This blog post was authored by Karen Weaver, a member of the Hogg Foundation Contributors Circle and an awardee of the New Voices Showcase. The post was submitted in observance of Autism Awareness Month. The views expressed in this post do not represent those of the Hogg Foundation.
Are autism and mental health challenges synonymous? Do the signs of both conditions cross paths?
For Autism Awareness Month, I collaborated with my son Cole Weaver, about his lived experience with autism and mental health. He is a 24-year-old young black man. What matters to him most is his connection with others. He enjoys authentic friendships. He is one of the most social, self-aware people with autism I’ve ever met. And he makes the best homemade buttermilk pancakes ever.
I am his mother. I think he’s brilliant.
Mom: When were you diagnosed with autism?
Son: I was around 10 years old
Mom: What led to your diagnosis?
Son: I had behaviors that weren’t acceptable to teachers and my peers. They told me I was annoying and a nuisance. I had a hard time getting along with people. They didn’t seem to understand me, and I didn’t really understand them. It was hard for me to be flexible.
Mom: How did you feel when you found out your diagnosis?
Son: I felt relieved. Suddenly what I had been feeling made more sense.
Mom: What is your first memory of anxiety?
Son: One night, there was a tornado warning. You made me and Kendal (his brother) come downstairs to hide. Sirens were blaring, and lighting was booming and shaking the house. The wind was so loud. It really freaked me out.
After that, I worried whenever there was even a chance of thunderstorms. I fixated on the weather forecast constantly. I would hide in my bathroom for hours with the exhaust fan on, listening to music with over-ear headphones to drown out the noise. Sometimes, I even slept in the bathroom overnight with blankets and pillows, like I was camping. Sometimes I was too afraid to leave the house.
Mom: How did autism impact you in high school?
Son: It was a combination of my autism and anxiety that made social situations hard to navigate. The girls I liked didn’t like me. Managing the workload was overwhelming, especially during my senior year. I took some pretty rigorous classes, and I could never catch up on the workload. My instinct was to run from the assignments or shut down, but I had to be in AP classes so I could be in the top ten percent of my class. I only made it to the top twenty. I worried if I would graduate because I had missed so many days because of mental health stuff.
In 2016, my senior year, I had my first mental health crisis. My mood was out of control. My anger was explosive. I was agitated and irritable. I had a major meltdown at home, and I ended up in the hospital. When I was there, I was diagnosed with disruptive mood and generalized anxiety disorder. I don’t know if that was accurate or not. Looking back now, I realize I also had ADHD. I got diagnosed by my neurologist when I was 12, but I wasn’t being treated for it. ADHD can also cause issues with emotional regulation. You get overwhelmed by simple tasks. I still deal with that now.
Mom: How did the pandemic affect your mental health?
Son: I had my second mental health crisis in 2021. I dropped my college classes. I was having suicidal ideation. My thoughts were very negative. Communication became even more difficult. My medications were not balanced. Life at home with you and Dad was impossible. I went into outpatient treatment to get my medication sorted out. The doctor prescribed meds that made things worse. Either I couldn’t sleep at all, or I was sleeping too much. I was angry and irritable. I even snapped at my friends. I lost a lot of friends that year. Maybe we were all stressed for different reasons because the world was so upside down after 2020.
Mom: In your opinion, is autism synonymous with mental health challenges?
Son: To be honest, it’s all tied to my autism. Autism branches out with anxiety, depression, and ADHD. It’s a spectrum, so not everyone is the same. It’s annoying to have different doctors give you all these diagnoses, and most of them are blatantly incorrect. One doctor told me that I am bipolar. He was wrong. It’s like these doctors don’t know what to diagnose. They just start prescribing different medications to treat symptoms. And a lot of the symptoms crossover.
Mom: How would you describe autism?
Son: It’s a neurological condition that affects social communication. You may not be aware of social cues or read body language. Some have sensory issues. Light, sounds, textures, and smells can be bothersome. Your feelings and emotions can be extreme.
Most of the time, I feel like my thoughts are not on the same wavelength as other people.
Mom: Is it possible to have autism and not have mental health issues?
Son: I don’t think so. As long as you’re neurodivergent, this world is not made for you. It’s not made for people who have disabilities or for anyone who’s marginalized. It’s made for people with advantages.
We have autism awareness; you hear about it all over the internet, but we don’t have genuine acceptance. There are all kinds of different people in the world. We’ve always been here. Just like there have always been gay and trans people. If there was more acceptance, people on the spectrum might have fewer mental health challenges.
Autism as a Superpower
Mom: Do you think that autism is a superpower?
Son: No. I think that’s an unhealthy misconception. I am different, but I’m still human. I’m not better or worse than anyone else. There are people on the spectrum who suffer every day because they don’t function as the world expects them to. The expectation that people with autism have some incredible ability creates barriers for those who may not be able to function as well. It’s an invisible disability. It’s not one thing. It’s many different things. I don’t think I’m more or less… than anyone. Maybe there are some areas where there is a benefit, but there are so many more situations where it isn’t.