One woman's journey navigating autism and mental healthBy Valerie Paradiz, PhD
This guest post was written by Valerie Paradiz, PhD is the Vice President of Services and Supports at Autism Speaks.
Mental health and autism is an important subject for me. I’m autistic, and I wasn’t diagnosed with autism until later in life, at age 40. Getting a diagnosis was a critical turning point for me. Before that, starting at age 12, I had been treated regularly for depression. While my medications helped (and still do!), the many hours of counseling I received often missed the mark. I wasn’t moving forward in my relationships or in my working life. This was because my therapists didn’t recognize signs of autism in me. So they didn’t recommend that I get evaluated for it.
Once I was diagnosed, I was able to look for more targeted kinds of therapy with providers who accepted and understood my autism. I grew as a person, and I learned more about relationships and how to manage and enjoy them at work and in my personal life. I began to move forward in my career, too. All of this took time and many starts and stops. But I learned to use therapy and medications to build my confidence after so many years of being stuck and feeling frustrated in my life.
Many people—family, teachers and even health professionals—often overlook mental health conditions in people with autism. For example, they may think that conditions like depression and anxiety are just part of being autistic, so they don’t give them any attention. Likewise, people with autism may not be able to notice signs or symptoms of mental health conditions in ourselves without help. Also, many people with autism experience major trauma due to bullying and social exclusion. When we react to current situations in certain ways because of past trauma, people in our lives may be quick to blame our behavior on autism. They may not see it as a reaction to past trauma or as a true cry for help.
Many people with autism have mental health conditions, like depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder and bipolar disorder. These conditions directly impact our health and daily lives. Breaking down barriers to care is essential. This includes removing obstacles that can prevent early detection and diagnosis of autism as well as mental health conditions that can affect its treatment.
I’m grateful every day that I found the right combination of treatments for autism and my depression. I often wonder how life would be if I had found it sooner than 40! I carry these thoughts with me every day in my work at Autism Speaks, and I try hard to pay it forward with my amazing team in Services and Supports.