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Navigating neurodivergence with Cole Lawrence

May 30th, 2024

Cole Lawrence

Note: Cole wrote this article on the unceded and traditional territory of the Nʔeʔiyk in the region of  Scwʼexmx of the Nlaka'pamux nation.  Content warning: This article mentions suicidal tendencies, admittance to psychiatric facilities, PTSD, Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID), and other potentially disturbing subjects related to mental illness.

In hope of helping others, I want to share my experiences having autism, schizoaffective disorder, and other conditions that were misdiagnosed as mental health issues.  I will also suggest solutions to improve mental health for autistic adults.

Cole Lawrence wearing large sunglasses and looking into the camera. (Cole Lawrence)

A bit about myself 

As a high school student in Prince George, I faced conditions that made it hard to focus on my studies. The school’s response — accusing me of seeking attention — only made things worse. 

Despite having proof from doctors, the school’s false accusations isolated me and stopped me from getting the help I needed. My family and some staff tried to help, but the school didn’t provide my required support. Later, I found out I also had Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and Sunflower syndrome, a rare epileptic condition. 

Being schizoaffective and AudHD, I had a drug addiction in high school that I kept a secret. I turned to pills and capsules to help me cope with overstimulation, Tourette’s Syndrome, OCD, masking, and more. Still, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, anxiety, C-PTSD, intergenerational trauma, and depression have deep roots in my family history. 

I struggled with suicidal tendencies and even went to the psych ward twice in my late teens to early twenties, but eventually got better treatment.  

Now, I’m in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and have support from both my biological and chosen family. I am grateful every single day for the support system I have.  

Text that says "mental health" on a light orange background framed by twigs. (Vie Studio/Pexels)
Text that says “mental health” on a light orange background framed by twigs. (Vie Studio/Pexels)

Consequences of untreated mental health conditions 

Before I found proper support, I went through a major health crisis, even considering Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID) due to repeated misdiagnoses. Proper testing showed my various conditions, and with treatment, I felt much better. 

Now in my 20s, not getting treatment for mental health issues has caused problems in my relationships, education, career, and even legal issues. I’m mixed-race, queer, and autistic Dealing with these different parts of my identity has taught me to be strong and accept myself. Discrimination, especially against people with different abilities, affects me a lot, limiting my opportunities and making it hard to navigate a world that’s sometimes unkind to people like me. 

My story shows that it’s crucial to understand physical and mental health for a complete understanding of medical issues. It also highlights the need to break down the barriers of stigma and misunderstanding around mental health, promoting acceptance and a more supportive society. 

In my 20s, untreated mental health conditions had far-reaching consequences: 

  • Strained relationships: Unpredictable mood swings, paranoia, and hallucinations strained connections with family, friends, and others, leading to isolation and a sense of abandonment 
  • Educational and Career Setbacks: Inability to focus coupled with cognitive impairments from PANS/PANDAS and schizoaffective disorder hindered academic pursuits and job stability, stifling aspirations and potential 
  • “Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcal Infections (PANDAS) and Pediatric Acute-Onset Neuropsychiatric Syndrome (PANS) occur after an infection, most commonly a strep infection,” according to the PANDAS Network. “An affected child generally has a sudden, dramatic change in personality, displayed as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), anxiety, tics or other abnormal movements, personality changes, decline in math and handwriting abilities, sensory sensitivities, restrictive eating and more.” 
  • Legal Issues: Untreated conditions led to impulsive behaviours, resulting in legal trouble and exacerbating turmoil 
  • Self-Isolation: Stigma around mental health conditions led to withdrawal from social activities, making it difficult to seek help or confide in others. I started drinking about twice a month. 
  • Physical Health: Stress from untreated mental health conditions took a toll on physical health, exacerbating symptoms and hindering a healthy lifestyle.  
  • Intersection of Identities: Being mixed-race and queer heightened awareness of the importance of acceptance, fostering resilience and self-acceptance in the face of societal expectations and stereotypes.  
  • Neurodivergent Identities: Autism, schizoaffective disorder, and PANS/PANDAS present unique challenges and strengths, offering a distinct perspective on the world. Navigating a world that is often ignorant or discriminatory towards people with disabilities is a constant task. 
  • Ableism and Discrimination: Experiencing ableism in various forms, from microaggressions to overt exclusion, limits opportunities, erodes self-esteem, and compounds challenges due to neurodiversity. Discrimination based on race, sexual orientation, or disability is emotionally and mentally taxing, fostering feelings of isolation and marginalization. 

