Trigger warning: depression, suicide
As I’m writing this, I’m sitting on my living room couch, fresh orange hair dye in my hair and my own specially composed “evening vibes” Spotify playlist playing in the background. I’m feeling okay, which may sound not all that great, but is surely a lot better than my mood last Thursday. Because last Thursday I had such a big mental breakdown that I asked my parents to come pick me up from my apartment, because I didn’t trust myself to be alone. I was scared what would happen if I stayed alone with my thoughts for the rest of the evening. It was a fear that had been looming for a couple days and now finally was showing its face.
In case it wasn’t clear yet: I have depression. Chronic depression, stemming from my autism. And I’m definitely not the only one. So why does depression affect so many autistic people?
This world is not wired for us
Alright, I want to do a little visualisation exercise with you. Imagine you’ve moved to a new city. You’ve never been there before but you’re going to build your life here. But from day one things seem off. The people in this city have some weird customs you don’t seem to understand, no matter how many times it’s being explained to you.
When people talk to you, there’s sometimes a hidden message for you to decipher, but you rarely do. “Everyone else understood” a person would tell you, gesturing at the people around them “so why didn’t you?”. But you’re not from here. You weren’t born here, so how would you know? They expect you to know, though.
You figure that you just need some time to adjust. So you try and blend in with the locals. You spend time with them, take note of their customs, their behaviour, their speech.. But every time you think you got it figured out, they make it clear that you don’t. It’s becoming very frustrating. People start to shun you and mock you. You feel like something is wrong with you for not being able to adapt. There’s no going back to where you came from either. There’s no leaving. This is what you’ll have to deal with for the rest of your life.
Do you have the picture yet? This is what living with autism is like in today’s world. Except we’re born into this strange world, and yet we never learn. Because we’re not wired for this world, and this world is not wired for us. And that’s why depression tends to hold hands with autism.
We can mask, but never fully learn
Ever heard of masking? It’s when an autistic person puts on a neurotypical (person without autism) mask. It’s when we pretend to not have autism in order to fit in and function. But wearing that mask is, apart from super draining, not the same as learning how to be like everyone else. We never fully learn. We adapt. The neurotypical behaviour we display is an act. It’s not natural.
For me personally, it’s an automated process. I don’t have to think about it anymore. When around people, the mask goes on and stays on until I’m alone again. This way I can never truly be myself unless I’m alone. And that’s not great for my mental health. Many other autistics face this exact same problem. We have no choice. The world is not giving us a choice.
When it all becomes too much
Back to that little visualisation exercise. Just put yourself in that position once more for me, okay? Be honest with me: how long do you think you can last like that? Living in a place where you don’t understand what people mean, what they want from you, what you should do to fit in, and what you’re doing wrong when you fail fitting in. How long can you stand being lonely and misunderstood? When will you break? There is no escape, except for one.
This is why the suicide rate for people with autism is around nine times higher than for those without autism. That’s bad, and I’m not afraid to admit that I’m among the large group of autistics who have contemplated suicide. This rate is around 66% of autistics.
Autism & depression: how do we fix it?
To be honest, I don’t have the answer to this question. Because how do we create a system that works for both neurotypicals and autistics? Of course, we should start by being more inclusive and compassionate. Because an often heard statement made by autistics (including me) is “I don’t mind being autistic. It’s the way the world treats me that bothers me”.
That’s for a reason. How the world treats us affects us greatly. For example: I feel safe around my friends because I never feel different around them. They know who I am and what I struggle with, and they’ve accepted that. They don’t ask me to change. In fact, they’re willing to change things for me to make things easier.
But on the other side of the same coin, there are people who expect us to change. Who expect that over time we will learn to behave like a neurotypical, and will scold us when we fail to do so. But here’s the thing: you can’t change us. You can try to teach us things, but if it’s not in our capacity to learn it, then that’s where it ends. It sucks for both sides, but making us feel bad about it only makes it worse. It’s best to work together to work around it. And most of us are more than willing to find a solution to work around it, but we’re never being given the chance. It makes us feel less capable. Dumb, even though we’re not. It slowly eats away at our self esteem until there is nothing left. This is why it’s so common for people with autism to have depression.
So back to the question: how do we fix it? The only thing I can come up with is inclusivity. Being understanding and kind (without treating us like a kid!). But even then depression will be a big problem for those with autism. Because no matter where we go, there will always be places where we’re mocked. Where we feel stupid or scared. Places that tell us to ‘get over it’. Places that makes us want to run home and cry. And that’s the harsh truth that I have to live with. The harsh truth that made me call my parents last Thursday. Because I didn’t feel like I could go on anymore. I didn’t want to do it anymore. I was tired. Done. Empty.
But I’m here now. And I’m glad I am. I hope my fellow autistics will read this and know that it’s okay, and that they’re not alone. You’ll be okay. One day we will figure this out, and I hope you’ll stick around to witness it.