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Opinion piece

Can autism and mental ill-health be connected?

Vicky Dermitzi, Business Disability Forum

Vicky Dermitzi is BDF’s Digital Officer focusing on user experience and digital accessibility. Her background is in education and she has worked as a classics teacher, ESOL lecturer and holds a role as a digital media lecturer in England and abroad.

Depression and anxiety are often symptoms my learners with Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) from different age groups experience.

But after working in education for over 15 years, my interaction with learners with autism shows that they often feel misunderstood and unable to express themselves ‘the same way other people do’.

I keep reminding them that there are many communication mechanisms they can practice and adopt. However, I always emphasise that they don’t have to put pressure on themselves.

From my experience, this is what can be really damaging: it’s the expectation to transform their communication channels and, subsequently, the feeling of failure and disappointment when they don’t succeed.

Autism, mental health, and education in a pandemic

After the pandemic led to the most recent lockdown, millions of learners had to isolate for months and attend online lessons.

Most of my disabled students weren’t happy to turn their cameras on, so I learned how to assess their well-being by noticing changes in their voice and the words they chose when they were posting messages.

Some were disappointed, sad, bored, worried, agitated, sometimes absent, and often unmotivated.

Some of my learners found comfort in online lessons.  A student suffering from depression, who has been describing symptoms of agoraphobia and panic attacks to me, responded brilliantly to remote lessons.

Learners, on the other side, who need structure and routine were struggling to follow the newly introduced teaching processes, but more importantly, felt even more isolated.

“I can’t find the right words,” I often hear my  learners with ASDs say, but everything was more complicated during the lockdown as online-only communication led to cyberbullying in some cases.

Autism, mental health and cyberbullying

We have all experienced miscommunication when we email a colleague or when we text a friend; lack of in-person communication is confusing as vital verbal and non-verbal elements are lost in the process.

During this extended period of online learning, students could only communicate with their friends via social media, which was an unexpected challenge for everyone who is already struggling with communication.

‘Do you sometimes dream that you are in danger and you are trying to scream for help, but you have lost your voice?’ one of my learners with autism said to me.

For someone on the spectrum, it may not be possible to find the right words to report bullying.

However, someone who needs help and support will be finding ways to communicate – if we choose to listen to them:

  • Sending a link to a video describing depression or self-harm
  • Screenshots from apps indicating lack of sleep
  • Questions about happiness and life
  • Removing themselves from groups and conversations
  • ‘I don’t care anymore’ behaviour; figuratively and literally

The signs of mental ill-health in people with autism do show up; but do we know how to listen? Do we care enough to notice?

Autism and mental ill-health awareness – what has changed?

I remember my first years in education and the first time I was working with a learner with autism.

One day, I decided to change my lesson planning and asked the students to skip a chapter; my learner with autism – one of the most intelligent students I have ever worked with – had an intense reaction to that minor change.

Everyone started laughing and the learner had a meltdown. I was shocked and I didn’t know how to react; an admission of guilt and a result of poor training and lack of awareness.

But it wasn’t just me who wasn’t informed and prepared; mainstream education and governments didn’t prioritise systematic processes which would accommodate the needs of all learners, employees, humans.

More positively, mental health and neurodiversity awareness days and campaigns around these days bring attention, encourage discussion and push for change.

And, thankfully, as a result, employers, schools, further and higher education are now legally obliged to provide adjustments for the needs of all learners, provide training and support from experts.

But it’s not just the legal aspect, what is truly changing (and needs to change) our attitude; if I don’t know anything about disabilities I can ask; if I use incorrect language I will apologise and keep learning.

At Business Disability Forum, we work with businesses that may be at the very same place I was when my student yelled at me and I didn’t know how to react or when my learner with autism emailed me videos describing self-harm.

Every single one of us is likely to experience temporary, situational or permanent disabilities and also mental ill-health and, at BDF, we believe that we can all think, we can share, and we can learn. And we are here to help.

Useful resources:

Our People Manager Toolkit – sponsored by Microlink – is designed to help your organisation’s People Managers create and sustain thriving inclusive teams. It has advice on performance management, managing attendance and workplace adjustments.

Our Mental Health Toolkit – sponsored by Anglo American – aims to help you follow best practice when it comes to protecting and enhancing your employees’ mental health. It is designed to help inform your organisation’s mental health strategy. It’s available free to Members and Partners. Also, visit Mental health toolkit: Stress, burnout and business culture.

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