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The Mental Side of Autism

It’s autism awareness week, and we want to highlight what autism looks like, what it’s like to live with, and how it can impact mental health.

Autism is a developmental disability which affects how people communicate and interact with the world. It is a spectrum disorder, which means that it can present itself in different ways in different people. One in 100 people are on the autism spectrum, and there are around 700,000 autistic children and adults in the UK. More men and boys are diagnosed with autism than women and girls, with the current ratio about 3:1.

Autism is most commonly discussed in relation to children, as this is when symptoms usually start to appear. However, it is a lifelong condition, and some people are not diagnosed until adulthood.

What does autism look like?

Autism has many different faces, and autistic people can have varying and complex needs, from requiring 24/7 care to simply needing things explained clearly and more time do things.

The main symptoms are:

- Social communication and interaction challenges

Interpreting verbal and non-verbal language is often difficult. Autistic people may be unable to speak or have limited speech, while others struggle to understand tone of voice or sarcasm. It can also be challenging to read other people and understand their emotions and intentions, which can make it very hard to navigate the social world.

- Repetitive behaviours

To make sense of a world that seems chaotic, autistic people often like to have set routines that give them a sense of predictability, such as eating the same thing for breakfast or wearing the same clothes. They may also repeat movements such as hand flapping, rocking or using an object such as opening or closing a door as a way of calming themselves. Changes to routine can be very stressful and cause anxiety.

- Sensory differences

Autistic people can be over- or under- sensitive to sound, touch, taste, smell, light, colour, temperature or pain. They may not like to hug other people, or may find bright lights or loud noise distracting or disorientating. These sensitivity issues can be overwhelming and cause sensory overload.

- Highly focused interests

Autistic people can often have intense and highly focused interests, which can change over time or remain lifelong. They often become experts in their special

interest, and can gain high academic qualifications in these subjects, but it can cause them to neglect other areas of their life.

- Meltdowns and shutdowns

When things become too much, an autistic person may experience a meltdown (temporarily losing control of their verbal and/or physical behaviour) or a shutdown (withdrawing and going quiet, with an inability to react).

How does autism impact mental health?

We all experience impacts on our mental health at some point, but autistic people may regularly feel extreme anxiety. Research suggests that autistic people are more prone to anxiety, and estimates that half of all autistic people experience high levels of anxiety on a regular basis. This can be due to the stress that difficult social situations and sensory environments can cause, unexpected changes to routine, difficulty in identifying and understanding their emotions, and worry that they are misunderstood or not accepted by other people.

Experiencing such high levels of anxiety can lead to exhaustion and meltdowns, and may cause autistic fatigue and burnout, when pressures get too much and lead to extreme exhaustion.

If anxiety is affecting your life, it might be helpful to talk to your family and friends, or visit your GP for support. If you or someone you love has autism, or think you might, and you want further information, guidance or support, more detail can be found here.

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