This Sunday will mark my 8th Autism Awareness Day and Month. Originally it was to bring awareness of the very broad spectrum of autism and to push for more services for both autistic children and adults. Previously, autism was thought as a condition that severely affected children and was often confused as an intellectual disability. Now a vast majority of people know that it can be either mild or severe, and that those mild symptoms can still be impairing. Doctors, parents, teachers, siblings and autistic individuals have all taken part to raise awareness. Doctors and scientists have shared their increasing knowledge through research which has helped show autism as a real neurological difference and has explained much of the behaviour through science. Teachers, parents and siblings have shared their experience with taking care of someone with autism, but autistic people have given real insight into their everyday experience.
Every year on Autism Awareness Day I’ve shared my own experiences and through this blog I talk about my day to day life with autism, my struggles with interpersonal relationships and a detailed breakdown of my other symptoms.
I started this blog as a way to explain my experiences to family and friends, as I was not able to tell them these things face to face. Then parents of autistic children told them I helped them better understand what their child goes through, so now it’s become a portal of self-advocacy with a strong emphasis on making neurotypical people understand the autism experience, as well as what it’s like to live with ADHD and mental illness.
Eight years ago I was a very different person to how I am now. People who have only known me for a few years would not even recognize me from back then. I could not have a conversation with anyone. I was not aware that some of my behaviour could have been considered rude and when confronted about it I just thought people were overreacting and if they interrupted my routine I would have lost it at them, and then blamed them for not knowing that’s how I would have reacted. I wouldn’t initiate conversation with anyone. I didn’t really want to. Just prior to my diagnosis I had very severe social anxiety. My mind would freeze up when I sat with a group and though I may wanted to reply my mind was completely blank.
Post-Asperger’s syndrome diagnosis my social anxiety dissipated because I had a reason to why I was so different and I was fine with it. I didn’t worry so much about fitting in and I stopped trying to be like everyone else. I no longer envied them. Even when people made fun of me for being a nerd, I felt good that I didn’t have to go with the flow, what I called ‘collective consciousness.’
It took a couple weeks on Ritalin to make me want to talk to people though. It enhanced my empathetic ability and at the same time an online forum full of people with ADHD were teaching me more about being empathetic. Some of those posts would originally start out really hostile but by the end the more higher functioning members would be able to explain why people reacted like they did and that we need to respect differences of opinion, and always keep in mind how our words might impact others. It’s something I always noted and now it’s my default reaction to any type of news article I read, the inevitable flame war in the comments section and even how I perceive the political opposition (mainly conservatives).
Being on Ritalin made my mind feel so clear and it slowed down the noise in my brain enough that I had time to work on my social skills. I learned everything from physics to advance math and worked on a science fiction novel. The energy and clarity of mind it gave me allowed me to learn something new every day.
But then the side effects came in so I had to stop taking them, and some autistic symptoms once again became hard to manage but the social skills I learned in that time stayed intact.
In the last 5-6 years I’ve made the most progress in my social skills. It was mostly through higher functioning autistics basically revealing to me social customs and social hierarchy, most of which I ignore. I decided to learn and put into practice social skills that were polite but not ego stroking. I skipped over any rule that felt unnecessary to me, particularly the amount of lies you have to tell people to make them feel good about themselves. If I like what you’re wearing I’ll tell you, but I’m not going to congratulate you for dressing yourself like you’re a 3 year old.
My social skills are now advanced enough to have conversations with people in my very jumbled way of talking. My brain often gets stuck so conversations I start do not last long. I don’t really like talking when I hear myself talk. When people go out of their way to prove me wrong and their better conversationalists than me I just feel humiliated and really never want to talk to those people again. I mean what is the point of trying to make a person who can’t even speak one fluent sentence or even organize a sentence in their brain feel bad? I’m not giving all that effort to just be looked down on. Those people are not worth my time or respect. People like that have in the past made me just want to stop talking to people but I know there are some decent folks out there.
I’ve had to go back to reevaluating my social skills lately. I’m finding I’m getting hurt by people when it might not be their fault. Although, people use so little tact these days that they hardly notice when they’ve been rude. At times I wonder why I still bother to perfect my social skills when the rest of the world is losing theirs. But this is about me and becoming the best person I can be, even if people are becoming like the old me. Not because they have a developmental disorder either, but because they live on social media the lack of face to face engagement have lost much of that inborn empathy, not to mention the ADHD symptoms they mimic from being dependent on digital technology.
I don’t socialise that much these days anyway. When the opportunity arises I’ll take it but I’m not actively looking for it, kind of like when I was a kid. My latest ‘friends’ have just seemed to want to get something out of me and most other people want more of a take and take relationship. I do all the giving but get nothing in return. I don’t stick around those people for long.
I don’t feel connected to a single person on the Earth. I never have. There’s always this invisible wall between me and people. Whatever feeling people get from being with someone else I don’t feel it. A lot of people in the autistic community feel the same way. I’m not really saying that as a downer, more stating a fact.
As for autism awareness, well it’s time we moved on from awareness into acceptance. What that means is autistic people should still get treatment and services but they need to be included more in society and not forced to change so people can be more comfortable around them. Autistic people have such intense focus on their interests that they can learn expert knowledge about them in a short time, and their logical brains which seem to give them a better understanding of technology is why so many employers encourage them to join I.T. The artistic autistics like me though find it harder to have our skills appreciated. I’ve been able to go pretty far in my photography. I started out as a fan who wanted to take photos of his favourite bands and then I got free access to some big shows and got to hang out with the bands. Now I’m a protest photographer which means I feel less nervous about going to protests (I don’t really have to chant words while working). I’ve been focusing more on story writing and my ADHD and my lifetime love of film has led me toward script writing. So, I can also be of some use even if I need a calculator to do math.
There are other behaviours autistics need to do in order to be able to cope. Stimming is one such thing. It’s anything from hand flapping to pacing to making noises. It may make people feel uncomfortable so parents and teachers may want to discourage the behaviour but it’s actually a good way to calm anxiety. I even do a bit of hand flapping when I start to feel anxious.
Our intense focus on interests should be encouraged too. Many us of have turned our interests into a career. It’s also a good way to ward off feelings of depression and be less focused on the things we struggle with. When I’ve returned home after having a disastrous social experience it’s good to know I can soon forget about it by focusing on something that makes me happy or that I’m actually good at.
So, when you hear about autism awareness in April ignore all the charities talking about how terrible autism is for families just so they can get a few bucks out of you, and instead focus on articles that talk about inclusion of autistic people and accepting them into the wider community. Because we are people just like you.