This month my blog is going to play host to a wide range of posts focused solely on not just raising autism awareness for World Autism Awareness Month but also explaining why accepting autistic people is important too.
I’m a bit late to join the acceptance cause because I’ve been trying to rationalise my decision to be or not be that way. You see, I’m a person who has built the foundation of my whole world view solely out of facts, and I couldn’t get past the notion that seeing autism as something more positive meant that autism awareness would go backwards to the little awareness there was in the 90s and when many children, including myself, had their autistic symptoms overlooked. I kept repeating the same thing to people ‘if autism is not a disorder it would not even exist. You wouldn’t have a reason for why you are different and not be a part of a community of people who relate to your symptoms and you would not be able to share your similar experiences with them.’
I thought I was right in having this view because no one argued against it, but then I learned that autism acceptance doesn’t mean that we should stop treating autism. It’s all for that, but people who support acceptance don’t want autism separated from them, they don’t want it cured and they don’t want to be looked down at by society just because they have autism. They don’t want to be merely tolerated but accepted as a regular member of society, and they want people to keep in mind that autism is a real disability and needs to be taken seriously, even though people may seem on the outside to be functioning just as well as everyone else; it’s an internal struggle of anxiety over pressures put on them from other people who can’t understand they see and do things differently, confusion over what is required from them from those people, and heightened sensory processes (though they can also have under sensitivity to some senses). It’s not an excuse to be lazy or rude or for people to overlook inappropriate behaviours. It’s a neurological difference, a different way of processing and perceiving the environment and often a failure to connect to others in the same way two non-autistic individuals could connect with each other.
As for me I want to be allowed to be myself. I came into this world a child with no real desire to socialise and through pressures from parents, siblings and teachers I had decided to change because it seemed the normal thing to do. Though I’ve had some great experiences socialising I’ve also left a social encounter feeling stupid, angry, insulted and just confused, and even suicidal. It feels as though I was never meant to be social. I feel like I’m more of an inventor or author and people are my audience. I’m not meant to chit chat or come up with 1000 new compliments to tell a person so they will like me and in return give me at least half as many new compliments.
I’m meant to spend my days alone being inspired by my narrow special interests that I’m extremely passionate about that help me come up with ideas of my own for an art project, a new photographic gallery, another blog post, or more likely a science fiction story that helps to raise awareness about how society treats people who are different. I want to dedicate my time to books about science, or just a good escapist sci-fi story, philosophy or even just Marvel comic books. People think I can have all that and a social life but they are wrong – I cannot balance to the two. It will always be toward one extreme to the complete neglect of the other.
I don’t want people to call me a nerd as though it’s something I should be ashamed of. I don’t want my politeness to be seen as a weakness. I don’t want to be sucked into a world of memes, lolcats, and other forms of mediocrity you find on social networking sites. It took me a long time to realise that social networking websites are just like socialising. No one takes anything said seriously and it’s all for fun. Well, I don’t want to do that from the comfort of my own home. I want to discuss big ideas and be inspired by someone else’s ideas. I want to do that when I’m talking to someone face to face too but that’s not always possible, so I would rather talk about funny cat pictures offline rather than online.
I find the whole social world to be full of a lot of deceit. I can do the social niceties but why must we hide when we aren’t feeling so great? Many times when someone asked how I was I could have said I was depressed, and sometimes I have. The only point to socialising with people is about getting a closer bond to them and sometimes I don’t want that bond, sometimes I just want answers to questions and to load off a whole lot facts on people. Yes, there are times when I do desire talking people for the same reasons they do and can do so comfortably but then there are times when I feel I’m hiding myself from people if I can’t be myself and just talk about those things I’m really passionate about.
Now just because I say this and feel this way doesn’t mean I’m not going to be social or even play the social game. Sometimes I think it’s needed so we don’t all end up at each other’s throats. I can balance being an honest yet polite person…most of the time. Occasionally I end up saying something offensive without even realising it. I can jump from being under empathic to over empathic, again depending on my moods and my environment. When around people I’m usually overwhelmed by the closeness off them, their voices, the light, background noise and the sudden changes in my emotions after every word they say, so I don’t always get a firm understanding of their feelings.
At times when socialising people have shut me down when I try to talk about my special interests which can be the only subject I’m capable of knowing a lot about and thus capable of talking about at length and with any passion at all. These days I’m better than most with an autism spectrum disorder at briefly talking about a wide range of subjects, but it leaves me feeling empty.
I’m perfectly fine being on my own and going days without talking to people and sometimes I want to be around people more, but on my own terms. And I don’t want to be made to feel like I’m doing something wrong when I choose to be quiet.
I do have a small group of friends who I love but I’m always saying, thinking or feeling things that will risk that friendship and it when it comes to drama I don’t know how to handle it so go into avoidance mode. I basically only have the basic set of social skills I have now because I memorised them and whenever something happens that requires more social awareness and experience of handling relationship issues I hit a brick wall. I’ve got nothing so I basically say ‘I can’t do this, I haven’t got the social skills required for this’ and leave.
