I was just (less than an hour ago, as I write this) reading the most recent post Unstrange Mind put up on her blog, entitled I have a depressing, socially-isolating disease. In it she explains about how celiac and Non-24 (see her post for details) affect her in ways that are depressing, socially isolating, and very much not good for her overall health; in contrast to autism, which is not something isolated from her “self” and has a number of things about it which make her happy.
That post got me thinking, and it reminded me of a question that I think I remember my father asking me at one point, about the effects of autism vs. the effects of depression, and why I considered them to be different (the context being about how “curing” autism would make me a completely different person). I think I now have an answer.
It’s actually related to another conversation we had back in July about the difference between “allergies” and “intolerance”. To simplify the conclusion we reached:
Allergies involve a substance that the immune system believes does not belong in the body, and it therefore attacks it. The reactions we have are the results of our immune system doing the attacking. (Yes, allergies are an immune system reaction. My high school biology teacher did her doctorate on immune reactions in allergies, and spent a couple of periods taking us through the basics.)
Intolerance is when the body doesn’t know how to handle something. For example, I have lactose intolerance. What that means is that for some reason or another (sometimes there are multiple pathways/reasons for this inability), my body is unable to digest lactose. To give an example that will (I promise) lead back to the premise of this post, diabetes is essentially when your body has an intolerance for glucose, whether because your body can’t produce enough insulin to deal with it, or because there’s a problem in the metabolic pathway that means that while you can produce enough insulin, it’s not getting to the glucose. And yes, diabetes is an extreme example, but it’s a valid one.
(Also note that both allergies and intolerances can vary with time; I tend to have months at a time when I don’t need to worry too much about my lactose intolerance, and then months where it acts up to the point that I’ve started eating goat cheese most of the time.)
So, now that we’ve covered that – the starting point for my thoughts on the subject of this post, let’s go on to the main issue. Autism, and what it is not.
The main contrast I will use in this post is depression, because that’s something that I am intimately familiar with. However, it also applies to things such as epilepsy, celiac and/or gluten intolerance (heh!), GI issues, anxiety, and all those other issues that are conflated with autism because of the higher incidence among autistics, but are not actually autism.
Autism is classified as a “pervasive developmental disorder”. I won’t get into a discussion about the term “disorder” – for my thoughts on that, see my post Revamped Links: Neurodiversity Paradigm. The term that applies here is “pervasive”. That means that it’s involved in everything about the way we think and how we perceive the world.
“But wait! So are things like depression and anxiety!” people cry.
However, they are not the same.
Autism involves the way our brain is wired, the way the neurons are connected. It’s different enough from the “normal run” of humanity to result in noticeable differences in the ways we process information, and some aspects of what we are capable of (i.e. issues with executive function tasks, but a great eye for details). That difference in wiring does not change, though our ability to cope with our perceptions can (depending on energy levels, quality and quantity of sleep, if there’s been any problems in the last little while).
Things like depression and anxiety, when they are “clinical” level (i.e. go on for years, rather than for days or weeks after a trigger event) are neurochemical issues – problems with the way our brains deal with serotonin and the effects of adrenaline. Essentially, they are a type of diabetes of the brain. (*wry grin* See? I told you it would lead back.)
And like both intolerances and allergies, they are not always at constant, consistent levels. They change. Even people who are diagnosed with clinical depression or anxiety disorder can spend weeks to months not suffering from them (admittedly in cases, with the aid of medication – but people who suffer from diabetes also take medication). The basic wiring pattern of our brain does not change. (Yes, communication pathways do, but the underlying structure does not.)
I am not always depressed. I am not always anxious. I am always autistic.
And, as I mentioned, the same thing applies to other co-morbids. Epilepsy is more or less when the brain suffers an electrical storm. No change to underlying brain structure, and can be eased by medication. Not to mention that people with epilepsy are not constantly seizing. Gluten (including celiac) and GI issues? Body’s intolerance to certain things, or (in the case of celiac disease) acting as though it were an invader and kicking the immune system into action. And again, not constant, and can be dealt with by a careful diet and/or medication.
So yes. Autism and depression (anxiety, celiac, GI issues, epilepsy, etc.) are two completely different things, two different causes. One can be dealt with, and I applaud all those searching for a cure for clinical depression, anxiety disorder, celiac (and other autoimmune diseases), GI issues, epilepsy, and other things like Non-24. Autism is a part of what makes me “me”, the basic structure of my self and personality, and honestly? I like who I am.