Getting off the (mental health) spectrum: the power of neuroplasticity
This article explores how:
- A mental health diagnosis is not a life sentence
- Pathologising is not the path out (cognitive redefinition is)
- Choice gives hope, hope can create a chance at freedom
Dr Joseph Michaels, when visiting the facility where Hans Asperger was working with kids at the Heilpädagogik Station in Vienna in 1935 made this interesting comment about the battle they were facing with ‘normalising’ the children: “The criterion for classifying behaviour as normal or abnormal [orients around] the challenges created for the individual… normal and abnormal is theoretically unclear and practically of no great importance.” He noted that people fell across a normally distributed distribution curve – the bell curve of statistical fame. Abnormal then means several standard deviations away from the centre, it’s where people started having challenges “fitting in” or getting along.
Just because they are outside one standard deviation though, is hardly a reason for name-calling. Those with dyslexia, autism and ADHD (among other things) are not rightly thought of as people with a disability. They are differently-abled. According to the American Institute for Learning, “Atypical neurological development is a normal human difference that is to be recognized and respected as any other human variation” and should not therefore be pathologized. Note: not everyone with autism agrees with this – one might remove access to vital services they need, to adapt.
It is helpful to speak about individual’s capacity to cope – their level of resilience and what support might help them get through. At work it is about creating equal opportunity, equal access to options and creating choice. Access to services, better designed workplaces, assistance, coaching and support all help individuals get off that spectrum.
My own journey with mental health
It’s sobering to think that 50 years ago I might have been institutionalised. I have a range of ‘issues’ which make me different, (I can hear a refrain from a Monty Python movie: “we’re all individuals…”).
I can’t feel my emotions. I have them, I just don’t experience them. When I describe this to people who do feel emotion, the reactions range from incredulous and disbelieving to confusion and anger. What’s a bit strange is that I can identify and recognise emotion in others. Clinically I’ve been diagnosed with type III alexithymia. Yes, that helped. It was a relief to know it was ‘a thing’.
There’s also a mix up in my neurology. I can only access my emotional state by using embodied metaphor and not through normal linguistic description. Ask me how I am, and I will likely give you a simile like ‘having a pretty stormy time’. Apparently, the link between my VMPFC and DMPFC isn’t working. The diagnostic label of neurological synaesthesia isn’t very helpful, no.
At night I feel the need to arrange the house just so – light switches the same way, doors locked and checked twice. My bedroom drawers are all arranged neatly. As a child I had to turn left and right an even number of times in a day. Does that make me Aspie? Or perhaps a bit on the OCD side? I’ve never been sure. I scored 40 on the ASD/AQ… and no it didn’t help.
I have a certain way of remembering information. Some use a mind palace, others use mnemonics. I can do both of those things, but it’s easier to simply visualize and record what’s happening. I can recall entire conversations that way or quote a passage from a book by recalling the page it’s on. Technically it’s called eidetic memory. Yes, I have a diagnosis. No, it’s not helpful.
Then there’s this high tolerance for painkillers mixed with a low awareness of pain, and a large lack of awareness about my internal body state. Super helpful in competitions, not great for enteroception – feeling that appendicitis or diverticulitis. Medical diagnosis: kinesthesia. Very helpful. No more hospitalizations.
Does a diagnosis help?
This constellation of data points, along with a tendency to get lost in imagination, remain indifferent to people’s opinions and a general lack of fear can be interpreted as being autistic, (or being a high functioning sociopath). And I might even be. But you know what? I never knew these things were a problem. Are they a problem? I think they have been a strategic advantage actually.
I admit, my emotional reactions were out of step with my peers at school, and I was often misunderstood. This generated a lot of mistrust and even bullying. But I didn’t know I was different, and it created a passion for understanding social signals, facial expression of emotion, reading body language and establishing a better relationship with my unconscious embodied cognition. Ultimately it stirred the beginnings of my journey toward coaching.
I would have to argue that diagnosis is only helpful if it gets you the support and assistance you need to get along in this crazy world. Do you need a label? Do you need a disorder? Maybe, maybe not. Medication sometimes helps people get enough clear space to think properly. If you’re having trouble sleeping, go for it.
This is not just a theory
I’ve treated myself as an ongoing experiment in the power of the brain to learn and change. I found help in learning, mentoring, coaching and living a deeply reflective life. Neuroplasticity is a must. As a result of what I have experienced, learned and changed, I have been able to journey with others as they get off the spectrum (whatever their particular bell curve has been).
Coaching clients of mine who sought diagnosis, got medical support and treatment and have now moved, through personal commitment to change, away from that diagnosis include:
- A middle aged male who is bi-polar no more (took 6 years),
- A young female who is anxious no more (took 3 years),
- A middle aged female who has agoraphobia no more (took 3 months),
- A young male who has PTSD no more (took 6 weeks).