I’ve never perceived myself as anything but autistic.
How could I? I was diagnosed with autism as a young child right after my parents caught me doing things like always talking to myself. When you’re just four years old, you don’t know what autism really means or what it’s like to live as someone with autism. You just know what the doctor tells you: You’re a little different; You’re sensitive to loud noises; You’re gonna be okay. Those phrases stick in your mind even at that young of an age.
Also lodged in my memory are my earliest days in elementary school, where my autistic traits were suddenly made as clear as a bell. There’s a massive divide between being told you have trouble interacting with others and experiencing that. There were hard times when it came to navigating the social world of public school while being autistic. They took on many new forms as I got older. The struggles I had in high school were very different from the ones in elementary school; but they all were rooted in matters connected to my autism.
I could delve into the horrors of those days as well as my ensuing personal desire to minimize how I “looked” or “seemed” autistic to other people. In retrospect, those emotions, though rooted in real societal problems that “other” those with mental health conditions, do feel silly. After all, what does an autistic person even “look” like? But it’s one thing to say that after years of experience of living with autism. It’s totally another to be trapped in adolescence and trying to figure out how to adhere to what society dubs “normal.”
Those are the kind of struggles that are only exacerbated by the general discourse surround autism.
Do we need an umpteenth essay about misery associated with the autism spectrum? Now, that isn’t to immediately dismiss any experiences or testimonies from autistic individuals about hardships in their lives; especially when it comes to under-represented members of the autistic community speaking up about their own unique experiences.
However, largely neurotypical individuals have painted the experiences of being autistic as solely focused on misery. Thanks to this dominance, the general perception of being autistic is so tainted that the anti-vaccine movement has sprung up. It hinges on the idea that people would rather their kids get life-threatening diseases than get autism (which you can’t even get from vaccines, for the record).
I can’t change the world. I can’t immediately change the discourse on autism or wipe away the anti-vaccine movement with one swoop of my hand. But I can try to inject some positivity into people’s perceptions of being autistic. Because while there are hardships to being autistic, there are also countless parts of being autistic that I love. Those are the parts about being autistic that I want to convey to readers who are, like me, struggling to accept who they are. Maybe through my own stories, you too can appreciate ways your own form of autism has positively impacted your life.
For starters, my autism is responsible for my personality trait of being hyper-focused on a limited amount of subject matter.
Contrary to what general pop culture would tell you, autism doesn’t make a person an automatic mathematic savant; but there is a common link of autistic people being extremely committed to their passions. For me, this manifests in a life-long passion for all things related to movies. I don’t think I could have learned how to operate a VCR player before I learned how to talk if it weren’t for my autism!
Being so obsessed with cinema wasn’t just a childhood fixation. As an adult, it’s led to me discovering film fanatic friends, an actual career writing about movies; and even hopes for eventually becoming a professor in film studies. I wouldn’t have had all those positive experiences without my autism-informed commitment to this artform.
Similar to my love for films is my fixation on pugs. Rather than something that came and went over one summertime, I’ve always loved pugs. Even dreamed of having one as a pet. My persistent adoration was fueled by how my autism has me zeroing in on my interests with fervor. Thank to my autism-fueled dedication to pugs, I finally got a pug of my own last summer! Now every one of my days is filled with joy and snorts. That wouldn’t have been possible if my interests weren’t filtered through an autistic mindset.
I’m also grateful for how my autism has led to me discovering other wonderful people with autism.
I finally experienced this kind of social environment when I went to a meeting for people with autism at my college last year. I was initially nervous about going because for so much of my life, I felt like I needed to hide my autism. That task didn’t go so well with the prospect of attending a social gathering exclusively for autistic people.
But one fateful January afternoon, I bit the bullet and went on into that meeting space. By the end of the event, I got to know people who would eventually become some of my closest friends. The privilege to attend these weekly meetings gave me the chance to have a renewed sense of confidence in my autism and receive constant reminders that there is no one way to be autistic. The members of the autism community come in all shapes and sizes through a beautiful sense of variety. The virtues of making these meetings a weekly fixture of my life are numerous. I couldn’t have experienced them without my autism.
In addition to providing a hopeful reminder that autism is everywhere, these new friends of mine are simply a joy to hang out with. Even during the pandemic, we’ve kept in touch through virtual meetings and goofy memes sent through texts. If I wasn’t autistic, some of the best people in my life would, well, not be a part of my life. I wouldn’t give up those friendships for all the world, ditto for the autism that led me there.
Even things I’ve long struggled with because of my autism have ended up manifesting into blessings.
For instance, my autism has led to me having struggles with social experiences. This meant I had to spend countless hours as a kid learning about social cues, idioms, and other tenants of carrying a conversation. In the process, parts of communication were hammered into my head that it seems like many neurotypical adults forget about! It took me years to get here, but now, look at that! I’m a good listener! How could five-year-old Doug have ever imagined that?
My autism-informed distaste for loud noises has similarly paid off over time. When I was younger, I thought of this as a curse that kept me from attending big social events that were considered “essential” by my peers. However, these restrictions placed on my tolerance for noise led to me discovering places I did like to hang out; like libraries or parks. Rather than being an anchor that dragged down my social life, my autism-originating inability to handle loud noises was like an arrow pointing me in the direction of my actual interests.
On and on the list goes of ways autism has positively impacted my life. Now that I’m able to look back on 25 years of my life. I’m able to glean a much more complicated but also highly rewarding picture of what my autism looks like. It’s a picture that I was reminded of when I was interviewing therapist Kate McNulty, who is also autistic. During our discussion, I talked about how she hates the labels high-functioning and low-functioning; which are supposed to refer to the varying degrees of autonomy autistic people have. In her eyes, people have way more complicated relationships with their autism. McNulty noted that on her most challenging days, “I can appear pretty low-functioning.”
Just as autism has varying degrees of impact on a person’s life, so too are there similar complexities in how I’ve come to see my autism.
I may feel confident regarding my autism as I write this, but there are still days where I get so overwhelmed that I feel like my autism is a curse, not a blessing. It’s just one of the examples of how my autism isn’t perfect. How could it be? I have good days with it, bad days with it, days where I’m hyper-aware of it, and other days where it barely crosses my mind. Rather than adhere to general society’s perception of autism as either “a curse” or “a superpower”, I view my autism as just another nuanced part of who I am.
Even while recognizing the complicated nature of living with autism, I’m keenly aware that autism isn’t a cage that’s kept me from having a fulfilling life. On the contrary, in many respects, it’s the key that’s allowed me to access some of the best parts of life. I’ve never perceived myself as anything but autistic. That doesn’t mean that all the autism-oriented self-doubt from those fateful elementary school days has entirely vanished. But now, after all this time, I can confidently say that I like being autistic and that I wouldn’t trade who I am for the world.
Header: Nadine Shaabana