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I recently read about a mother whose three-year-old son has just been diagnosed with autism. She had no idea, she thought he was a normal boy who had tantrums and could be shy or sometimes a bit rude. To me that sounds like a lot of three-year-olds and I’m surprised it got as far as a medical diagnosis. Is this a good thing because the child and mother will now get support? Or have we detrimentally labelled a boy who has only just started his life?

Our understanding of mental health and developmental conditions has changed so much in the last few decades. When my mother was growing up, she was considered shy. If she was growing up today, she might be┬ádiagnosed with Asperger’s. I don’t think the lack of an official medical diagnosis has damaged her, she’s a happily married woman with friends and hobbies. If she had grown up with the autistic ‘label’, would it have changed her perception of what was possible and deterred her from her achievements?

Go back a hundred years or more and many men and women were locked up for misunderstood conditions and ‘illnesses’ which simply didn’t exist. The act of applying a medical label to a person could be incredibly damaging. Now, the damage is mainly to our perception of ourselves and the way other people think of us and treat us. We wouldn’t expect to be sent to an asylum just for having Asperger’s or being depressed. Instead we could start considering ourselves outsiders, failures, genetically flawed, emotionally or socially incompetent… did I miss anything?

Maybe I’m being ungenerous. Maybe it is more helpful to give a name to what we are so that we can talk about it and understand it as something that can be managed and supported. But I still think of that little boy and the others like him who are being defined at an incredibly young age. Will they understand what the doctors are saying? Will they be able to see beyond the black and white limitations defined in the medical textbooks?

What do you think?

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As you may have gleaned from earlier posts, I’m a big fan of our natural ability to adapt, change, and generally make improvements to ourselves and our lives. That positive feeling is something I’m sure won’t ever change – but a dream has made me think about the other side of adaptation. It reminded me that adaptation is not a byword for positive change.

A long time ago I had a friend who, by Aspie standards, was very close. For a long time I tried to help her make improvements in her life because there were a lot of things she was unhappy about. I could never understand why she couldn’t make changes. She was always adamant that changes could not be made, or were not necessary. What had happened?

She’d adapted so well to her circumstances that she was unable to realise an alternative

If you live with something for a long time, especially if that ‘something’ builds up gradually, it becomes normal. You can get used to being overweight, or feeling ill, or avoiding new situations. You can even get used to being depressed or anxious. And if that is your normal state, how do you know if it’s possible to feel any better? How do you know if it’s worth making an effort to try to change?

Shouting at the TV

Have you ever watched a soap or documentary that made you angry enough to shout at your TV? I do it all the time, even though I know it changes nothing and makes me look stupid. Every time I remind myself that it’s a futile gesture – but it’s only the TV I’m shouting at so there’s no harm done.

Do not make this mistake in real life! If you have a friend who is stuck on a problem and they seem to be going around in circles, stay calm. Even if you give them the same advice a hundred times, don’t be angry or annoyed if they don’t take it and can’t seem to change of their own accord.

If people are going to make changes then it’s down to them – they have the right to adapt however they see fit. Just because you think they could be doing much better doesn’t mean they will, or should.

The comfort zone

Our ability to adapt means we’re always in danger of finding new comfort zones. The trick is to make sure you don’t get stuck in any that are actually bad for you.

If you’re used to being overweight then you probably won’t be too concerned about overeating, until you end up with type 2 diabetes or have a heart attack at the age of 35.

If you’re used to being lonely it might seem preferable to spend another night in, rather than going out and trying to socialise which would seem strange and difficult. But you might end up wishing you’d got married and had kids by the time you hit 50, which is a lot of lonely years.

Something that seems common to people with Asperger’s is a propensity to get really tired. Socialising, changes in routine, and working full time are the three major culprits. We’re not lazy. In fact sometimes this tiredness is really frustrating because we want to do more and achieve more.

If I had the energy to stay late at parties making small talk it would make my life a lot easier and I think I’d have more fun. I’ve lost track of the times I’ve had to leave early, feeling guilty for being the ‘party pooper’ and wondering what funny things I’ll miss.

Equally if I could work the long hours my other half does I’d have a lot more money to enjoy spending. Instead I work part time and I try to keep a close eye on my budget because of that. I’ve done full time before – often with overtime too – it’s exhausting. I felt like a zombie and I got depressed thinking about the volume of work I had to get through each day.

Avoiding that post-death feeling

Now that I’m aware of what tires me out and how that affects my health and emotional state I can work to conserve my energy. That’s why I don’t take on too many freelance projects, because I know the quality of my work (and my health) will suffer if I try to do too much. That’s also the reason I don’t stay too late at parties (and don’t go to many parties).

I used to push myself right to the limit, imagining that one day things would just ‘click’, and that with practice I’d achieve the energy levels shown by everyone else at the office/nightclub/house party.

Now I push for less and feel much better. Doing less makes it feel as if I do have more energy. I can enjoy my work and social life more.

Know your limits

I would advise everyone – Aspie or not – to understand your energy limits. Don’t push yourself to ‘be like everybody else’. Listen to what your body and mind is telling you. You can leave the party. You may also be able to work part time if that’s better for you. You don’t have to be and do everything.

I remember reading somewhere that people with Asperger’s tend to suffer depression more commonly than people who aren’t on the Autism spectrum. I don’t know if that’s true but it seems to make sense, especially when reviewing my own childhood.

In those days I had no idea why I struggled to make connections and I ended up being referred for counseling at a fairly young age. I told my counselor that I felt like a freak because I couldn’t behave like the other children at school and I had trouble communicating. She suggested I join a social skills therapy group as well as continuing the one-on-one counseling.

My anti-social colleagues

In my group there were two shy girls, one of whom I think had issues with her body image. These became my ‘sort of’ friends. There was a small boy who might have been hyperactive – I’m really not sure. The other member of our group was another boy who had anger management problems.

We played games like fruit salad and drew diagrams to help us think about how we relate to people. It was fun but after the group finished my ‘sort of’ friendships petered out. I was still the same person. A little more confident but hopeless at maintaining social relationships.

The black dog returns

A year or so later I had another breakdown. The depression came back and this time I asked my parents to let me see a hypnotherapist. (My previous counselor had been a GP referral.)

This proved a little more helpful, possibly because it didn’t focus on making me work with a specific group. Instead I got to speak to someone who made me feel comfortable.

I remember she had a sculpture on her mantelpiece that she said reminded her of me. It was a dark metal ball covered in spikes. Like the head of a mace, I suppose.

She told me I was spiky – which I already knew – but hearing it from someone else made me think about it differently. I was spiky because I was defensive, as a default mode. Why did I need to be on the defense 24-7?

She also introduced me to a litter of puppies that her dog had recently given birth to. They were gorgeous and so trusting. Not like the cat that used to live with my family, that had been unfriendly and taken a chunk out of my forehead one day. Or the guinea pigs that weren’t interested in you except to get fed. It was nice to feel welcomed by something that didn’t care what you said or looked like, as long as you were prepared to be nice in return.

Since finishing those sessions while still in my teens, I’ve gone through a lot of changes and improvements. I am not immune to depression. I have experienced several elongated periods of misery and despair. Fortunately the last of these was while I was still in my early 20s, which now seems a long time ago.

What has changed?

Over time I was able to prove that I could make and keep connections. As this was the main source of my pain there’s no reason for it to return.

Have you had therapy for depression or other aspie-related issues? How did you find that?