More than 'a Bit of Mindfulness': Practical Steps to Support Autistic Mental Health & Wellbeing
Whenever there is a Mental Health Awareness Week, Month, or Tuesday, we are sure to see well-intentioned advice posts pop up in our news feeds, including such gems as:
“Do some yoga!”
“Have you tried meditation?”
“Go for a walk”
“How to cook 3 healthy meals a day”
“15 self-care tricks you need to try TODAY”
“Meet people (when there’s no pandemic)”
While a healthy lifestyle is vital to our mental wellbeing, the tendency to treat mental health as a private matter, as an individual responsibility only, is worrying and narrow-minded:
It implies that “if only you did more mindfulness, you’d be okay”. Therefore, if you fail to ‘fix’ your own mental health, it is seen as a personal weakness or character flaw.
It puts us under pressure to live up to all the self-care expectations, which can increase anxiety/ depression, and lower self-esteem.
It passes the buck for a systemic mental health crisis to the individual, offering an easy way out for employers and authorities.
Why provide paid sick leave, reasonable accommodations, or work-life balance, if you can just host a wellness workshop or a weekly yoga class?
Why fix your underfunded, understaffed public health service, when you can run a marketing campaign to draw our attention away from the #BigIssues and towards the #LittleThings instead?
❗ A ‘bit of mindfulness’ won’t fix public health, financial insecurity, lack of affordable housing, mental health services, education, discrimination, exclusion, and under- and unemployment.
Autistic people are disproportionately affected by depression, anxiety, complex trauma, and other mental health-related issues.
🛈 According to a Danish study, rates of suicide/ suicide attempts are more than 3 times higher in Autistic people.
🛈 A Swedish study found that 1 in 5 Autistic women with ADHD had attempted suicide.
🛈 40% of Autistic adults will develop depression throughout their lives.
And those numbers don’t account for Autistic people who go undiagnosed due to lack of services and understanding.
❗ Mental ill health is not an inherent part of being Autistic. It is mostly caused by a lack of understanding, supports and services, the constant stress of living in a society that doesn’t accommodate for our needs, and bullying, isolation, and discrimination in all areas of life.
It is true, we can’t fix the bigger systemic issues overnight. (And maybe going for a mindful walk will help us replenish the energy we need to advocate and campaign for change.)
But it is up to us as a community to support each other by providing inclusive, accessible spaces and by reducing psychological stressors. Let’s focus on what we can do to support Autistic people’s mental wellbeing today:
To support our wellbeing, shops, gyms, cafés, and other local businesses need to step up their game and become more Autistic-friendly, accessible, and inclusive:
❶ Create sensory-friendly spaces
A lot of Autistic people are sensitive to noise, smells, lights, and crowds.
Don’t blast music in supermarkets, gyms, shopping centres, and cafés. Everybody has earphones to listen to their own music if they want to.
Reduce smells from perfumes and cleaning products.
Replace bright fluorescent lights with warmer, more natural alternatives.
If possible, create a clear store layout to avoid crowding, bumping, and walking in different directions.
➋ Train your staff
You and your staff need to learn about Autism, Neurodiversity, and Disability.
Learn how to assist Autistic and other Disabled people.
Hire a consultant who is Neurodivergent/Disabled themself to ensure up-to-date information from our perspective.
Ask your Autistic/Disabled customers what they need.
➌ Be accessible and inclusive
Some shops already offer quiet hours for Autistic customers – we ask you to make it the norm. But inclusivity is more than reducing stress.
Host accessible, Autistic-friendly meetups, creative events, lectures, exercise classes, and more to enable us to participate in the community.
Have a trained mentor help us navigate events and break the ice.
And if you decide to revamp your store, give us advance notice, for example by distributing flyers with the new store layout.
Creating a less stressful and more inclusive space benefits all customers and staff.
To support our wellbeing, employers need to step up their game and create more Autistic-friendly, accessible, and inclusive workplaces.
