Advice for Autists and Neuro-typicals

Autists:

Be yourself. It’s a horrible cliche, I know. But that’s the thing about cliches: they’re said so often because they’re generally true. You really do need to be yourself if you’re autistic. Please don’t try to be normal. To be neuro-typical (NT). It will only leave you feeling exhausted and you’ll burn out. Unfortunately, this is an NT world. It will always be more challenging for autists to function properly in it, no matter how much support you receive. It comes down to a choice: pretend to be NT, and inevitably fail; or be yourself, and maybe fail anyway, but possibly succeed in ways only you can. To be sure, if you embrace your autism, it could lead you down a path of success that NTs and even other autists could never go down. Obviously this is not an excuse to be bad. Whether you’re autistic or not, there’s no excuse for being bad – to which there could only be further bad consequences. Be a good autist. Treat your quirks and uniqueness as strengths, no matter how much they might objectively seem like weaknesses. Most of all, stay hopeful. No matter how bad things might seem, how hard life might feel, your hope will get you through. It will motivate you to be a better person, or at least to be who you want to be. You have a right to be yourself. You didn’t choose existence. No-one can. But you can choose to seek happiness, fulfillment, acceptance, and whatever else you need and desire.

Neuro-typicals:

Please care about, and where possible for autistic people in your life. There’s no better starting point from which to nurture a strong relationship with an autistic person, or anyone else for that matter. Autists are not weak, but we are sensitive. We literally have sensitivities to light, sounds, touch, and probably every sensory input of varying types, depending on the particular person. (I myself am very sensitive to sound and touch. I’m constantly conscious of the feeling of my clothing on my body, for example.) Keep in mind that autism is isolating. We tend to be socially awkward. This might mean we’re reluctant or totally horrified at the thought of initiating conversation. Or it might mean we’re overly socially forward, yet our conversation doesn’t follow the natural flow that might occur in conversation between two NTs. Emphasis on the “might”. Autism is a spectrum. Every single autistic person is different, in terms of their autism but also just their general personality, to every other autistic person. This is where “care” comes in. When you’re dealing with an autistic person, please be as aware as possible of how they interact with you. You will need to adjust the way you communicate with them, and I guarantee this adjustment will be much easier for you as an NT than it would be for the autist. And care for us. This is not our world. We need your guidance through it, and if you don’t plan on helping us in this way we won’t long suffer your company.

Autists might seem almost literally alien in our presentation and mannerisms, depending on the severity and symptoms of our condition. Yet we are very much human. I suspect we might actually feel the human experience of existence more deeply, albeit in particular ways peculiar to each of us, than NTs, though I could only ever know that for sure if I was able to experience life as an NT. Most importantly of all, we have value. It’s likely to be a very specific, perhaps obscure type of value. But it’s there, in as many different forms as there are autistic people (somewhere around 240 million). Value us, and we will value you, and we might just add value to this world that makes it a better place to live for everyone.

The Upsides of Autism

The psychologist who initially diagnosed me spent the better part of our final session taking me through the challenges autistic people are likely to face.  Then she gave me a sheet of paper with “strengths” written at the top, for me to fill out myself.  Never did.  So here it is publicised, I guess.  It occurs to me that perhaps I shouldn’t be sharing the fact that I’m autistic so publicly.  The psychologist did advise against it.  I guess I figure if anyone is planning on actively or passively ill-treating me because of my condition, then, well, fuck them.  If you’ll excuse the language.  I don’t tend to take abuse lying down, and otherwise, what goes around does tend to come around.  Besides, my boss already knows I’m autistic.  He seems to be supportive.  Or else he doesn’t care, I mean in a workplace, not personal sense.  At the end of the day my condition is no excuse for poor performance, despite the fact that it could easily be a factor in it.  It’s been a tough year.  I’m a casual employee.  Less is expected of me, to a degree, because I’m simply expected at work less often and for less time.  Socially, I’m not interested in interacting with anyone who thinks less of me just because they know I’m autistic.  Their loss, I like to think.  So, anyway.  Moving on to them upsides.

