I am awesome… not despite my autism but precisely because of it.
I haven’t always been able to celebrate my differences. In elementary school, the other kids teased me about my tics. As I got older, I developed with increasing difference from my peers, and by the time I was 16, I didn’t have a single friend in a high school of 2000 kids. I combined my junior and senior years into one, which meant that I had so much homework that I didn’t have time to care about not having friends. I didn’t go to my senior prom. By my senior year in a small, private, elite college, I had a 3.90 GPA, no real friends, and a huge fear of professors after having rubbed too many of them the wrong way.
I was 20 years old and a senior when I joined the color guard for marching band, one of my only extracurricular activities. Quickly, I connected to Leigh, a junior and psychology major. She soon realized that I struggled to get along with the other girls and thought maybe I could use a friend, not out of pity, but a true good heart.
Over the next weeks, she picked up on my quirks… differences not just in the way I relate to other people but also in the way I communicated (I struggle verbally but type very well) and my narrow, intense interests. The “magic triad” must have rung a bell in Leigh’s head; she had done a lengthy paper on the autism spectrum and, even though every teacher and professional had missed it up to that point, she knew what was in front of her.
I was diagnosed in January of 2009, and the three years that followed my diagnosis were chock full of difficulties. I was not able to complete my student teaching assignment; I was so overwhelmed by the social and communication and sensory demands that I became physically sick. My grandmother, who made my world go ‘round, passed away during that semester. Upon graduating, I returned home and intensely regressed. I had spent 21 years forcing my square-peg, autistic self into round, neurotypical holes, and I reached a point that I could not do it one more day. I withdrew, hardly spoke for almost two years, and had daily meltdowns resulting from a world that was simply too much.
I had extensive services for the next two years. I had therapy of many kinds, over a dozen different medications, and social groups. But, none of those things brought me to a point of being able to function. If anything, they made things worse. The big ticket, the key to being a happy autistic person… is allowing myself to be autistic. My neurology is different; if I force myself to try to live like an NT, then I won’t be a happy NT but a miserable autistic person, which is exactly what I was at my low point. As I began to allow myself to accommodate for my own needs, whether that meant having a fidget in my backpack, never wearing pants with buttons and zippers, typing to communicate when necessary, carrying transition items, or chilling out with Disney movies because I so happen to really enjoy them, I had to lose the obsessive worry about what “they” will think and do the things and live the life that allowed me to be a happy me and not a fake version of some other person, someone I don’t even recognize.
Autism isn’t what made my life so hard at times…it was living in a world that isn’t made for me. I also refuse to say that my life is harder than anyone else’s—it’s just hard in a different way. There are things, from writing poetry to being true to myself to standing under peer pressure, that are tough for most NTs but easy for me because of my autism.
I have learned to use aspects of my autism in ways that allow me to excel in what I do. Through my writing and speaking, I teach parents and professionals about living with autism. I have written two books and various articles. I may have a hard time speaking freely, but I can write my presentations in advance then read them to my audiences. I enjoy consulting for families, helping them to problem-solve and decode their kids’ behavior for them. I am doing very well in a graduate program for English and creative writing; I am on track to graduate in November and, as of now, I have a 4.00 average. It is because of autism that I have an incredible command of grammar and unique stories and insights to share with the world. I hope to use my Master’s degree to become an online adjunct professor, where my autism will give me an understanding for all types of learners and the unique ability to adapt my instruction to suit their needs.
I live a different kind of life, but, shouldn’t I expect that, since I have a different kind of brain? My neurology makes some things harder; that’s okay, because it’s true of any kind of brain wiring. My wiring also makes some things easier, and so does yours. The important thing is that we all have a place in this world; we all belong; we’re all awesome, not despite our differences… but precisely because of them.