❶ Create a sensory-friendly workplace
As mentioned above, a lot of Autistic people are sensitive to noise, smells, lights, and crowds.
Create quiet alternatives to open-plan offices with warm light and no distractions.
Create sensory-friendly spaces to decompress, take a break, and have lunch.
Replace bright fluorescent lights with warmer, more natural alternatives.
Adjust your air-conditioning – we are often more sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity.
Encourage staff not to spray perfumes, cologne, deodorants, or eat smelly foods in spaces dedicated to work. Replace noisy hand dryers with reusable towels.
❗️ Different people have different sensory needs. Just ask your staff what they need.
➋ Train your staff
You and your staff need to learn about Autism, Neurodiversity, and Disability.
Learn how to recruit and retain Autistic staff and support them on the job.
Learn to overcome (unconscious) bias and preconceptions.
Learn to listen to and value different perspectives.
❗️ Important: All training should be provided by Neurodivergent/Disabled consultants to ensure up-to-date information from our perspective. Appoint a Disability Officer who is Disabled themself. Consult your Disabled employees and involve them proactively in decision-making processes.
➌ Provide reasonable accommodations
Small steps can go a long way!
Accommodate our sensory needs (see ❶).
Provide clear instructions and structure.
Embrace written communication and AAC.
Whenever possible, inform staff about meetings and changes in advance.
Be flexible with regard to work schedules and remote work.
Learn about government grants/schemes.
❗️ Important: If we say we need certain accommodations, believe us. Never use our trust against us. Presume competence, but also offer support to help us thrive.
Creating a less stressful and more inclusive workplace benefits all members of staff and boosts productivity.
We encourage everybody to come together and create more Autistic-friendly, accessible, and inclusive communities. As the country is slowly opening up, let’s come closer together, learn from each other, and grow together as a community.
❶ Sharing is caring
Going to the shops, running errands, and doing physical chores around the house and garden can be taxing for a lot of Autistic and other Disabled people. On the other hand, a lot of us love gardening, knitting, and crafting.
A lot of us are environmentally conscious and don’t want things to go to waste or natural places to be littered. A lot of us long for a walk or hike in nature, but not everybody drives and public transport isn’t usually an option. A lot of us are eager to connect with our local communities, but might not always know how to get started. Here are some ideas:
Share chores like going to the shops, gardening, repairs, or posting mail.
Share responsibility for our neighbourhood by planting flowers and veg, or cleaning up nature places.
Share goods like food, clothes, tools, and reduce waste through freecycle and zero waste groups.
Share ideas and interests by hosting themed tables in cafés or lightning talk events where everybody can share a short talk about a topic of interest.
Share joy by hosting Autistic-friendly events (see ➋).
➋ Host inclusive groups, meetups, courses, and events
Whether you run a local exercise group, a book club, a board game meetup, an art class, or the community centre or garden, some small changes can help involve Autistic people more:
Proactively invite people who are known to be vulnerable to your events.
Wear coloured communication badges or name tags:
🟢 Green: Anybody can talk to me, feel free to start a conversation
🟡 Yellow: Please only talk to me if I know you, unless I start the conversation
🔴 Red: Please don’t talk to me, unless I start the conversation
These badges can help us navigate social situations and are an easy way to set boundaries. Everybody can switch between badges depending on how they feel throughout the event.
Have a designated mentor/buddy who can help new people break the ice, explain what’s going to happen, or be a point of contact if anybody needs anything.
Add some structure to your event to reduce uncertainty (even just a rough outline/timeline).
If possible reduce sensory stimuli like noise, smells, flickering lights.
➌ Don’t abandon online communities
The pandemic has seen a rise in online activities from game nights to zumba.
And while a lot of us suffer from ‘zoom fatigue’ and can’t wait to meet up face-to-face again, it has also been a great opportunity for Autistic people to connect.