Objectivity is probably an autistic strength.  I’ve always felt like I’ve been pretty good at taking a step back, mentally, and looking at the bigger picture.  Sure, sometimes particular elements of a big picture are more important than others.  Take the saying “calling a spade a spade”.  As in, calling it how you see it, or how it is from a more informed perspective, versus one that’s less informed.  I’m not a big fan of “calling a spade a spade”.  Because a spade isn’t just a spade.  It’s a handle, a shaft, and a shovel – and nuts and bolts probably.  My point is that things are generally more complicated than they might appear.  You’ve also got to take into account bias, whereby someone might make a call on something from a particular perspective, while another quite opposite perspective might also have merit.  Of course this isn’t always so.  Take the climate change issue.  The science is overwhelming that it is an issue.  Arguments that it isn’t aren’t just a different perspective that have value.  They’re just bullshit, for whatever reason (such as corruption or fear).  It just seems ridiculous to me that some people who aren’t experts on certain areas of science are arrogant enough to argue against those who are experts.

Thoughtfullness is another strength.  At least I feel like it’s one of mine.  Yes, sometimes taking the time to consider an issue as fully as possible isn’t the best course of action.  Then again, it often is.  Take my current job for instance.  Obviously, we are busy sometimes.  This means we can feel pressure to work quickly.  But, the job is also potentially dangerous.  It involves the use of heavy machinery.  It is vital for the very sake of our lives, or at least in order to avoid injury, that we stop, think, then act, when it comes to almost every task we perform.  I’m pretty good at that.  Almost to a fault.  As in, I’m a bit of a daydreamer.  When I graduated from primary school, my teacher said something like “don’t go off with the fairies”.  He basically meant “watch that you don’t daydream too much”.  He was a maths teacher.  Daydreaming isn’t very useful when it comes to maths as far as I can see.  More useful for writing.  Still good advice though.  Thoughtfulness is like anything: too much of it can be counterproductive, or outright negative.

Honesty.  I’m a terrible liar.  It’s not even a moral thing.  (Although it sort of is, in the sense that most people don’t deserve to be lied to.)  It’s just an autistic thing.  I suppose I can avoid divulging irrelevant information.  But otherwise if someone asks me a question or I think they need to know something, it’s unlikely that what I communicate to them will be a lie – unless I’ve simply not expressed what I intended properly.  I remember my younger brother once said something like “the problem with lying is that it complicates things, and you often have to come up with other lies to cover up the original lie”.  Couldn’t agree more.  At best it just complicates things.  At worst, your entire life ends up being basically bullshit.  Compulsive liars are funny though.  I remember the same brother once telling me a story about a mate of his who was adamant that he was going to work in the mines.  My brother and another mate of his turned up at his house, after the compulsive liar had said he would have been interstate at some mine.  Of course he was home.  He tried to come up with other lies to explain the original lie.  I guess that’s just how some people are.  Too complicated for me.  Too stressful.  Not a big fan of lying.  And I believe it is generally an autistic trait to not be.  Often to a fault, in the sense that sometimes the truth hurts.

Obsession, or intense interests, or however you’d like to put it.  It can easily be a negative, especially if it’s a social or romantic obsession.  It can also be a negative if said obsession leads to an unbalanced life in which other important things are not addressed because of excessive intense focus on one or several other areas.  Otherwise though it can be very positive.  I’ve always been very interested in reading and writing, specifically in English.  Did two terms of French a couple of years ago.  My second term teacher insisted on speaking almost exclusively in French, which was off-putting.  One of the main reasons I studied it was because my girlfriend at the time claimed to have learned French in school.  But she ended up telling me she really wasn’t that interested in speaking it with me so I lost interest.  But yeah, English.  It’s a tough language.  A lot of it doesn’t make sense.  It was the same with French.  My first French teacher explained that you’re wasting your time if you try to rationalise certain language rules.  Such as say, in English, silent letters.  It’s just the way it is.  Maybe my intense interest in written English is why I sometimes struggle with oral communication.  It’s probably just an autistic weakness, as much as is my (arguable) proficiency in written communication.  I’m basically pretty comfortable with my intense interests leading to weakness in areas I’m not interested in, as long as, you know, I can get my washing done and change gears on the way to work and perform other mundane yet necessary tasks.

