During my primary school years, I experienced a grim desire for death that I confided in my mother. At age 12, I endured my first nervous breakdown, haunted by incessant noises in my head. By 16, the traumatic loss of my father to cancer plunged me into a deep depression. My struggles continued at 23 when an undiagnosed illness left me in constant pain, dizzy, and half-deaf during my studies overseas. While fellow students reveled in clubbing and the magic of German Christmas markets, I grappled with suicidal thoughts as I wandered alone through the icy streets of Berlin, barely eating.
The sudden and unexpected death of my mother when I was 27 only added to the anguish. Despite therapy and medication, depression and anxiety had become unwelcome companions throughout my life. I felt hypersensitive to the world, unable to sleep, frequently ill, and achingly lonely. There was a deep-seated feeling that something was fundamentally “wrong” with me.
Why did I feel isolated in a crowd? Why couldn’t I express my innermost emotions? Why did eye contact feel excruciating, and human touch, at times, electric? Why did I find solace and connection in solitary moments, listening to the same albums on repeat, while feeling nothing when interacting with those I knew in real life?
At 28, I finally received a diagnosis of autism. While this revelation provided clarity about my life, my relief was short-lived. Looking back at pivotal moments in my life was just the beginning; now, the future appears daunting.
Autistic individuals face staggering challenges, including higher rates of homelessness and an eightfold increase in unemployment rates. Perhaps most shockingly, they have a life expectancy that is 20 to 36 years shorter than the general population. While the exact reasons for this drastic discrepancy remain uncertain, it is likely linked to the comorbidities frequently associated with autism.
These comorbidities encompass physical and neurological conditions, such as congenital abnormalities, epilepsy, insomnia, and gastrointestinal disorders, as well as psychological conditions like depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, eating disorders, and bipolar disorder. Furthermore, the suicide rates among autistic individuals are significantly higher.
A study in Australia revealed that 66% of autistic individuals without intellectual disabilities reported suicidal thoughts, with 35% admitting to making suicide plans or attempts. This rate is approximately five times higher than that of the general population.
The harsh reality is that the world, designed primarily for neurotypical individuals, poses numerous challenges for those on the autism spectrum. In a society built by and for neurotypical people, it is no surprise that autistic individuals struggle to secure employment, housing, and battle physical and mental health issues. In Australia, up to 75% of autistic individuals do not complete education beyond year 12, further perpetuating their financial instability.
To address these pressing issues, it is imperative that governments and communities listen to autistic voices and acknowledge their unique needs. Australia’s first National Autism Strategy (NAS), currently open for public feedback, holds the potential to bring about meaningful change.
The NAS aims to improve the lives of autistic individuals in Australia by addressing key reform areas such as access to services, healthcare, education, and employment. However, the success of the NAS hinges on whether it is implemented correctly. The strategy must prioritize financial security, ensuring accessible workplaces and income support that surpasses the poverty line for unemployed autistic individuals.
Financial stability serves as the foundation upon which diagnosis, support, social inclusion, physical health, and mental well-being can flourish. I speak from experience, having navigated a life marked by poverty and housing uncertainty without knowing I was autistic. Today, even with a diagnosis and self-funded support, I continue to encounter challenges, but I am one of the fortunate few.
For meaningful change to occur, the NAS must pave the way toward a longer and improved life for autistic individuals. It starts with acknowledging their unique needs and providing the necessary support and financial security, ultimately fostering a society where autistic individuals can not only survive but also thrive.
Originally on news.com.au