already genetically disposed to having OCD, Bipolar, and Anorexia. On top of that, my life experiences also made me susceptible to mental illness. Add both of these things to the fact that it’s believed that autism is a genetic disorder present at birth and well, it’s hard to blame the autism for anything.
Does autism interfere sometimes with my mental health? Sure. But so do my physical disabilities like POTS, my multiple learning disabilities, and the fact that I’m Hard of Hearing.
I’m trying hard to channel the frustration that I sometimes feel into something more productive. Instead of being upset that autism, or any other of my mental crap, is quote-unquote ‘fucking up my life’, I take a good long look at whatever’s wrong and start figuring out what I can to do fix it, for me and for my communities.
Advocacy, self and otherwise, is something that I am lucky enough to be able to do. And I guess I can ‘blame’ autism for that too.