Probably best to finish with this paragraph, so as not to bang on too much.  Another positive?  Hmmmm.  It really is tough.  I genuinely feel that there are more downsides to being autistic, at least in the sense that I mentioned in previous posts that autistic people make up about 5% or less of any population.  Perhaps that’s a strength.  Perhaps we have a different point-of-view to neuro-typicals which, sure, might be wholly wrong.  But also might be wholly right.  I make a point of not commenting on things I know nothing or little about.  Sport, for example.  If sport comes up in conversation I switch off, unless it relates to off-field antics I’m aware of.  Or on-field antics such as brat tennis players like Bernard Tomic chucking a tantrum over what he perceives to be a bad call from an umpire, if I’ve even noticed that happening.  So I guess it’s worthwhile for neuro-typicals to engage with autists on issues they know the latter is interested in.  I’m not saying that if a neuro-typical engages with me on a subject such as, for example, politics, that I’ll necessarily know more about it or have a more accurate perspective on it.  I’m just saying that if you want to engage with me properly, you’re wasting your time if you broach a subject that you know I have no interest in.  There are exceptions to that.  I once had a lengthy conversation with a bloke who was interested in UFC (ultimate fighting championship(?)).  The conversation ended with him inviting me to watch a fight.  I said I wasn’t interested.  He looked confused.  He was a bit of a dumbarse.  I guess the point there is I’m happy to converse about something you’re interested in, that I’m not, if you do most of the talking.

So there you go.  That’ll do.  It’s good to be positive, right?  Well, that depends.  Just look at all the fires in Australia at the moment, and especially in New South Wales.  Hard to be positive about that.  I wrote a couple of opinion pieces about climate change a few weeks ago, if you’re interested in my thoughts on that issue (in terms of the apparent degree to which the fires are worse, happening earlier, and are more numerous because of climate change).  Autism does have its negatives.  I think it’s important for me and all other autistic people to recognise that there are positives to it.  The positives act as motivation for trying to manage the negatives.  Obviously there’s no reason to get out of bed in the morning if life is hopeless.  Where there’s life, there’s hope.  Such a cliche.  But it’s true.  I like to think I don’t fear death.  I certainly fear certain existential pains.  I know life has its pleasures.  As an autistic person, my pleasures might be different to or more intensely felt than those neuro-typicals experience.  Just as neuro-typicals struggle to understand autists, well, vice-versa.  Everyone wants to be happy though.  It comes and goes.  Happiness, that is.  You might as well pursue it.  If said pursuit isn’t hurting anyone, what’s the harm.  And regardless, we’ll all be dead one day and nothing will matter anymore other than the effect on the world and those still living we’ve left behind.

Festive

 

The Downsides of Autism

Being diagnosed as an adult leads to a lot of reflection. At 34, possibly halfway through my life, who I truly am is only now apparent to me. Because that’s what autism is really. Not a disease. A disorder, sure, but only in the sense that as mentioned previously it means I’m neurologically unlike at least 95% of other people. It’s an identity. It affects every part of my life because it defines and encompasses my very existence. Always has, always will. So I can’t help but look back. I remember when I was in grade 5, I was on a school camp. The boys were staying in huts of about six bunks each while the girls were segregated in a dormitory block. One day we were warned that room inspections would take place. My roommates and I tidied up ours the best we could. But there was this sock, just lying there partner-less in the middle of the room. It wasn’t mine, and no-one else would own up to it. From memory it caused me to have nothing short of an anxiety attack. I suppose anyone would be frustrated by something so illogical. The sock had to belong to someone in the room. Looking back on it now, the extremity of my reaction probably was because of autism. I was teased about that for a little while afterward (another consequence of being different).

The most difficult part has to relate to women, in terms of romance. I’ve had two real romantic relationships in my life, that each lasted for about two years. The first girl I met through my mum (kind of sad, I know, but you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do) at about 21. The second was a Tinder fluke (and I say fluke because I extremely rarely gain any interest from women on Tinder, or in real life for that matter), and she was initially just looking to bed me anyway. Plus the latter relationship ended pretty painfully, about two years ago now, which again I would significantly attribute my role in to autism. Point is, both relationships were pretty unlikely – either to endure for so long or occur in the first place. Despite autism, I’m not completely useless in terms of romance, affection, sex. The thing is that romantic relationships are dependent on connection, and connection is simply the hardest thing to achieve when you’re autistic. Let’s assume 95% of women are not autistic. Theoretically, that’s overwhelmingly most women I’m not compatible with. And that’s without speculating on whether being autistic helps autistic people connect with each other. By which I mean, it might be just as challenging for autistic people to relate to each other as it is for autistic people to relate to neuro-typicals. (I should add I’m almost totally sure both my ex-girlfriends were not autistic.)

