Stress, Autism and Depression

MY BROTHER, STEVEN*, RANG ME A FEW NIGHTS AGO, in a blind panic. He teaches English, and had just been told by his new boss that he is ‘too slow’ and ‘can’t deal with the things we need you to deal with in time.’ Steven’s anguish was both audible and palpable; he’s 36 and has always had trouble holding down work for any length of time.

Three years ago, this depression spiralled wildly out of control and Steven found himself ending up in an expensive rehabilitation centre for chronic addiction. He had become incapable of holding down a job although he is a remarkably bright, well-educated individual with a degree from an Australian University. It was a sobering and truly cathartic experience for him; from a privileged background he found himself sitting in a circle with those from the lowest; brought together through addiction, stress, unemployment and ultimately depression.

But the addiction was only an outward manifestation; the real issue was the denial of his Asperger’s Syndrome and its most basic needs; a quiet space to teach individual students, time to process instructions and information – which clashed with the demands of a busy, noisy, intensely social workplace. This simply manifested as stress, which matures quickly into depression. Asperger’s need precise, clear instruction; they need more time to process information; they need place and space to remove themselves from the tension of work, and more than that, they take their work very seriously and avoid socialising so that they can concentrate on it. Naturally, this often gives offence to those employees who use socialising as a survival mechanism.

A common misconception about Asperger’s Syndrome (a form of high-ability Autism) in Sarawak is that, like all Autism, it only affects toddlers and young children. Autism is for life. Children do not ‘grow out of it’, though they may develop covert coping strategies. The sad fact is that, as those with Autism reach their later teens, they are often forgotten or ignored, sometimes as a shameful family secret to be concealed. Somehow, these adults have to find and hold down a job. Steven is in just this situation and has rent to pay.

Those with a ‘traditional’ mind understand the world primarily as a social construct. They evaluate everything they see in human terms. Steven has no such framework and evaluates absolutely everything received through all of his senses as individual, separate facts that have no bearing on each other unless there is a specific instruction to help him. In Asperger’s, some senses are heightened painfully, so that a dripping tap becomes like a hammer, a creaking door can sound like a string orchestra screeching and a person talking too quickly can sound like a crowd of people shouting demands. Imagine the demands made on such a person in a crowded workplace. And then – shy, nervous, bombarded with information, barely coping – they are told off for not working harder.

Luckily, a well-placed email from an autism expert has alerted his employers to the issues he faces. As in all cases of workplace depression and stress, it is communication with those who are causing it which should be the first recourse. Otherwise subsequent communication will be with expensive addiction counsellors, doctors or even psychotherapists.

* Name changed to keep his situation anonymous.

Last year, Katrina achieved her MA in Autism and Asperger’s syndrome in relation to stress management. Katrina is also a qualified yoga instructor who trained in Dharamsala India. Katrina will be opening her own studio called ‘Whole life stress management’ in a couple of months with the aim to help and support other adults with and without Autism/Asperger’s syndrome to manage stress through, yoga, meditation, music and drama.

Editor’s note: Befriender Kuching provides emotional support to those who are in crisis or in distress. Phone lines operate from 6.30pm – 9.30pm daily. 082 242800

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