We often live remotely or don’t have the financial or sensory resources to travel and meet up in busy, enclosed spaces, so it’s been great to connect with people from different parts of the country/world online using video or written communication.
Let’s keep the option for online or mixed on-/offline meetups and events as the country opens up again to meet people we wouldn’t otherwise meet.
❗️ Not only Autistic people, but other Disabled people, elderly people, single people, busy parents, and everyone, really, could benefit from working together more closely as a community and building on each other’s strengths.
We encourage counties, cities, citizens, and companies to come together and create more Autistic-friendly, accessible, and inclusive public spaces.
❶ Reclaim public space
With a lot of public spaces being privatised and commercialised, it’s often up to private companies how they want to run them. While said companies are encouraged to create inclusive spaces (see ‘Businesses’), it’s also important for citizens to have truly public spaces.
Interactive art installations, walls to paint on, musical instruments, outdoor board games, communal gardening patches, and little free libraries invite the community to interact, chat, play or just sit together without having to buy anything.
On the other hand, we also need sensory-friendly spaces to decompress. Install more benches in quiet areas of parks and squares. A bench facing a busy road or footpath is no use to many of us. Add more sheltered spaces like gazebos and pavilions to protect us from rain and wind.
➋ Rethink public transport
A lot of us rely on public transport – whether it is to connect with natural places or go to work. Daily commuting can be uncomfortable for everybody, but virtually impossible to endure for many Autistic people because of sensory overload and anxiety.
Reserve quiet seating areas for us, away from crowds, noise, flashing lights, and if possible with single-seat options.
Improve access to public transport in rural areas for social inclusion and access to natural places.
Train your staff to assist Autistic passengers effectively and consult Autistic people during your planning processes.
➌ Reduce (noise) pollution
Create sensory rooms or areas in shopping centres, libraries, or disused buildings.
Involve Autistic and other Disabled people in your city/county development plan.
Regulate, restrict, and monitor construction, landscaping, and commercial noise more strictly.
Pedestrianise more areas and introduce car-free days.
The pandemic has shown the value truly public spaces provide all year round. Redesigning public spaces in a more inclusive way will benefit the whole community.
Most importantly, we ask everybody to rethink their attitude towards both Autism and Mental Health.
One of the most damaging factors affecting our mental wellbeing is society’s attitude towards Autism. It underpins every other aspect talked about in this post. We therefore ask you to:
❶ Start fresh
Question your current beliefs about Autism.
If all or most of your exposure to Autism comes from the media, the medical field, or non-Autistic charities and parents, chances are your views are one-sided.
Get your information directly from Autistic people of different ages, ethnicities, and gender, sexual, political identities. Talk to Autistic parents and Autistic professionals. Engage with books, blogs, Youtube videos, podcasts, research papers, poetry, and art by Autistic people. Don’t assume that we are all the same.
Scratch phrases like “You don’t look autistic”, “We’re all a little autistic”, “high- and low-functioning”, “mild and severe autism”. They represent harmful ideas.
Learn about Neurodiversity, Autistic Culture, and the Social Model(s) of Disability.
➋ Listen to us
Ensure that we are able to participate in all decision-making processes that affect us on an equal footing. Value our lived experience and insights over so-called experts and specialists who look at us through a narrow medical or charitable lens.
Believe us if we say we need something. Believe us if we say something is disabling us. If we need accommodations, supports, and services, don’t make us prove that we are deserving of them. The burden of proof should lie with the employer, service provider, authority.
Respect all forms of communication. Presume competence. Just because someone doesn’t speak with their mouth, or communicates differently, doesn’t mean they have nothing to say.
➌ Change your attitude
Destigmatise both Autism and mental health. Make it possible to disclose and talk openly without fear of discrimination. Don’t judge people for being on medication. Don’t use someone’s mental health condition as an excuse to shrug off other concerns they might have related to physical health, relationships, work, etc.
