Updated: Nov 30, 2020
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I watched a documentary about Autism and now I think I have it. They interviewed lots of people and talked about how they feel, and it felt like they were talking about me. I often feel shy and misunderstood in social situations. I think that maybe my brain is different than most other people, and most of the time people don’t get me. I have friends, but I think it’s harder than it should be for me to communicate. I just think it really makes sense that if I have Autism that is why I feel like this. What should I do next?
Dear M –
Thanks for reaching out, it sounds like what you saw in the documentary made some sense to you and helped you to explain how you were feeling. Seeking out information is very useful, and can be a reminder that we are not the only people feeling and thinking the way that we do. It seems like there are two issues that you bring up, and I’m going to do my best to address both. First, there is the question about whether or not you have Autism, and what you should do about it. Next, there is a larger question of how do we label (“diagnose”) our experiences and is this something that you can do for yourself.
Autism is a neurological condition that has two main components: major challenges in social skills and functioning, and repetitive or stereotypical behaviors, interests, or activities. It is usually, but not always, diagnosed in early childhood and is both a medical and mental health condition and exists on a spectrum; meaning that everyone living with Autism will have a different experience. According to the CDC, 1.5-2% of people in the US live with Autism. From this information we can see that Autism is pretty rare, and pretty specific. If you have a doctor, therapist, or parent that you trust, mention your concerns to them. There are specific tests and assessments for Autism that can give you a definitive answer. Also, for the record, I wanted to point out that many, many people on the Autism Spectrum live independent, fulfilling, and happy lives.
On to the second part of your question, which is about diagnosing our experiences – this is often called “self-diagnosis” and is a pretty common thing. Many people come into my office and tell me that they have this or that, and are convinced that I should “give them” a diagnosis that matches their own assessment. It is very understandable to want to understand why we think and feel the way that we do and the internet is a wealth of information. Feeling like we are “different” or “misunderstood” or even “broken” can be really upsetting and trying to find other people who have had similar experiences can make us feel less alone. It can also bring hope that we don’t have to live this way forever and we can improve because we see that other people have done it.
However, mental health is not about labels. Mental HEALTH is about finding ways to feel happier, more satisfied, learning about ourselves, and improving our relationships with other humans. When we get distracted by the label, it makes our experiences smaller. For example, thinking “I have Autism, so that’s why relationships are hard for me” is way too simple. There are people who live with Autism and indeed many of them struggle with relationships. However, everyone can learn to be better at connecting with others, communicating more clearly, and finding people we relate to. Also, there are various reasons that relationships can be hard for us – maybe we were bullied in elementary school, maybe we have a difficult relationship with our siblings or parents, maybe we are LGBTQ and were “closeted” for a long time – the list goes on. Working through these things is the best way to improve our social skills and learn about ourselves. That’s the job of every therapist, social worker, and counselor out there, and we are good at it. We also know that growth comes from focusing on growth instead of labeling the problems.
Take care of yourself, M!