Can knowledge and understanding of Autism lead to more effective mental health support? Andrew Lawes believes so.
When I first read this article by Danny Baker, it made me angry. I felt as though Baker was blaming me for being mentally ill. “Who is Danny Baker to tell me that I’m not trying hard enough to be well?” was a theme that cropped up in the comments, and it was one I initially echoed.
On Monday morning, I woke up to several complaints about my article “The Reality Of Suicide: We Must All Take Responsibility For Change“. The bone of contention was where I explained my belief that society has to accept responsibility for the existence of suicide and for people seeing it as a viable option. At first, I felt the complainants were being oversensitive, that they had misunderstood the tone of the article and the point I was trying to make. As the discussion progressed, I realised three things:
* I, unintentionally, had hurt the people I was trying to help.
* By accepting my error, I could rephrase the paragraph in a way that conveys my thoughts in a more effective way.
* The people criticising me were doing exactly what I had done when I read Danny Baker’s thoughts.
I re-read the essay and I realised that Danny Baker was writing about his personal experience, and sharing the advice that had enabled him to win his own battle. It may not work in every situation, but it will resonate with a lot of people, and it may be the reason an individual is alive today. Danny Baker didn’t deserve my condemnation for his situation not reflecting mine, he deserves my support in his attempts to make a positive difference in the world.
Danny Baker wasn’t blaming me for being ill; he was urging me to take more responsibility for improving my situation. Whether he succeeded or failed on an individual level, he was trying his best to help, and that’s all anybody can do.
I have worked closely with adults with learning disabilities for several years, and the disability that fascinated me the most was Autism. If you are unfamiliar with Autism, the National Autistic Society defines it as “a lifelong developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with, and relates to, other people. It also affects how they make sense of the world around them.”
The image at the top of this page was drawn by Stephen Wiltshire, who is diagnosed as being an autistic savant – someone on the autistic spectrum who has demonstrated extraordinary and unusual ability. He spent just 20 minutes looking at New York before drawing it entirely from memory. Every window, every building, every last detail is accurate. Other high-profile people diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum include the actress Daryl Hannah, Courtney Love and Susan Boyle, who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of Autism. All of these individuals demonstrate that a diagnosis does not have to hinder the ambitions of a person, as long as the person is in an environment conducive to a positive outcome.
In my work, I tried to create that environment for the people I supported. Occasionally, there was a communication breakdown and, because I was unable to understand what the person was trying to tell me, frustrations built and challenging behaviour was exhibited. Sometimes I knew what the person was communicating, but the trigger to the challenging behaviour was an event beyond my control, and so my job was to support the individual. I would explain the situation beyond our control in a patient, supportive and empathetic manner. I would support the person through the ‘crisis’ period and any challenging behaviour they exhibited, keeping them and the people around us safe. Then I would attempt to rebuild the rapport between us, reassuring the individual that I understood their frustrations, before finding an alternative for them to focus their attention on. These situations were stressful, but over time, they became easier to manage. As my relationships with the individuals I supported developed, I was able to look beyond the labels, the diagnoses and the care plans and support them in my own individual way. My style was unconventional; sometimes, I had to go against the advice suggested in the person’s care plans, and occasionally I frustrated my colleagues, but it was very rare that anybody displayed challenging behaviour as a result of my support, which was beneficial for me, the individual concerned and everyone else involved in their life.
The best way to effectively support somebody on the Autistic Spectrum is through the acceptance that they don’t live in our world. They can only live in their own. It is our responsibility to support them to live in their world whilst keeping them safe in ours, in the hope that, when the two worlds collide, it creates a better world for everyone. Stephen Wiltshire’s incredible ability may be an exception, but he shows what can happen when someone is supported to discover their talents and given the encouragement and environment to develop their abilities. That should be society’s aim for every single person.
Throughout this article, I have made reference to the terms “learning disabilities” and “mental illness”. I did this because these are the socially acceptable terms of today. I believe this is part of the problem.
My personal and professional experiences have given me a unique insight into the workings of the mind. What I have learned is that the only thing we are is mentally different. I’m not mentally ill; my mind just works differently from everybody else. That rule applies for every person on the planet.
Understanding Autism is the key to solving the conundrums of the mind. The biggest hindrance to effective mental health support is the idea that we all live in the same world, and that there is a ‘right’ way to do so. We accept that people on the Autistic spectrum live in their own world. What we need to accept is that we are all on that spectrum.
In order for the spectrum to exist, it must contain the most extreme case of autism ever diagnosed. If ‘completely autistic’ is on the spectrum, then the opposite must also be, in which case, we must all be on the Autistic spectrum.
I believe the mistake mankind has made is in seeing Earth as a planet. Earth is not a world, it is a universe comprising of over 7 billion individual worlds, each as valid and important as the last. Danny Baker was right when he said I have a responsibility for my own mental health, because the only person who can explain my world is me. It is up to me to explain to the people closest to me what my world is like, and to give them the best possible guidelines for supporting me to co-exist with the other worlds around me.
The first step to our worlds co-existing is to smile at people. The only way to confront abuse and make our worlds safer is to make choices based on what is right and wrong, irrespective of any potential consequence of that choice. My responsibility to my own mental health involves explaining the support I need to the people I need it from, and I hope if I can, I will find a better, happier way of life.
In my world, depression is like the common cold – as I adapt to one strain, another is created. I know depression will return to my life in the future. It is my responsibility to ensure I’m as prepared as possible when it does.
Photo/ Stephen Wiltshire