Even as a high-functioning autistic individual who has experienced mental health problems, finding out that those on the autistic spectrum are nine times more likely to commit suicide than the general population is still, to me, a shocking figure. Upon reflection however, it perhaps isn’t that surprising. According to figures from the UK charity Autistica, those on the spectrum with a learning disability are also twice as likely to take their own life. Furthermore, research is beginning to indicate that a significant proportion of people who die by suicide in the UK overall meet the diagnostic criteria for autism.
From personal experience I know all too well that such statistics point to a complex and often misunderstood picture of autism across almost every part of society. Indeed, this misunderstanding is not only true among many employers and the general public, but even within the NHS and mental health services. To face this problem, we need to recognise that autism is in itself, not a mental health problem or a specific learning disability. There are both high functioning autistics like myself and those who do have a learning disability. Understanding this, is key to making mental health services work for everyone. This is also why the NHS needs to develop autism-specific mental health care pathways, increase knowledge of autism among its practitioners and improve communication across different departments. Often people are let down as they are forced from pillar to post due to this misunderstanding within the system.
This only increases feelings of social isolation and loneliness, which are a common challenge for those on the spectrum and an issue that I have much personal experience of. Isolation can easily lead to intense feelings of depression and anxiety. University was a particularly challenging time for me. This was when such feelings and my own social anxiety became really apparent for the first time, to the point of having suicidal thoughts. These are thoughts which I am not ashamed to say I still experience to this day. At this point I was however, not yet diagnosed as autistic. Indeed, I was only diagnosed in July 2016 at the age of 25.
Thankfully with the support of university friends and help from student services I was able to overcome these feelings. I know however, that many of those on the spectrum do not receive the help they deserve when they need it, as the figures above show.
When listening to the recent House of Commons debate that took place on the 30th November, I was unsurprised, but equally distressed to hear that waiting times for diagnosis in some parts of the country can be as long as 2 years. I can only image the stress and anxiety such a long wait would put on an individual and their family; for me, waiting a little under a year felt like a lifetime. When much of the existing support is only available after a diagnosis it is therefore critical to reduce such waiting times. Another area which needs to urgently change is the current system of Personal Independence Payment assessments. Not only have I been personally refused help and will now have to appeal, but I know other individuals on the spectrum who are non-verbal that will now have to do the same. This is simply wrong.
Yet, not only do steps need to be taken on these specific issues, but most importantly, a greater overall understanding and awareness of the challenges is key to improving the lives of those on the autistic spectrum. This includes taking steps to tackle social isolation, removing barriers to appropriate mental health care and employment opportunities.
Sometimes, all it takes is that one understanding employer or a stranger who simply becomes a new friend to make a difference. According to Scope’s Work With Me campaign there are over 1 million disabled people who unemployed but want to work, yet unable to apply their talents. This includes 67% of autistic adults who are not in full-time employment. For myself, I know that gaining employment would help me manage my anxiety and mental health. Above all, it would also help feel like I belong somewhere.
More understanding across society has the potential to genuinely transform the lives of everyone on the autistic spectrum. We all deserve to be given opportunities and to be able to live a life full of joy and happiness, whether you are autistic or not.
It is time that society embraces autism, so that no more lives and potential are wasted.