Alone in a Crowd
My entire life I've felt alone in a crowd. Wherever I've been there's been a gap, a sense of separation that I've never been able to understand. It's always been hard for me to make friends, for example, and I've tended towards solo activities. Then, last year, a friend raised a warning flag. Last week I received the final copy of the report into the resulting investigation. I'm autistic.
In my case it's High Functioning Autism, what would have been, up until last year, called Asperger's Syndrome. Now it's considered part of the Autism Spectrum because it's perceived to be so close to Autism as to be on the spectrum too. It's a neuro-developmental disorder, meaning that something went 'ping' in my brain or central nervous system during its development. It's something that's strongly affected me my entire life, something that's gone undiagnosed until well into adulthood. I want to talk about it to help you understand autistic people, to help you understand the difficulties we can face, to help you appreciate what we can have to offer, and to find positivity in it.
With Every Great Gift
One of the most powerful things to affect me on a day-to-day basis is high sensitivity. This is a common trait among the autistic, but isn't unique to us. In fact, it's estimated that 15 - 20% of the population are highly sensitive. My senses are acute, so I have much more sensory information coming in than most people do. Also, I have fewer filters to back out background sensory input, like sirens or ringtones, and process sensory information in an atypically intense way. It can make for incredible experiences. When I visited Paris in June, I spent my last morning in Montmartre, exploring the streets, and visiting the museum there. I fell in love all over again with the art of the late 19th to early 20th Century Montmartre, which I'd previously explored in only a limited way. Now, I saw it in all its glory, and I had an incredible, intense experience of it. Art, in all forms, can be intense for highly sensitive people. We're great to experience it with, whether it's music, films, theatre, games, books, whatever it is, because we have such intense experiences that it can rub off on those around us. The clinical psychologist who diagnosed me helped me realise that texture is a sensation that I'm particularly attracted to. While I was in Paris I bought a notebook and pen in a shop there, and a major factor was how they felt in my hand.
I also experience a lot of detailed thinking. Earlier this year someone I know saw me staring at something and asked if I was ok. I tapped my head and said "Processing", and she understood. In my head I was rapidly running through a long sequence of organisational scenarios, trying to find the most effective layout. Thinking in such detail makes me an effective copywriter because I'm able to home in on the essential facts and express them in a neat way. Combined with this is a tendency to take things literally, which means that I'm tenacious in drafting or editing websites and copy. Seeing things in detail and taking their meaning literally has enabled me to deal with countless issues that other people might have missed.
I'm also creative, something that's been linked with autism. Technically, in some cases, it could simply mean 'approaching a problem from a different direction'. However, in my case, I've long enjoyed writing. It's something I lost touch with for a while, but am rediscovering now, hence the notebook and pen. I've always enjoyed the more obviously creative genres in popular entertainment such as mythology, fantasy, and science-fiction. Whether autism is causing or lifting my creativity, I'm sure that the desire to create comes from a different perspective.
There's a Great Curse
Autism brings me so many incredible things, but it also brings me troubles. Expressing empathy for others is difficult. Even when I feel it, it's as if I'm on the other side of a chasm: I can see another person hurting and sympathise, but can go blank in what to say or do. The same is true of social situations, in which I don't know what to say and clam up, or say the first thing that comes into my head, only for it to be inappropriate. Now that I know that I'm autistic, I'm aware of the shortfall which is good. However, it also makes things hard, because I can wind up second-guessing my otherwise good instincts. I'm constantly struggling to bridge the chasm in social situations intellectually. These things that come so easily to you because they happen instinctively, are exhausting to me because they require work.
The same is true of executive thinking, or step-by-step thinking: step 1, step 2, step 3 etc. until a process or job is complete. I struggle to think in such ordered ways. My brain wants think at tangents, or loses focus. This appears to be universally true as well, as I've become aware of its presence in creative writing as well as work and routine chores. At the suggestion of the friend who was the first to notice that there was something different about me, I use a diary to keep on top of things, and write step-by-step lists to work through things in an ordered way. So I'm managing it and that's fantastic, but it's not something I can relax on.
And those benefits I mentioned? With high sensitivity I take in so much that the world can become overwhelming, forcing me to retreat at times. Yes, my experience of Montmartre's art was amazing, but I eventually had to leave because it was too beautiful. Before or after social occasions, I can need to have a quiet night in to allow myself to rest. I can easily become overloaded, not just from loud noises or intense experiences, but simply from the day-to-day experience of life. With that overload can come headaches/migraines, tiredness, emotional lows, back ache, and disinterest even in things I love. Taking things literally? Great for drafting, not so great when I'm trying to understand people. Human communication has shorthand, inconsistencies, or social codes that are understood as being within human normal. Not for me. Common sayings or expressions can be meaningless to me because, taken literally, they're gibberish. They're not meant to be taken literally though, they're figurative, metaphorical, or shorthand. It also makes ambiguous instructions, especially verbal ones, difficult.
Eternal Struggle, Endless Gifts
But if you ever presented me with a cure (which doesn't yet exist) I'd refuse it. I gain so much from autism, from different ways of thinking, to creativity, to sensitivity to art and people, to my sense of humour, that taking it away would be devastating.
The difficulties can be very hard to deal with, especially if they negatively impact someone I care about. Getting things wrong can be torturous when so much effort goes in to trying to do things right. That's something that I always strive to do because I have something that used to be called a 'sense of honour'. It matters to me that things are done correctly, especially with people that I feel great loyalty to. If I get something wrong, I can feel acute shame or guilt.
Life with autism then is far from easy, but it gives me so much that I'd never want to lose it, even if some days I swear at the effect it has upon me. Reading the psychology report, which put much of what I experience with autism in black and white, was initially a hard experience, but I know that it's also developing my own understanding of myself. In there are some tools, some coping mechanisms, that could prove helpful. So this is a nettle I'm going to grasp.
Dance with a Muse
Autism is a common disorder, yet the myths surrounding it are so great, and the unique traits we have are so under-valued. I can't change the tide by myself, and what can I do that Temple Grandin hasn't already done? I don't have to top her achievements, I just have to do my own thing. For me that means Dance with a Muse, my project for spreading inspiration and positivity. So I'm adding autism to its repertoire, whether it be information, myth-busting, individual experiences, coping mechanisms, or success stories.
For me, diagnosis means knowledge. Hopefully that knowledge will bring greater peace with myself, and an improved ability to be kind to myself. Ultimately, I'm the same person I always was. I'm not broken, I'm just different.
Do you know anyone on the Autism Spectrum, and does this help you understand them any better? If so please share it in the comments.