Autism isn't just a spectrum, it's its own universe

posted by Jeff | Saturday, February 5, 2022, 4:39 PM | comments: 0

The funny thing about autism, as a spectrum disorder, is that it means such a broad set of things. I saw someone recently say, "If you know someone with autism, you know one person with autism." That's true, because it includes geniuses who change the world like Einstein or Newton, and it includes non-verbal adults that require lifetime care. It also includes me and my son, who are not at either extreme. I've known about my son for about eight years, and it first came up in therapy for me a few years after that. Despite all of the time that has passed, I feel like I don't fully understand it. How am I supposed to explain it to anyone else? How can the world we operate in understand it? Throw in ADHD as a typical comorbidity, and it gets even harder to figure out.

Being diagnosed myself, in midlife, is complicated. I'm sure that someone looks at me, or even knows me well, and thinks, "He's so normal," and aside from the fact that this feels like an "N-word" of a different kind (pro tip: the word you're looking for is neurotypical), they don't understand that I have decades of work that allow me to operate in the world quite successfully. For example, I loathe talking about the weather with strangers, but I do it anyway because I know it's a useful social convention. The diagnosis also changes the lens with which I look at my entire life. Every interpersonal relationship, professional situation, how I approached school or hobbies... it all looks different now because of how I understand my brain.

The part I'm very new to is the identity part. There are a whole lot of rabbit holes to go down with that, and to be honest I'm not that interested. I decided some years ago that I wasn't going to deny it, and there are a great many people who knew among friends and coworkers. I know I've been discriminated against, and I know it has been used against me. Some people don't want to understand it. When I finally got the official diagnosis, I decided that I wasn't going to hide it, because it needs to be talked about.

I'm not sure what that means yet, because as I said, I don't understand it all myself just yet. I just know that I want to be an advocate for others and raise awareness among the neurotypical to understand that being different doesn't make us broken or less valuable. That's admittedly self-serving, because as I said, I've started to look at my entire life now through a completely different lens. That I ate lunch alone in a conference room when I moved in ninth grade wasn't because I was broken. That I struggled to date in college wasn't my fault. That I struggled to understand the intent of others in my first real job wasn't immaturity. I didn't make those choices, and it wasn't personality flaws. The world around me just didn't understand the way that I in turn perceived it, and it took a long time to be able to correct for that.

That correction, or the acquisition of coping skills, as it's often termed in psychology literature, is something that I'm struggling with at the moment because it feels so unfair that I had to adjust and the world didn't have any part in adjusting to me. But then there are stories where I feel like I have to congratulate myself for battling through something difficult and succeeding. (I've never really talked through getting my first and only full-time radio job, but it's extreme, and definitely benefitted from ASD and ADHD.) I don't feel like I can call it a disability when there are clearly ways that it has helped me.

Right now, I find myself thinking a lot about my college experience. I wouldn't call it a bad experience, but it was difficult at times. That's something I'll probably write about.


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