The madness of being different

I am now spending large amounts of time with autistic people, and it has thus become clear that I am one of them. I am, I think, only very lightly on the spectrum. I don’t have the money to get an official diagnosis, but far too much can be understood in light of this for me to dismiss it. Many things which have troubled me now make sense.

For many years I was considered cold and unfeeling – my response to significant events was to go quiet – it’s still my most common response. Yet I felt things deeply – inside the quiet body was a raging heart. A common trait in Autism is that emotions can be so overwhelming, it forces the person to shut down. As I have gently monitored myself recently, I can see that this is what happens – and now my inner landscape and outer response makes a great deal more sense.

I also have difficulty with order and reason… I find it hard to tolerate inconsistency or lack of logic. I can see patterns in how people are, how systems work, and need these to match and be ‘correct’. It isn’t a powerful thing – I am not overwhelmed by it – but it does shape my whole approach. In the end, it’s very helpful, and has made me very good at my job – so I see it as a gift, not a curse.

It’s certainly been helpful to have this new lens to see myself through, it was helpful for those in the new family I am a part of, and I imagine it can help many people lay some ghosts and questions to rest… but there is another side to it which I find deeply troubling.

Diagnoses of Autism are dramatically on the rise – along with similar conditions like ADHD. This appears to correlate to an increase in mental health conditions – most especially depression.

My concern is that, rather than discovering real conditions and then helping those people, what is happening is closer to ‘medicalising non-conformity’. It takes a certain mentality to cope with the awfulness of modern life. For the majority, it’s repetitive, lacks emotional depth or meaningful choice and is saturated with unhealthy behaviours one is mandated to take part in.

To succeed means to meet dangerous criteria – the ways we measure success are deeply unhealthy. It often requires huge ego, the willingness to exploit others or a deeply misguided belief in one’s own degree of talent and worthiness. How rare is the decency of a Tom Hanks, and how common the ugliness of a Jeff Bezos.

Through education and culture we are moulded to fit the increasingly narrow requirements of our society. There is less and less room for ‘difference’. Those we might once have considered eccentric or artistic are now ‘unproductive’ and ‘difficult’ – or autistic.

Once diagnosed as different, what is our response? Most often it is to prescribe medications – which cost money. Thus we have turned mental health into a profit making industry – encouraging the diagnosis of problems because it leads to shareholder value. It’s hardly an objective practise.

I understand that a diagnosis of Autism can indeed be very helpful. At the same time I question why. I question our evaluation of the condition. Once diagnosed the emphasis is firmly on ‘supporting the patient’. For me, we also need to ask how we might change society in order to enable a wider range of human behaviours, a broader spectrum of ways to think, feel and behave. I believe it is possible to value people for many more reasons than we currently accept.

Clearly there are actual conditions – such that people hear voices, experience a mania that is overwhelming, or a catatonia that is disabling. I am not suggesting we must always change the world to suit the individual, or that every mental health condition is just ‘someone who is misunderstood’. However, diagnoses of Autism and other conditions are more and more frequent – and I thinks it’s at least worth asking the question: is this because we now recognise and support a condition that was once ignored, or has society become unable to tolerate people with this personality type?

Is the rise of Autism a sign that we are better at accepting difference and enabling people? Or is it a sign that fewer and fewer people are able to fit the suffocating requirements of ‘normal behaviour’?

Much in the way that depression has become a useful diagnosis – which excuses us to load the patient with drugs and expensive therapies until they can return to work… when really the problem is that their life is a perfect recipe for creating depression: has Autism become another way of excusing a set of medical interventions which disguise the real problem – a society which makes people ill and rejects difference because it is ever more tightly focussed on the very narrow project of creating wealth for a tiny few?

One thought on “The madness of being different

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  1. Enjoyed this read. A couple of observations from someone farther down the path, though: firstly, there are no medications routinely indicated for autism post-diagnosis (unlike ADHD). Secondly, a diagnosis of autism in the UK almost never comes with post-dx support of any kind (speaking as one who has walked myself and close family members three times through three different diagnostic routes – NHS, private, and educational.

    Finally I think the soaring diagnosis rates, alongside the eradicating of support, points to a tension arising from two opposing forces currently at work in the world – the pull to care and seek understanding, and the push to stigmatise, divide, and abandon. Rooting for the pull!

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