Autism isn’t how most people imagine it and there are still such a lot of distorted beliefs and stigma attached, which creates a culture where diagnosis is missed or even avoided. I am autistic, yet it took me 51 years to realise (or own) this and it is still work-in-progress to come to understand although, in hindsight, its sign-posts are littered everywhere across my life so its hardly “new” to me. It feels timely to share how “being different” can affect a person in this blog where I’ve mentioned it relatively little (rather than my health one Living Whole, where autism is already a main topic) because this subject is everywhere right now, and rightly so.
Being accepted for who you are is a birthright; one, so often, denied to so many people, not always because of malice so much as cultural ignorance, and the time is ripe for change across all these areas. If unity consciousness is what lies ahead, its not due to happen by streamlining people into sameness but by accepting them all, equally, within a rainbow spectrum of variant expressions within that single unified whole, whereas discrimination, in all its forms, fragments individuals from that whole, leaving them feeling isolated and, actually, depriving that whole of their valuable input. In other words, in the case of non-inclusion, the rest of the world misses out, thus remains fragmented, too. I suspect much of what I am about to share could apply to others who consider themselves diverse, not just in an autism sense and, in that, I am finding in myself a whole new awareness of unity with other diverse groups of late; a progression that feels distinctly related to the burgeoning unity consciousness on this planet.
The thing is, no two people with autism are the same, as is the case with everyone else; we each have our unique signature or blueprint. Most of my a-typical traits show up in my autonomic nervous system, although my executive function and social abilities are certainly affected, along with some quirky ways that I seem to process information, so it was relatively “easy” for me to squirrel away my differences, even (perhaps especially) as a young child. Its a well-recorded trait that females with Asperger’s can become exceptionally skilled at over-compensating for their autistic traits, diligently learning “appropriate” behaviours and keeping their hardships to themselves rather than expose themselves as different. Because, as has been a focal point regarding other discriminated-against divergent sub-types of people over the last few years, we must all surely know now just how poorly “differences” are tolerated in our society. Similarly, it has been a case of pure survival necessity for those able to hide their autism traits (even without knowing what they are) to do so, rather than risk marginalisation, discrimination and a myriad of false assumptions being made.
In my case, I learned very early on in my life to fiercely guard my intellect and also, I now realise, my special sensory abilities. Something in me told me that if I were to expose areas where I struggled or was “odd”, sweeping assumptions would be made about about what I could and couldn’t do and about what, in my situation, constituted a “handicap” which, in a lot of cases, is just a code for “something that doesn’t conform to so-called normal”. This then leads to pigeon-holing and correction tactics, for instance special coaching in normalisation behaviours and even drug therapies. How did I even know this when I was small? I just felt the strongest instinct not to expose myself and that the consequences would work against me; that they would, at the very least, include being held behind with some of the very children who already made my life especially hard, so I always had the incentive to fly way above other people’s heads as my best likelihood of thriving. What a powerful instinct that turned out to be! Something in me always seemed to know that interventions to correct the “way I am” should be avoided at all costs; that too much stood to be lost if I let them happen to me…and, in hindsight, my instincts were correct.
Because, in many ways, I’ve had such a good life; have created for myself scenarios that would not have been remotely possible without all my constant striving, not to be “successful”, but to create a gentle niche where I could live out my days doing the kinds of things I enjoy with someone who understands me, and now I find myself there. My unique sensory and perceptual abilities and my creativity have never been quashed (well, not for very long; there was a time…) but have, rather, been allowed to flourish unpruned because of this non-intervention; and “all” it took was giving the impression that I was always on top of things. Meaning I maintained, for years, this gigantian effort to pretend I was just like everyone else and found life a breeze, even though much of it has been like swimming up-stream, only to find the stream keeps getting longer.