I guess it’s not all bad. If I wasn’t autistic, if I was better at initiating and maintaining romantic relationships, I might be married with kids by now. Those are two things I not long ago decided I don’t want to do. Never particularly did, now that I think of it. It just looks so boring. You decide you want to spend virtually every day for the rest of your life with one other person, and then you create (or adopt) one or two younger people who you’re also obligated to forever. Sheesh! No thanks. The only problem is that it’s not really a choice. It’s extremely difficult for me to initiate and maintain romantic relationships, due to autism, so at this point I’ve all but given up. It’s the biggest problem with autism in general, really. Any relationships are likely more difficult for autists to manage than they are for neuro-typicals. It’s so hard for me to even want to relate to a lot of other people. I didn’t go to my high school formal, for example. It just seemed so stupid. Years later, I went along with my girlfriend to drop off her younger brother to his formal date’s house. She was standing out the back of her house overlooking the dusk-dappled canal, acting as though it was the most important time of her life, and the whole scene just reeked of pretension. I did go to the after party. It was pretty fun. It was at a bikie clubhouse for some reason. I drank a bunch of bourbon and coke and stayed up all night, then went surfing at dawn. But came in pretty quickly when we realised how uncoordinated you become when you’re drunk and sleep deprived.

It only makes you feel more isolated, when you struggle to relate to others. To even want to. It’s like a vicious cycle. I wouldn’t mind so much, if it wasn’t for how important relationships are in the world of work, especially. Autistic people are more likely to suffer from mental health problems, more likely to commit suicide, and are probably more likely to struggle financially and end up homeless. It’s pretty depressing. Things are better these days, I guess. The world is kinder to racial minorities, women, the disabled. It’s a more understanding world, but I’m still not sure there’s a lot of understanding around autism. Naturally there isn’t, because the biggest problem with being autistic is being misunderstood. I’m not an expert on the subject, and knew virtually nothing about it before I was diagnosed, but of course I understand it. I’m living it. Life can be difficult for everyone. I’d argue everything that people find difficult is more difficult for autistic people, especially if the problem or its solution involves navigating some kind of social situation. I suppose if there’s one thing I’d like you to understand about autism, it’s how isolating it is. If enough neuro-typicals understand that, then perhaps they can factor it into their engagement with people they know are autistic. Seems especially important for employers, teachers, and parents. Not to mention romantic partners.

I don’t mind being alone. I’m an introvert, as well as autistic. I need time alone to recharge (while extroverts apparently find socialisation energising). What I don’t want is to feel lonely, or isolated, or deliberately excluded. For the rest of my life, just like my life up to this point, I probably will simply have to endure feeling like that sometimes. Just know that autistic people are human, like you. We’re not (necessarily) sick. We’re not (necessarily) bad. I’ve seen suggestions that autism might actually be a new stage of human evolution. While that appeals to my ego, I think the more likely case is that there have always been autistic people – it’s just that no-one knew about the condition. Maybe there are autistic animals? Besides, evolution is just genetic mutation, which isn’t necessarily positive. The future is uncertain. I’m feeling very uncertain about it right now. I have goals, mainly to get full-time work, move into my own place, and just try to enjoy life by drinking beer and travelling sometimes and such and such, before I die. I just worry that my condition makes my goals irrelevant, or harder to reach, thanks to my effective disability in terms of socialising effectively enough to make them happen. Oh well. Tomorrow’s another day. I could meet the love of my life. I could get hit by a bus. Maybe both (hopefully not while holding her hand). Who knows. At least now I know why I find life so difficult, even if that doesn’t automatically present ways to make it easier.

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What Autism Is

This is my attempt to be more explicit than I managed to be in my previous post. I just watched an Australian Story episode about a dyslexic artist. He can barely read and write, and will probably never get much better at those things. He’s grateful though. It seems obvious to me that his almost total lack of skill in some areas is responsible for his astounding ability to draw and paint.