How autism and my other disorders interact

My unique combination of conditions profoundly influences my daily life. Here are some of the ways: 

  • Communication Challenges: Autism affects communication skills, compounded by cognitive hurdles from schizoaffective disorder and PANS/PANDAS. Expressing myself clearly and understanding social nuances is particularly challenging. Simple conversations require significant effort, and conveying thoughts and emotions can be difficult. 
  • Social Isolation: The convergence of conditions leads to social isolation. Difficulty in understanding social cues, maintaining relationships, and the stigma attached to schizoaffective disorder, along with PANS/PANDAS obsessions and compulsions, fosters loneliness and detachment. 
  • Emotional Regulation Battles: Emotional regulation is a constant struggle. Schizoaffective disorder can lead to unpredictable, intense emotional responses. Autism adds another layer of emotional dysregulation, making everyday stressors challenging to manage. 
  • Treatment Complexities: Managing this combination is an ongoing, complex process. Finding a treatment approach addressing all mental health aspects proves challenging. Balancing medications, therapy, and interventions is crucial to minimize side effects and maximize effectiveness. 
A post-it note on a lush, plant-covered floor that says "be kind." (Lisa Fotios/Pexels)
A post-it note on a lush, plant-covered floor that says “be kind.” (Lisa Fotios/Pexels)

Fighting stigma

Combatting stigma around autistic individuals with co-occurring mental disorders is crucial for fostering understanding, empathy, and inclusion. Here are some key ways to fight the stigma: 

  • Education and Awareness: Stigma often stems from ignorance. Educating the public about autism and its co-occurrence with mental health conditions is vital. Awareness campaigns, workshops, and resources can dispel myths and promote understanding. 
  • Highlighting Individuality: Emphasize that autism doesn’t define a person’s identity. Co-occurring mental disorders are just one aspect of life. Encourage recognizing individuals for strengths, interests, and talents rather than reducing them to diagnoses. 
  • Challenging Stereotypes: Challenge media stereotypes of autistic individuals and those with mental disorders. Portraying and sharing diverse and realistic experiences helps break down preconceived notions. 
  • Promoting Open Conversations: Encourage open, respectful mental health discussions within the autism community. Creating safe spaces for sharing experiences reduces isolation, raises awareness, and provides support. 
  • Supporting Access to Services: Advocate for accessible and inclusive mental health services for autistic individuals. Reducing barriers to diagnosis and treatment is essential to overcoming stigma. 
  • Celebrating Achievements: Highlight achievements and successes of autistic individuals with mental disorders. Sharing stories of resilience challenges negative stereotypes and inspires others. 
  • Advocacy and Policy Change: Advocate for policy changes promoting inclusivity, anti-discrimination laws, accessible mental health services, educational accommodations, and more. 
  • Community Support: Build a supportive community for autistic individuals and their families through peer support groups, online forums, and local organizations. 
  • Empathy and Compassion: Encourage empathy in interpersonal relationships. Understanding the unique challenges of individuals with co-occurring conditions leads to more supportive interactions. 
  • Language Matters: Promote respectful language, avoiding derogatory terms contributing to stigma.  

By recognizing the contributions, strengths, and challenges common to autistic people with mental health conditions, you can help create a society where we feel more valued, supported, and able to thrive.  

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