My name is Maxwell Dean and I have high-functioning autism.

As far back as I can remember I have always found social situations difficult to varying degrees. In addition, I also face challenges with anxiety and depression, for which I take medication on a daily basis.  

Max DeanI can over-think too much about things and sometimes my anxiety can push people away without me intending to do so. This particularly impacts my ability to make friends and my personal relationships.

Upon reflection, this is perhaps why my first year of university was the most challenging time of my life. Making friendships was extremely difficult due to my social anxiety. While everyone went to parties or nightclubs, I often found myself on my own and isolated in my flat. This isolation also led to depression and suicidal thoughts.

In the end I did go to Student Services and a counsellor to explain my feelings. It was soon after this that I started taking antidepressants and eventually put on a waiting list for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. At this point I didn’t know I had high-functioning autism. Indeed, I was still on the waiting list for therapy when I finished university in 2013. It was in July 2016 that I was formally diagnosed with high-functioning autism/Aspergers at the age of 25.

Autism is a big part of my life. With it come many mental health challenges. Yet, as I have learned not to be ashamed of my autism/Aspergers since being diagnosed, I am also learning that talking openly about mental health experiences is critical to tackling discrimination and stigma around the issue. 

Another challenging experience for me and which exacerbated my depression was coming to the end of my last job contract, while having to find another house to live in and seeing my only personal social hang-out place close. This was a local bar in Cardiff, where I made friends with the staff. This became an important place for me to talk to friends and feel safe; my safe space if you will.

When this disappeared, I am not ashamed to say that my suicidal feelings resurfaced many times. I found myself once again socially isolated and found it hard to make new friends.

"I have come to realise that speaking out is an act of strength, not weakness."

Being unemployed and receiving rejection upon rejection also has a massive impact on my self-esteem, anxiety and feelings of self-worth. I often get frustrated with myself and can’t help beating myself up for not achieving as much as others or sometimes being unable to get my skills across during interviews.

Being part of a team and gaining the sense of belonging which comes with being part of a team is something which, despite the challenges I face, I will not give up on achieving. I have come to realise that speaking out is an act of strength, not weakness. No-one should be ashamed of talking about mental health. Individuals with mental health issues do not need to change themselves. It is society and perceptions which need to further evolve.

I cannot recall any direct experience of personal discrimination against myself but I have known people who have lost their jobs due to their mental health issues and anxiety. This is something which needs to change.

I believe that creating a more inclusive and understanding approach to mental health across society and which tackles isolation is key to achieving further change. This could not only transform the lives of people of with people with autism, but anyone who experiences mental health issues.

For those who continue to support me through facing and tackling my social anxiety, including friends and past colleagues, I will always be thankful. 

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