But I still have had a lot of fun times with friends and I’ve got a lot of fond memories, so there is always that small group of people that I will always hang out with, depending on my current mental state – and it’s more than being autistic that gets in the way of having a good time with them. I always find that having similar interests to people makes me more capable of saying anything to them and the likelihood of us becoming friends more. Mostly we all like the same music, though only one has a 90% music compatibility rating with me. That same person is just as geeky as me too.
There are some other strong traits of autism too. I function better or at all when I have a plan put in place for the tasks I do in a day or when going to an event, like a family picnic or seeing a live band. I have a natural ability to organise which comes in handy to control symptoms of ADHD and bipolar. I feel like I have more control over my mind too. I can blow up emotionally about little annoyances but I can quickly talk my way out of them and into a more rational state of mind. Is it really important to make such a big deal over this thing? It’s not usually and I just need to calm myself down and distract my mind, usually by choosing to spend time on one of many interests.
I have a close attention to detail which helps me as an impatient artist and band photographer. My best shots are close-ups of the singer’s face and capturing an emotional moment in their eyes, focusing on finger movements of the guitar players and patiently waiting for those ‘rock moves’ that get me such high praise. Drummer photos, usually taken from back, are always a challenge which is why I feel really satisfied when a nail that perfect shot of them. And I like to use real close-up lenses for them too.
I can detach my emotions from a situation when I know they can get out of control. This kind of gives me a flat affect about being told most bad news and I’ll be at loss about how I should react, except when it comes to bad news about animals. I feel like I’m more emotionally connected to animals and I’ve differentiated how I see my pets verse how non-autistic people see their pets. To them their dog or cat is like their child, to me they are my pals. I tell people my dog Bear and I run in the same pack. Sometimes I talk about him as though he is my Lord and I his servant. I even gave him a ridiculous long royal name: Lord Bertrand Ernesto Augustus Roxonbury. Meanwhile my cat Bluesy is my ‘roomie,’ Jazz is a grandma and Lyra, well, OK she is my baby but only because of her perpetual kitten look. She also looks like a rare endangered Australian species: a bush tailed possum mixed with a sugar glider and a Persian cat.
I think this ability to put logical problem solving skills before emotions is a great and useful trait to have. I still have a severe and at time debilitating anxiety disorder but I am able to eventually overcome those symptoms and think of a solution to my predicament at the time.
So, to me Autism Acceptance Month or Decade or Century is about accepting others who are different and allowing them to be that way. It shouldn’t matter if someone is introverted, not wanting to always be social or even wanting it at all. If someone is able to better function with routines and making repetitive movements with their hands, fingers, head, legs – then we should let them. As long as they are not putting anyone or themselves in danger and it’s not extremely annoying, then I can’t see why they should change. They shouldn’t be made to feel their behaviour is odd and therefore not normal. I’m a geek and proud. I also have what would seem immature interests and act far younger than my age. I’m not even talking about being 28 and acting like I’m 16. I’m talking about acting as young as 6 sometimes. It makes me take life less seriously without having to take a chemical to have such an experience.
Autism Acceptance Month is also for those individuals on the autism spectrum and their families who want to accept it. Not all can. Some people have children with severely debilitating autism who require around the clock care, and it’s up to those families to decide how they deal with them. I’m not even going to suggest anything. I have a lack of experience in that area and so this post isn’t directed at them. I do know people with severe autism who still don’t want to be cured and still don’t want to be seen as broken and inferior. I know one parent of a severely autistic boy in particular who has been very strong ever since he was diagnosed and didn’t blame anyone, didn’t try to take away his autism and just loved him for who he was. How someone chooses to raise their own autistic child is their own choice and I’m not going to get in the way of that or say they’re doing it wrong because I wouldn’t even know where to start with raising a child. All parents have a tough job but parents of autistic children have a real challenge on their hands. That’s a fact. And I’m sure even the parents who want to cure their kids are doing it out of love.
So, hopefully I’ve outlined what autism acceptance is all about and why it is important to see people with autism as not separate from their autism. They’ve had it since before birth or so early in age that it’s been with them for most of their lives. It has shaped who they are and every new experience is continually shaped by their differently developed brain. It has strengths along with weaknesses. Look at Jacob Barnett, teenage physicist or Temple Grandin; born severely autistic but through ABA therapy she has developed not just into an independent woman but as a spokesperson for the autism community teaching parents and other non-autistic people of the inner experience of the autistic mind, and she’s pretty spot on, although her visual mind is far more advanced than mine. And you know what she says? We are inventors and that the world needs us. Now, I’m one of the few autistic people that will still give credit to non-autistic ingenuity but there is definitely some truth in what she is saying. We with autism can get so passionate about an idea we become obsessed with it; we block out the world and all distractions and just get to work.