So, I worked extra hard at my school work, I kept my head down, I strove to please all the adults I had dealings with, went above and beyond with my efforts (“she’s so conscientious” was always my unchanging school report) and I hid my traits under shyness and geekiness. Later, I turned to trying to navigate my way using my special interests, my artsiness and bizarre sense of humour to find my tribe, which got me through university (the one place where my autistic sensibilities seemed to be most applicable, at home and accepted…) and, later still when “serious” adult life risked the worst exposures yet, I turned to alcohol and a cultivated image of subtle rebelliousness or bohemian quirkiness to cover up my social ineptness, my physical clumsiness, my often searing awareness of sensory things and a myriad of other oddities that pained me so on the inside.
Meanwhile, every normal “responsible” adult thing was an almighty effort, beyond this well-rehearsed affectation of coping; hinted at by just how many years and attempts it took to pass my driving test (I became great at driving, once I had rehearsed it enough times to turn it into a series of moves but, like many other executive functions, oh the effort to get there and I still couldn’t show anyone else how to do it). Or, how dealing with more and more prestigious people at work, trying to intuit their expectations or even half-way meet them in some socially acceptable way, became like having layers of skin removed one by one, leaving me redder and rawer from the experience each time. People employed me because I was highly intelligent, articulate (if the wind was in the right direction…), uber-well organised and extremely…that word again…conscientious but my oh-so baffling dealings with other people took everything I had and the time bomb was already ticking as to how long I could continue to squirrel all this away in order to cope with the subterfuge of seemingly normalised life.
The toll of learning to be acceptable, to behave like others do, to share their often quite narrow priorities and interests, of seeming confident in social settings only to go home prepared to dissect every word and deed for hours or days afterwards, always learning the hard way how to do better at fitting-in or carrying-off necessary social scenarios (without feeling any nearer to understanding why these hoops were necessary to be jumped through in the first place), is a heavy one after three or four decades. Perhaps the hardest setting in which to pull this off this was the corporate one; it almost destroyed me in just two years of trying to conform to its unfathomably straightjacket-like and oddly-prioritised rules and behaviours, the oh-so bizarre methods people used to impress each other and those that got trampled underfoot. That was when my health finally crashed.
Yet in the tangled ball of colourful wool that was left of me at the end, I eventually found a route back to my autistic self, though its been 16 years in the making. Its been easier for the fact I no longer have to mingle, there are almost no social settings I need to be part of unless by choice, so I have been (finally) let-off free to be myself for just long enough to start discovering the many gifts I’ve been shielding beneath all the growing rubble of a difficult life path. Hardships, yes…galore…but also so many gifts.
So in autism, I newly discover (against the grain of my own cultural training) that there are many shortcomings when it comes to fitting into the world “as it currently is”, an important caveat to include, but there is also a great deal of giftedness. Those gifts don’t read like a CV but they make me into the sensory and perceptual colour-bomb that I am. I don’t just feel and see things in 2 or 3D; for me, there are multi-dimensions to everything and it all joins up, in unfathomable ways (no chance, if you want me to describe them) yet I can sense those connections….in everything and between everything, all the time, not least my own connection to all of the people that make up the neuroptypcial world and their connection to me. Neither of us is better or right, nor are we worse or wrong. We are all part of a vast wholeness that knows no end and in which we are all necessarily included. No one thing is here to be told its faulty and needs to conform, to be coached back into conformity with someone else’s idea, nor to be wing-clipped by definitions and narrow expectations. Each of us is exceptional; and, thank goodness, each in different ways…it will be the saving of us.
This post wrote itself this morning and felt like an important one to add to Spinning the Light because my recently discovered autism has been such an ever-present topic over on my other blog yet hardly mentioned here. Important to mention that the word “autism” is itself a clue; as in (before the word came into common use within the health context) this is what you might have found in a dictionary: “The word “autism” comes from the Greek word “autos,” which means “self.” It describes conditions in which a person is removed from social interaction. In other words, they become an “isolated self.” Only in a world where ever-bigger social engagement and corporate-style collaboration or its popular euphemism “teamwork” have been made into the be-all-and-end-all trained into us from birth; where those who do better working in solitary and, in fact, thrive or realise their greatest, and often quite considerable, potential when they do so, are deemed to be broken in some way does autism, per se, constitute “a problem”.
Which is not to deny that it can be a challenging condition in many ways (from where I stand, being neurotypical offers challenges and vast limitations too) but to focus on that is to miss the whole point I am trying to make. I can only speak for myself but I honestly feel as though I have just so much to explore from the inside out and, being in a “team” or beset with external responsibilities only distracts and exhausts me when everything inme longs to plunge the whole universe I have access to within. No, its not “good for me” to be forced to practice being more neurotypcical; it only tortures me far more than I can describe. Which is not to say I don’t look around me or have healthy close relationships but the true richness comes from that inner domain and my default is to want to be in there. In fact, I am capable of staying more present, without the need for constant entertainment or titillation, than most people I have ever met but I demand the right to prioritise my own specialism, which is categorically not to spend a lot of time “out there” trying to be more like other people, but concentrating on being me.
Now, just because that might be different and perhaps not even relatable to a lot of people does not make it any more wrong than my sexual orientation or the colour of my skin, for instance. It’s a similar argument to that currently being made by introverts (I’m one of those too) in a world largely dictated to by extroverts. In other words, being diverse has got to be allowed, as a valid possibility, from the moment we are born, which takes a new kind of culture; one that has reached a whole new stage of maturity and with emphasis to that word “whole”.
In my case, coming to find the autistic piece of the puzzle has been the single most influential thing of my health journey so far as it is allowing so many bewildering pieces to fall, almost effortlessly, into place; for more on that, see my recent post Not Broken or Special, its Just How I’m Made and more to come. My autistic self has had to live deep underground in a cave of its own making for so many years and this has not been helpful to my health. Conversely, I can even conceive of a time where the bringing together of these jigsaw pieces could feasibly make me feel whole enough that health issues reduce, withdraw or at least become as manageable as the next person’s foibles; that is my unwavering recovery mission….and recovery is the name of the game when we regather our fragmented pieces. How many of our pieces are actually missing if we cease comparison with some sort of “normalised” benchmark; when, really, the very fragmentation we claim to abhor is so-often from a mindset built into people’s attitudes towards what is different and herein lies our task; to upgrade those mindsets.
Below are a few of my earlier posts that might be of interest or relevance to anyone else walking a similar path.
Not broken or special, its just how I’m made
High-functioning autism and the creative, self-teaching maverick
Are you on the autism spectrum?
Getting down to the root of my fibromyalgia
What is your alchemy? (Mine is dancing.)
Our opportunity – life beyond stress
This is so applicable to me, too. The executive functioning of those mundane tasks adults are supposed to be able to do daily, as a matter of course, are so difficult to me, sometimes taking all the executive functioning energy I have for that week or even month. Yet other things that wouldn’t really be possible for most people are a breeze for me. Without understanding neurodiversity and autism, this disparity in ability can be confusing. With recognition of autistic traits, it makes sense.
Absolutely and yet I remember my driving instructor(s) and everyone else thinking I lacked intelligence when I kept failing my test, I hated the feeling of that as I am so used to working so hard people know I am intelligent, so I can only imagine how horrible it would have been if I had owned up to any struggles I had at school or in my jobs, leading (no doubt) to assumptions I wasn’t bright rather than just executively challenged. I tended to pin all my confidence on academic performance so to have that taken away…. Its also interesting to me to notice after what has been a fairly close-to-home year, in which I seldom take my car out still, and never to go very far, how I feel like I am having to think through the driving like a newbie again and felt quite anxious yesterday at the prospect of going to a shop for the first time, involving parking in a tight space and then navigating the skills required (plus all the extra new rules about masks and distancing) to go in and send a parcel long distance. Felt exhausted afterwards! Made me realise the reason I seemed so good at these things is the continuity of doing them for years but, when interrupted for several months, they suddenly feel daunting and I have to walk myself through the steps slowly and calmly. I also find that if I try to think “how do I put a car into gear and drive forwards”, for instance, I panic as though I don’t know how so I have to let it be entirely instinctual and, like I said, I could never teach anybody how. Same with remembering a pin number and some other adult skillsets that can catch me out if the executive skill suddenly fails me!