A Love and Hate Relationship with Autism Spectrum Disorder
Being autistic is complicated (to state the obvious). It’s never just one thing, in my experience at least. It’s not even one thing on one day, one thing in one moment. It’s good things and bad things all wrapped up together and while I can advocate and applaud ‘Autistic Pride,’ I’m not sure I’m there yet. But I can appreciate the good and the bad and so, considering it’s World Autism Acceptance Week, I thought I’d post something about just that: the good and the bad and learning to live with them…
Autism, as we know, is a neurobehavioural condition so the traits associated with it are right down in our wiring, just like the rest of our personality traits: being autistic is at the very core of us and everything else is built upon that foundation. There are some things about being autistic that mean a lot to me, things about myself that I love and value, including…
- A NEED FOR AUTHENTICITY – Obviously I can’t control whether or not other people act authentically but I need to be authentic. If I act differently to how I feel, it has a negative impact on my mental health and on my happiness. So, to be happy and mentally healthy, I have to act on how I feel and be who I really am and it’s in following that rule (for lack of a better word) that I’ve had the best experiences and created the things I’m most proud of. As I said, I can’t make that choice for other people but I do think that, on the whole, I get on better and make stronger connections with people who are authentic.
- PASSIONATE ABOUT THE THINGS THAT ARE IMPORTANT TO ME – If I love something, I love it with everything I have. I will fully immerse myself in said thing; I actually find it hard not to. That can sometimes make doing normal, day-to-day things hard because all I want to be doing is engaging with this thing I love but I’d rather love wholeheartedly than feel ambivalent about stuff.
- LOYALTY – When I care about somebody, I’m all in. I’ll do anything for my friends, sometimes to a pretty extreme degree: like, once I improvised travelling home from Nashville because my flight was cancelled and I’d promised a friend I’d be home for something or like, once I woke myself up every hour to check whether a friend who was in hospital had tried to get in touch because she was scared about being in hospital alone at night. Putting that much into a friendship or relationship does mean I’m more likely to get my heart broken (and it already has been) but like all of the things that matter to me, I’m never going to want to care less about people. I mean, on the bad days, sometimes I do – it would make life easier – but, as a person, I like that I care that much. It’s not always easy (or healthy) but overall, I always think it’s better to care more than less.
- STUBBORNNESS – I am stubborn as hell and sometimes it’s a pain; sometimes I can’t let things go even when I want to. But being stubborn has also gotten me through a lot of hard stuff and helped me make a lot of good stuff happen.
- IT GAVE ME PURPOSE – All I want to do is make the world a little bit better. That’s all I want. I hate seeing people unhappy or things not working so I’m always looking for ways to help and make things better but the world is a big place with lots of problems and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and helpless. But finding out that I’m autistic, that gave me a place to start and the more I’ve learned, the more I want to help make being autistic an easier, less harmful, and ultimately better experience. And that’s what I’m trying to do, whether that’s with this blog, my music, or by trying to improve the accessibility and understanding wherever I go.
But there are also things about being autistic that I hate, that I struggle with, that cause me problems, and upset me deeply. I know it’s not healthy to focus on the difficult parts (unless you’re, for example, working on something specifically in therapy or counselling) but I do believe that acknowledging the negatives is important and validating. Endless positivity is not helpful and can end up being harmful so here are some of the things that I hate about being autistic…
- LACK OF INDEPENDENCE – With the sensory issues, fatigue, mental health problems, etc, my independence is severely hindered. And as hard as I work to improve my stamina and my mental health and so on, I don’t know how I’m ever going to be completely independent. If it’s even possible. The idea of living by myself is one that I can’t even really imagine ever being realised. And with that being such a standard rite of passage that holds such weight, it’s hard not to feel inadequate or broken.
- FEELING FROZEN – I still don’t really know how to describe this feeling and I can’t say for sure what caused it or when it kicked in but I feel very stuck, particularly in the developmental sense. I feel stuck somewhere between teenager and adult; I feel all the pressure of being an adult but I also feel incapable of doing a lot of the things that make it impossible to meet all of those expectations. All of the things that impede my independence come into play here too, like my lack of energy and my issues with pain. Just existing is an exhausting experience; living as everyone else does feels like an impossible dream.
- THE SENSORY DIFFICULTIES (WITH FOOD IN PARTICULAR) – Sometimes just being is really hard. Every light is too bright, every sound is too loud, every smell is overpowering, every fabric is itchy… and so on. It’s not like that everyday, at least not for me. But it is like that a lot. And most of the time, it makes doing normal things like eating, drinking, going about my day, etc, just that bit harder. I would love to not be phased by restaurants for example: to not worry about the fact that there’s probably nothing I can eat, or potentially even drink, apart from water (and even then it usually has lemon or lime or cucumber in it). Even small things feel so complicated. I’d love to be able to just meet a friend for coffee and that be that but between whatever we eat or drink, how loud it is, and all of the other sensory factors (and that’s not even thinking about all the sensory stuff involved in the travelling), it’s just exhausting. And I wish it wasn’t.
- THE RESULTING MENTAL HEALTH PROBLEMS – While we will never know for sure, I (and the mental health professionals that I trust and have worked with for years now) strongly suspect that many of the mental health issues I deal with, are at least partly down to being autistic, and specifically, being diagnosed as autistic so relatively late. Anxiety, depression, OCD, BPD, and ADHD are all comorbid to Autism. Maybe some of them would have developed on their own but I’m sure the Autism did not help and the amount of distress that these problems cause isn’t something I can easily put words to. Every day is a struggle because of them. Let’s leave it at that for now.
- THE LACK OF UNDERSTANDING, FROM EVERYONE (INCLUDING MEDICAL PROFESSIONALS) – Everywhere I go, I have to teach people about Autism, even the most basic stuff. From friends, to teachers, to doctors, even to people whose entire job revolves around accessibility. No one seems to know anything, or at least anything beyond the basic stereotypes. There’s almost no decent representation out in the world, in the media (which makes it very easy to feel alone and/or broken) – the vast majority of it is harmful. So many people still don’t even know that Autism manifests differently in girls. Autism is a complicated thing so I don’t mind helping people understand it, understand some of the nuance, but I hate how bad the general understanding is, especially when it’s people who should know better (when it’s part of their job, for example). This is why so many people are diagnosed so late and struggle so much: even the people who should have a working knowledge of Autism don’t and it’s really not good enough.
So, this was a bit more exposing than I’d expected when I started writing. But there it is. Almost a decade later and I’m still figuring out what it means, to me, to be autistic. It’s complicated and it’s hard and some days I’m really proud that this is who I am. I guess the goal is to have more of those days.