It took years- nearly thirty-two- for me to reach the conclusion that I am autistic. Even now, at thirty-five, I started to type that I “have” autism, when in reality, this doesn’t make much sense to me. And, in developing relationships with people in the community, I have found that they agree. Autism isn’t a disease. It isn’t a mental disorder. It is just the way our brains function. It is simply who we are.
Everyone is different, no doubt. Everyone has a unique way of thinking. Autistic people tend to think in such a way that someone with a “normal” sense of the world around them may look at them as though they are from an alternate universe. Autistic people are commonly outcast, or tend to fade into the background in social situations. Social cues are difficult to catch, and many times a crowd of people can be overwhelming. Autistic people usually take everything at face value, and it is sometimes difficult to understand why a person feels or thinks the way they do. So, like someone with a “normal” thought process, autistic people are equally baffled at the way other people generally feel. Small talk is annoying, for example. I honestly could care less how your day is. What I want to know is if you had any challenges that arose and how you dealt with them, and how I could potentially assist you through your struggles. This isn’t to say that I won’t listen to or engage in small talk, it simply means that I enjoy deeper, more meaningful conversation. The kind of conversation most people don’t feel comfortable with. It sucks, but I believe engaging with the autistic community over the last few years has allowed me to really connect to people who make sense to me, and people who have helped me make sense of myself. It has been special and empowering!
Autistic people have various characteristics, but share a lot of similarities in the way we think. The sensations we feel. The ticks and habits. The mood swings. The intensity. The drain. The STIM. It is exhausting coping with the every day life tasks for an autistic person. And a little secret for those who might sense you are also autistic- the society we have built is not very accommodating to those who think and feel the way we do. In fact, I had to do my own independent research for years to even get a grip of what, why, and how I feel and think. Psychology has always been an interesting subject to me, and after working in mental healthcare and completing two semesters of psychology, along with my own reading, I believe that my being autistic plays a big role in this general curiosity about the human brain. The shitty part about all of this is that all of my former research, prior to reading a book written by an autistic savant, doesn’t give autism any amount of justice. Autistic people are badass, and the more we engage in sharing our stories, the more we are lifted up in the community, and the more we can see that there is still a lot of work to be done in the general field of mental healthcare.
There are very limited resources, especially here in the American south, that paints the full scope of what autism truly is. So, please allow me to give you some more insight and resources. First, I will explain the reasons I felt strongly that I am autistic. If you are unfamiliar with psychology or autism, none of this will make sense to you, but these are some things that, I strongly feel, played a role in my being autistic:
Genetics (although it’s yet to be proven, I do believe other family members are autistic, my mom and daughter being among them)
I was born addicted to Phenobarbital, a seizure medicine (not a good thing)
Took early interest in music and film (Listening and rocking back and forth to music for hours, crying at movie scenes as early as age 3)
Fractured spine and concussion age 8, was confined to a reclined wheelchair, body cast, and home tutoring for nine months
Wrote a lot, won essay contests and participated in Writers Conference throughout school- very vivid imagination
Family trauma, developed bipolar disorder entering puberty
Fractured spine again, age 18
Family trauma, ten car accidents, PTSD
Hyper sensitive to loud, high pitch noises
Special interests in photography, art, nature conservation, human rights, etc.
So, there are multiple factors that can play a role in a person being autistic. The cool thing- and I can not yet explain why- is that autistic people generally gravitate to each other. In other words, it is rather easy to navigate social situations when you lock on to other autistic people. And you typically stick like glue. My mother was non-verbal until she was five years old. Her first words were “Good gracious alive! Look at that big pink gorilla!”
I was her shadow. And funny enough, my sister was mine. The same can be said about the relationship of my daughter and me. It is as though a light bulb flickers on and we find our way, helping each other navigate through life.
I attribute my ability to cope so well to the support I received throughout my life. I was never forbidden to spend hours at a time in my room, wearing headphones, blasting music in my ears while “dancing”. I was never forbidden to wear my hat backwards. I was never forbidden to cling to my security blanket (until I passed it down to my own daughter). I was never made to feel like what I was saying or doing was weird, unless I was outside of my typical social circle. And even then, sometimes I would be completely aware of my weirdness.
On the flip side, I have experienced negative social consequences among my peers. I’ve been called a lesbian- as though that were some sort of insult- countless times. Whether it was my lack of fashion sense, or the fact I could care less to fit in, or because I didn’t flirt back, sometimes I would be made to feel as though I did not belong or that I was somehow a threat, or less than. I’m not a lesbian, but given that homosexuality is somewhat related to autism, it makes sense to me now. And I still could care less. It is just yet another obstacle that our communities which aren’t quite cookie cutter enough have to navigate in order to somehow make our living. That, I feel, is the exhausting part. The good news is, more and more people are becoming aware of this. And the better news is, more and more people are becoming accepting of this.
Born on a Blue Day is a book written by an autistic savant, Daniel Tammet. This fella is intelligent beyond words, and breaks autism down so well, that once I began reading, I couldn’t put it down. I felt like I was connecting to my long lost brother. It was so enlightening to me that, even after more than a decade of digging into psychology, everything began to make perfect sense. This, along with connecting to other people in the community, has been a blessing. I have completely not only accepted who I am, but fully embraced myself. In the past, I struggled immensely with questions. Why this? Why that? Now? Not so much. I love myself, and this helps me cope with bipolar disorder. It is a win win- for everyone.
So instead of society trying to sweep the stigma surrounding autism, bipolar disorder, mental health under the rug and pretending like everything is just totally cool… look at it differently. I believe the stigma might be rooted in the negative events which have happened that were blamed on a person’s disorder. “This guy killed someone and pleads insanity”. When I make a mistake, I don’t blame it on anything other than my own stupidity. I’m not saying that mental disorders don’t play a role in producing thoughts that lead to making terrible choices, but the fact that they are blamed after the action makes me angry. This is something that should be said: mental disorders play a role in good things happening, too. The very same can be said about drugs. That is a subject for another day, but this is the truth. Bill Hicks said it first. And now that I think about it, I think he may have been autistic, too.
For more information on autism, visit these links: