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.