Frontline Initiative Dual Diagnosis

It's hard to explain...Defining my identity and finding success through self-advocacy


Daniel Ekman is a former program assistant and current interim program manager for the New Mexico Center for Self Advocacy. He is a member of various self-advocacy groups and coalitions. Daniel lives in New Mexico.

My name is Daniel Ekman and I am 27 years old. I could introduce myself by saying that I am an individual with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and an individual who is diagnosed with depression and social anxiety. But I’m not sure that would explain every­thing. I was discussing with a friend how I am affected by each of these diagnoses; I found that it was harder to explain than I had thought. When I was younger, my parents were the ones who advocated for me to get services to help me manage my autism. When I was a teenager, I initiated seeking therapy for depression, so I thought far more about having depression than having autism. I also didn’t know how to interact with others or even call people on the telephone, so I thought that social anxiety was more of an issue than autism. Now, as a former graduate student in special education and a self-advocate who works for the New Mexico Developmental Disabilities Plan­ning Council, I think more about my autism. But I still go to therapy for clinical depression, which runs in my family.

In short, it’s hard to think about what to call myself. It is more useful to think about the why and what I can do about any problems coming up from either having ASD or depression and social anxiety. For instance, when I feel depressed, feeling a lack of dignity or respect often comes up. I have seen this with other self-ad­vocates as well. Instead of labeling something depression and simply seeing it as inevitable, maybe it is more useful to ask a question. Does the person have the dignity of making as many of his or her own decisions as possible? Is the person living as independently as possible? After all, a lack of control in one’s life would make anyone depressed. I am fortunate to be able to choose what types of therapy I get. This helps me feel in control of my own life. Choice and self-determination shouldn’t sim­ply be a matter of good fortune. It should be a right. 

Sure, therapies at a young age helped. But being in an interna­tional student community during my undergraduate degree was an even more important moment of growth. I could learn through living in a caring community of people. I could push my comfort zone and try new things. I made mistakes and certainly had some suffering, but those were the mo­ments where I truly learned and grew up. It is critical for people to have opportunities to learn through experiences and make mistakes. Each person, including individuals with dual diagnoses, deserves to experience the tri­umphs that come through work­ing towards success in that kind of environment. Direct Support Professionals (DSPs) can support individuals through those growth moments rather than taking them away. Let individuals you support try new things, make mistakes, and perhaps even fail. After all, a life without those moments seems depressing, and, well, antisocial.