Don’t dismiss feelings of low mood, anxiousness, worry, exhaustion, stress, and negativity. Accept them as a normal and vital part of the human experience instead of drowning them out with toxic positivity.
❗️ However, mental health conditions like depression or anxiety are different from occasional negative feelings and need to be treated professionally. A bit of lifestyle advice isn’t going to cut it. Take us seriously. Listen and hold space for us. And help us get appropriate support.
While changes in our communities and attitudes can help us improve our overall wellbeing, mental health conditions like depression and anxiety need to be taken seriously and treated professionally.
We all need to push for
properly funded mental health and disability services
providing Neurodiversity-informed therapies
delivered by professionals with up-to-date knowledge
❶ Public Autism & ADHD assessment
Access to public assessment is virtually impossible as an adult and very difficult as a minor. Private assessment is expensive and hasn’t always been accepted by public service providers.
Especially women and gender minorities are often diagnosed late, after being misdiagnosed with personality or mood disorders (commonly Borderline or Bipolar). Often Autistic burnout is misinterpreted as anxiety/ depression (although they can co-occur).
❗️ It is vital that we know about our own neurology to better understand our strengths and needs and advocate for ourselves, avail of accommodations, and connect with like-minded people.
➋ Public mental health services
Pretty campaigns encouraging us to “Speak out!” are useless if there is nobody who will listen to us. We need proper public mental health services for both adults and minors. Nobody should have to wait for months, years or be turned away.
All members of the mental health team need to be trained in up-to-date views on Neurodiversity, Disability, LGBTQIA+, and need to be able to work with addiction, complex trauma, suicidal ideation/attempts, and eating disorders.
We need therapies that are tailored to our needs. While some Autistic people have reported success with therapies focused on changing behaviour like CBT/DBT, others have been left traumatised.
We need Neurodiversity-informed approaches whose main focus is not on changing our behaviours, but on healing the root cause of said behaviours. We need client-centred approaches that take our lived experience into account.
➌ Complementary supports
Encouraging lifestyle changes is of no use if there are no supports and services to help us change our routines. Lack of knowledge usually isn’t the problem. We know that exercise and eating a varied diet are healthy. The problem lies in the how. Dieticians, occupational therapists, and physiotherapists can help establish and retain meaningful lifestyle changes.
Provide access to Neurodiversity-trained dieticians who understand the complex connections between Autism, ADHD, Eating Disorders, sensory sensitivities regarding tastes and textures, and commonly co-occurring gastrointestinal and autoimmune conditions. This way, they can help us develop a meal plan that is easy to follow and takes into account our executive functioning, energy levels, and cravings for ‘samefood’.
Provide access to Neurodiversity-trained physiotherapists who understand the complex connections between Autism, ADHD, dyspraxia, proprioception, and commonly co-occurring hypermobility, connective tissue and chronic pain conditions.
An occupational therapist can help with setting goals and creating healthy routines.
Unfortunately, public mental health has a long way to go.
For now, we mostly have to rely on private services by neurodiversity and LGBTQIA+ affirmative therapists, counsellors, and coaches.
Some service providers that are connected within the Adult Autistic community and have received very good reviews by Autistic Adults:
Under the Rainbow – An inclusive social enterprise that offers on- and offline psychotherapy, counselling, and coaching to individuals, couples, polycules, and groups.
The Adult Autism Practice – Private Autism assessment
Thriving Autistic – Strength-based coaching for Autistic/Neurodivergent individuals and groups
If all this sounds like a long list of demands, remember that we aren’t asking for special treatment. We’re asking for adjustments that should go without saying and assistance to make up for the damage done by a world that isn’t made with us in mind.
Mental wellbeing is a basic human need and right.
Harmful structures, systems, beliefs, and attitudes are the foundation of the current mental health crisis in Ireland.
Creating inclusive and accessible communities, public spaces, and services will benefit all of us, whether we are Autistic or not.