Autism is essentially social dyslexia. And I’m reluctant to be grateful for it in the context that my social deficiencies might be directly responsible for proficiencies in other areas (such as writing, perhaps). It’s about success, which as far as I’m concerned is unavoidably tied to socialisation. The abovementioned artist might not be able to read and write. But he can draw. And he can socialise effortlessly (not only because he’s probably not autistic, but because he’s probably extroverted).

I’m both autistic and introverted. It’s a struggle to come to terms with where that leaves my future. No man is an island, as they say. But introverted autists probably come close. I suppose I can work hard. Be proactive. Be socially discerning. They’re all things I’m capable of and have done. I’m probably putting too much pressure on myself. After all, I was only diagnosed a few months ago so I should probably focus on making a plan for the future in light of the new information. Instead of rushing headlong toward failure.

Being diagnosed is kind of like being reborn. It’s not as though who I am has changed. Merely, my understanding of myself has changed. Become clearer. The point of writing about it is at least about, besides solidifying my own understanding, helping others who wish to understand me and autism in general. I refuse to be pessimistic about the rest of my life. Life is valuable. I value the life I’ve lived. And I will continue to, because I’m not dead yet.

And my beloved niece Marley

Autism Diagnosis

All my life I’ve been different. Not different like missing a leg, or dressing bizarrely, or being a criminal, or by being in any obvious way much better or worse at anything than the average person. Just different. Sort of indifferent, too, or so it might have appeared and might still. Most people when they think back on their youth can categorise how they were. Maybe they were a troublemaker. Or a free spirit. Or obsessively sporty or academic or whatever. When I think back on my youth I’d categorise myself as, and this might sound strange: not really being there. Not really, participating.

Of course in reality I did participate. I played sport and learned at school and interacted with family and friends. I’ve laughed and cried and been angry and depressed and in love and heartbroken. To the casual observer, I’ve been normal, or, to put it another more relevant way: neuro-typical. But I’m not neuro-typical. I’m autistic. Specifically, I have what used to be known as apergers, or high functioning autism, but is now known as autism spectrum disorder (ASD). And it’s important to note that I have always been this way. The exact cause of autism is not totally understood, other than that it’s almost certainly genetic, but it’s definitely not caused by vaccines or anything else. If you’re autistic, you’re born that way. It’s kind of like being gay. Except I’m not gay. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, to quote Seinfeld as much as to express how stupid I think homophobia is.

I’m a curious person. I’m not an expert on anything, really, but I’ve always enjoyed at least superficially learning about a wide range of generally non-technical things (because I’m not fond of or good at maths) relating to culture, politics, history and the like. Yet, before being diagnosed as autistic I didn’t know much about it. I thought, like apparently most people still do, that it was a type of mental disability. This is true in a sense, but technically incorrect. Autism is a neurological development disorder. It affects roughly one to five in every one hundred people. Men are over-represented in autism diagnoses, but this is widely put down to women being better at masking the social manifestations of their autism. So it probably actually occurs relatively evenly among both genders.

One to five percent of the population, though. It’s no wonder that now, since diagnosis, I feel different. I’m literally a minority. I think being autistic has something to do with why I’ve always empathised with other minorities, whether racial, religious, or women – the latter in terms obviously not of their numbers but rather the lingering challenges their historical second-class-citizen status still poses. When I was younger though, before I knew what autism really was and definitely didn’t think I was, I still knew I was different. Like I said, I participated. But I was never really there. My whole life, and this will obviously continue more consciously, I’ve felt like an observer. It’s a common misconception that autistic people lack empathy. It’s more accurate to say we feel empathy just like neuro-typicals; we just don’t tend to express it very well.

Autists generally think more in terms of logic and reason than neuro-typicals, who might, again, generally, value belief and emotion more. It’s not that I’m not tempted to act or react based on belief and emotion, or that it doesn’t cross my mind. It’s just that I prefer, quite intuitively, to value logic and reason. This might make me seem a little slow, or thick, or detached. I’m not, but I totally understand how it might appear that way. In my high school graduation year-book, I wrote a caption below my photo, neither of which were printed for some reason: “I’m not dumb, I’m just slow”. A pretty silly thing to immortalise in your graduating year-book, to be sure, so I’m kind of glad it wasn’t printed. Since then, though, I’ve realised that that quote was an expression of my autism long before I knew I was autistic.

