I need to put a disclaimer here before I go on: YES, there are extreme cases of autism where it is definitely a problem – where it absolutely interferes with the person’s ability to function in life, and where it can cause them to be a danger to him/herself and to others. However, contrary to what the media would have you believe, this only applies to the minority of autistics, while the majority of us might not be diagnosed for years because we’ve found a way to blend in enough with society to be mainly ignored. Just as Tourette’s is not all about swearing, OCD is not all about hand-washing, and ADHD is not all about having screaming fits and smashing up your property, so too is Autism much more than the stereotypes you see on television.
What’s more is that the books on the subject would have you believe Autism is something that only affects children – but what happens to these children when they grow up? Do they somehow grow out of it? Or do they just get forgotten?
As a child, I was very socially ‘difficult’. In fact, the word ‘difficult’ was attached to me so many times that I grew to resent it. It implied I was being stubborn and willful, when in fact I just could not help the way I was at the time – indeed, I couldn’t understand why what I was doing was so wrong. As far as I was concerned, all I was doing was being myself.
I felt uncomfortable with friends, and yet I hated the loneliness this brought. The truth is I am an intensely social creature, but as a child, the social expectations were lost on me, I never seemed to do the ‘right’ thing and people were frighteningly unpredictable. I preferred to imagine they were with me, in my own private time, where I could control what they said, like a script with actors. That way, no one could shock or hurt me.
I also developed a great passion for reading, where I would sink into the stories, fall in love with the characters, or even become the characters and erase myself from existence. I often found it confusing being in real life social situations because it felt like the people around me had no idea what a remarkable adventurous little girl I really was…inside, in my head.
I loved routine. If things went contrary to the plans I had mentally and emotionally prepped myself for, I felt so anxious I was prone to fits. I would grow desperately unhappy, cry, scream, all because my parents had decided we needed to wait until the following day to go do something I was expecting to do now. And I couldn’t explain to anyone why it left me in such a state of panic, which only served to panic me more.
In school, I could not stop talking, could not ‘behave’, could not focus on anything that didn’t particularly interest me, could not, could not, could not….
What could I do?
I was passionate about the things that excited me. Sure, they were often strange things, like my obsession with sharks, or black holes (at the age of 6), or the etymology of the English language (or any language, for that matter). I felt great pleasure in working out the Quadratic Equation in Algebra class. I loved working out detective stories. I practised singing along with my favourite songs constantly until I could perfectly mimic all intonation and improvisation. I never ran out of things to say, even if it was about strange esoteric subjects. I knew everything there was to know about the Pet Shop Boys. I could recite the entirety of Disney’s Aladdin and Hocus Pocus for you without the films playing. I could speed-read, getting through a book or two a day, all year long. I could always entertain myself, without the need for outside stimulus or company. I had high ethical standards, which led to a great sense of loyalty toward those I loved.
The point is: some of it was a little crazy (and in fact still is). But some of it has been – dare I say it? – useful.
If not for my stubborn perserverence, I wouldn’t be here starting this website or this company. Check Mates would not exist. If not for my loyalty and constant chatter, I wouldn’t have managed to make all these remarkable friends I’ve accumulated over the years, without whom the book could not have been made. Without my love for reading, again, the book would not be published. Without my tendancy to sink inside myself, I would never have become a writer.
And that’s just me. I have since learned to integrate myself into the world – learned to ‘fake it until I made it’, studying and imitating those I meet until I blend in more. I have reached a point in life where I am happily married, a mother, working a stable job that I enjoy and I have many great friends. I believe my stubbornness is exactly what brought me to this place – because there are all too many people out there who came from the same position I did and have not been so lucky.
They have been too singled out in school, assimilated the abuse and the negative labels and accepted that they are outsiders. They have struggled in school systems built for people who just don’t think like them.
Because that’s all Autism really is, in its so-called ‘higher-functioning’ form. It’s a different brain type, a different way of thinking. We learn differently, we require more routine and preparation, we need information to be delivered to us with some relevance to our natural passions in life, we need more focus and patience – but then, aren’t there plenty of people out there without Autism who are the same way?
Over the years I have heard people claim that Autism is ‘brain damage’, perhaps caused by some problem in childbirth, or the result of an abusive or neglectful childhood upbringing – that it is a disability. Yes, sometimes it is. But for the rest of us, I strongly believe that all we need is the encouragement to unlock our natural potential. We are brilliant creatures with talent and imagination and intelligence, just like anyone else in the world. When we’re given half a chance, just watch how far we fly.
To put things into perspective, I always believed others were just like me, until I read Temple Grandin’s Thinking in Pictures, where she detailed what it was like to be Autistic, stating repeatedly that ‘the general public do not think this way’. I found myself relating to everything she said and asking myself in shock, ‘That’s not how the rest of the world are??’
Perhaps the real key to dealing with the more maleable forms of Autism is to stop trying to force us into typical social conventions and instead try thinking the way we do. I’ve always found it impossible to imagine what it must be like to think any other way, so I can understand why it would be so hard to understand my way of being. But it really isn’t so strange if you’re living it.
Those of us who can find ways to function in the world do not have ‘disorders’ that need to be cured with medications. In such cases, it’s not a ‘mental illness’ or a ‘syndrome’. It’s an entire personality type. It’s who I am. To ask me to take drugs to change it would be like asking me to stop being me. And frankly, I can think of a long list of people who like me being me – myself at the top of that list! Why should I have to go against my nature just to fit in? Why do we find difference so thereatening that we demand conformity, despite the fact that all our great leaders, thinkers and artists have been great because they were so ‘outside’?
To me, this is normal. So where’s the pill that makes you think like me?
Just something to consider….
Editor & Founder of Conditional Publications
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