My Autism And ADHD Used To Be Debilitating. Now They're My Superpower.
In just 12 months, Greta Thunberg has inspired millions to strike for climate change.
She’s probably done more for the cause than our former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who labelled climate change “one of our greatest scientific, economic and moral challenges of our time” back in 2007.
But for me, Greta is an inspiration for a different reason. She is open about living with Asperger’s syndrome and the mental health challenges that have come with it. She does not hide her disgust for hypocrisy and doublethink, even if it causes her mental distress.
In fact, Greta was so overwhelmed by the apathy she saw on climate change that she was depressed and “sat alone at home, with an eating disorder”.
Unfortunately, the disclosure has allowed right-wing pundits to call her “mentally ill” in an attempt to discredit her points on climate change. Critics have even expressed mock concern for her well-being, saying that she is being subjected to child abuse. But Greta has only doubled down on clearly communicating the points. She has tweeted that “given the right circumstances, being different is a superpower”.
For someone like me with ADHD and autism, Greta has inspired me to speak more openly about my conditions and show people that how, with the right support, I can make a huge difference.
Sadly, I did not discover my superpower at Greta’s age. Instead, I was drowning in depression and anxiety. I was incredibly stressed by the amount of mental effort that I had to put into acting out social cues and interactions that came naturally to most people.
Paradoxically, when I did have friends, I alienated them by being inattentive to their social needs, like forgetting important events or being overly self-absorbed in my own interests. The stress of regulating my fickle attention, on top of my social struggles, translated into repeated emotional breakdowns through my life and career.
But most doctors and psychologists insisted that I only had anxiety and depression. I was just a difficult patient with perfectionistic tendencies. After all, I managed to finish a law degree with first class honours. I held down a job as a medical journalist and made a successful transition to legal marketing. I couldn’t have done all of that with ADHD and autism, they said.
READ MORE: Hannah Gadsby Opens Up About Having Autism
But research shows that many women get a delayed diagnosis of ADHD because we just don’t fit the male model of the hyperactive boy bouncing off walls. We tend to be internally restless and inattentive, and we’re also much better at hiding and coping with our symptoms. In autism, it’s described as the “camouflaging effect”, where women go through elaborate actions to “mask” their true selves and blend into society.
But the mental effort of hiding our true selves in the world is a massive mental health risk and can have serious consequences. Autistic women are four times more likely to attempt suicide compared with the general population, and one in five women with ADHD and autism have attempted suicide.
There were many times where I definitely didn’t feel like life was worth living, even when I was nominated for a major publishing award. When I was finally diagnosed in October 2018 (described as a “textbook case of ADHD” with autism), I felt an immense sense of relief.
Finally, I had an understanding that my brain was just wired differently. I had my challenges, but I also had strengths that people can value because of my ADHD.
And that’s why I am so inspired by how Greta has been able to speak openly about how her autism is part of neurodiversity, the idea that neurological differences are just part of the diversity of human minds and not necessarily a medical liability. We can’t solve the biggest problems of our time with the same thinking that created the problems.
Of course, we should acknowledge the legitimate challenges that come with autism and ADHD. But that’s just one part of the picture.
My autism and ADHD infuses me with an overflow of creative ideas. I thrive under pressure and deadlines that would frighten most people. And throughout my career, my managers and colleagues have valued my creativity, honesty, passion and divergent perspectives on problem-solving. When I am not judged for my challenges in organisation and processing, I produce my best work. I am mentally healthier and happier than I have ever been before in my life.
When we are worried about the high rates of mental illness in society, it is worth thinking about whether being more inclusive can also help people like myself and Greta play to our strengths and help to change the world.
If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about depression and anxiety contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.