Mum encouraged me to seek diagnosis. She’d been discussing my behaviour with someone who knew a lot about the condition. I’d had a bad day at work that, in hindsight, was due to my inability to understand what seemed like illogical behaviour by colleagues and/or customers. I was happy to go along with it, even though I didn’t think I was autistic. I merely thought I was just a little different, as I’d always thought I simply was. Turns out it wasn’t that simple. I needed a referral from a doctor to see a psychologist specialising in autism. I told the doctor, among other things, that I didn’t like religion or sport – the latter of which for some reason I completely do not understand seems like a religion to some people. She said lots of people share those views, apparently implying she didn’t think I was autistic. I asked her if she knew a lot about autism (which seemed reasonable because she was a general practitioner, not a specialist). She seemed slightly offended, said she did, and that she didn’t think I was autistic. She was arrogant, which is another neuro-typical trait I don’t understand, though I do understand that some people might think that way about me, sometimes.

The psychologist asked me a series of questions over two hour-long sessions, after one initial consultation. She used a standardised test, and explained she had to use the test because if she was to merely talk with me and decide whether or not I was autistic that method would be biased because when you (she) deal with a lot of autistic people everyone starts to seem that way. The test result was pretty conclusive that I was autistic. The psychologist said the area I performed best in, in terms of seeming neuro-typical, was empathy. She explained that because I was 34 that result was most likely because I’d had time to learn empathy, and that if I’d been tested as a child my ability to empathise might have been less developed. That made sense to me. (Remember though, like I said, autists are just as empathetic as neuro-typicals; we’re just not so great at expressing it.) When I was younger I was a lot more detached or aloof, and I always will seem so more than most people. But I agreed that I probably had learned to act or react in ways that expressed my empathy better than I was able to when I was younger.

There’s not a lot more to tell. There’s nothing I can do about being autistic. It’s not a disability. At least I don’t see it as one. It is a disability in the sense that most people, like 95 to 99%, are neuro-typical. This means the world, in terms of culture and laws and such, is mostly neuro-typical. This obviously means it’s a more challenging world for autists than it is for neuro-typicals. Which again makes sense. I’ve always had trouble with employment, and with relationships both platonic and romantic. I don’t fit in and the funny thing is that, to a large degree, I don’t want to. Because I’m not a freak. I’m not a loser or a fringe-dweller or a hermit. I’m just autistic. And that makes me different. I’d like to take this opportunity to apologise to some people reading this. You might know me, and you might have been offended by my behaviour at some point in the past. I trust that if you have read this far you might, on reflection, put my behaviour and your reaction to it down to autism. Then again you might not. You might just think I’m an arsehole 🙂 Which again is fine. Autists are just as capable of being bad people as neuro-typicals. I do like to think I’m not though.

There have been other developments since. I’ve been seeing a psychiatrist who specialises in autism. Mostly to gain a concrete diagnosis and find out if I need to make any changes to mood stabilising medication I’ve been taking for a few years now. (Autism is not a mental health problem, but it can cause depression and anxiety.) He also wrote me a letter that I’m using to apply for Australia’s National Disability Insurance Scheme and to be referred by the Department of Human Services to a disability employment service provider (the latter only because I’m not getting a lot of work lately in my job solely because the industry is not busy). I should note that I’m not looking for a handout, though I might need one if I continue to not get much work. I just recognise, now, that despite the fact that I don’t personally see autism as a disability, logically and reasonably it really is one in the sense that I’m an autistic person trying to function in a neuro-typical world. And I need help to do so. I always did, and I can’t change the past in which I didn’t and obviously suffered the consequences, but hopefully the future will be brighter.

It’s difficult to explain exactly what autism is, and even harder to explain my experience of it. I encourage anyone who has any questions about it to ask me. Or to simply read about it. I don’t like being autistic, but neither would I change it. I don’t like the challenges being different brings me, but I do like the ways in which I’m different – despite the “normal” I’m surrounded by every waking hour. “Normal” which seems anything objectively but, to me.