The positives to being Autistic
30 Mar 2020
When my husband tells the story of how we met, he makes it sound like I was trying to sell him more than a Standing Order to Oxfam.
We met in 2008. When I was working on the street, obviously. Although I didn’t get any money out of him, we went on a date that evening. We talked all night and became instantly inseparable.
We moved in together after three months - cue marriage, kids, jobs, life. Twelve years on, we’re another normal, happy Leeds family.
We just happen to be Autistic.
What is Autism?
Autism is a so-called spectrum disorder; in that it’s very broad and you’ll struggle to find two people whose experiences and behavioural traits are the same.
It runs in the family: myself and my husband have traits, as does my son.
In general, Autistic people process, see, hear and feel the world around them differently to neurotypical (what you’d call normal) people. In other words, sights, sounds, smells and sensations can be much more vivid, puzzling and distracting. Sometimes painfully so.
It is defined as a developmental disability, and many with the condition do experience physical, mental and learning complications. Up to half, according to some estimates.
But while “disability” isn’t a bad word, a lot of people – myself included – don’t necessarily endorse the disability element of Autism. We’re often depicted as jigsaws missing a piece; as problems to be solved; as unfortunates; as diseases that need a cure.
But none of those get it. Being Autistic is a huge part of my identity, with positives too.
Autism and me
I was born in 1988 but wasn’t diagnosed until 2005. I was 17. My mum, who has always worked in teaching and childcare, saw the early signs.
From the age of three I’d chastise naughty children like a grown up: “I don’t think you ought to be doing that, do you?” I’d scold.
A little later, when I was seven or eight, I’d devour thick science fiction tombs like they were pre-school paperbacks. I’d smash through several 500-pagers each week, getting blissfully lost in the fantasy worlds of Terry Pratchett and David Eddings.
These are textbook traits of hyperlexia - the ability to read and speak at a level beyond one’s years. I countered that with another typical behaviour pattern: I’d freeze. If ever I was challenged or uncomfortable, I’d shut down. My thoughts would jam and I’d be mute and motionless.
Extreme Male Brain?
Despite flags waving from the get-go, my diagnosis was a long time coming. Unfortunately, it’s the same today, especially for girls. When people think Autism, they mostly think male: Rain Man, Sherlock Holmes, or Sheldon from Big Bang Theory.
There’s a longstanding myth that girls don’t get Autism. Historically, in fact, Autistic females would instead be diagnosed with Extreme Male Brain. Girls who were cold, logical and hyper-intelligent … those are male traits, right?
In days gone by, parents genuinely thought what we now know to be Autistic children were changelings; replaced by fairies at a young age by fay creatures who acted strangely and asked odd questions.
It’s sadly true that, in a bygone era (think 16th Century), my parents might have believed the real Robyn was taken by fairies and replaced with, well, me.
Anyway, the latest thinking is that Autism affects one female for every three males, but there are still gaps and problems in female diagnosis.
Boys tend to exhibit behaviours that are more stereotypically Autistic: they fidget, they tick, they struggle with eye contact and bristle in social situations. They often excel in and/or obsess over one specific discipline or genre.
In girls it’s different. When we obsess over things it’s not seen as problematic in the same way. For example, say a two-year-old boy is infatuated with Thomas the Tank Engine - that’s cute. But if he hasn’t grown out of it by 14, it’s odd and it’s picked up on.
Conversely, girls can obsess over dolls, horses or, in my case, literature all through life and few will ask questions.
Crucially, girls also tend to be better at what’s called masking: covering up giveaway traits and behaviours in order to look as neurotypical as possible.
Autism and school
Although I hated school – I was bullied constantly – masking helped me hide in the pack.
Masking involves thinking about every action, every facial tick, every inflection of your voice. Constantly. You can’t let your guard down as you habitually process, mirror and mimic the social traits of your peers, carefully considering your every action and reaction. It’s an uphill battle against your natural cognition.
So I could engage, I could maintain eye-contact and I was clever. I excelled in as many subjects as I flunked. The teachers weren’t thinking Autism, they simply thought I was sulky and lazy - I just needed to knuckle down and straighten out.
But the truth was/ is that, as many other silent sufferers can testify, school was a horrible environment. When you have Autism, typically speaking, you’re hyper-sensitive to sights, sounds and smells so the classroom was sensory overload. In that setting I struggled to focus and, like many Autistic people, I had problems with fine motor skills (handwriting, for example) and executive function (such as problem solving and time-management).
In school, I’d get so worked up about my insecurities that I’d simply stand up from my desk, walk away and try to do something else. The teachers weren’t pleased.
Slow progress at school
According to the UK’s National Autistic Society (NAS) there are 700,000 Brits on the Autism Spectrum, that’s more than 1 in 100. Just opinion here, but when you throw in the undiagnosed, I suspect it’s many more.
I’m not sure if things are getting better. If they are then progress is slow, especially in school.
I have a friend whose daughter isn’t officially diagnosed, yet like me she masks well. She’s smart, holds eye contact and has a wonderful imagination. But with no diagnosis, the school is dragging its feet in putting measures in place.
The girl has been bullied and such is her anxiety around going to school that she simply doesn’t go.
As per the NAS, over one-third (34%) of children on the autism spectrum say that the worst thing about being at school is being picked on. And nearly two thirds (63%) of parents say their Autistic child is not in a school that can “best support them”.
My six-year-old son, who is also on his way to a diagnosis, suffered terribly at a previous school. He was essentially warehoused and isolated from the other children.
Thankfully he’s at a new and proactive school that seems dedicated to making his education as comfortable and progressive as possible. My son now has ear defenders and dark glasses to limit overstimulation and he’s allowed to bring in sensory toys that help him recalibrate when things get too much.
The school has also seen that my son is very capable. Although Autistic people don’t necessarily learn in the same way as neurotypical people, that doesn’t mean they’re less able to understand the information. My son, for example, prefers writing cards to writing stories so the simple act of folding a sheet of A4 paper in half can be the difference between him completing a task or balking.
Autism and work
I haven’t always felt entirely supported at work. I once had a manager who, responding to a reasonable request to accommodate my needs, told me, “We’re not a charity and if you’re not capable of doing the job maybe you shouldn’t have it.”
But today I work for LifeSearch and LifeSearch works for me. I started there in 2015 and soon – while balancing mum duties – I began to work from home.
This was a doubly good move because, like a school classroom, a workplace is full of light, noise, and personality. It’s a lot to take in and a recipe for sensory overload.
I initially struggled with the environment and there was a steep learning curve. I’m someone who’s methodical, focused and ace when submerged in process and logic-driven tasks. But I struggled to learn how to deal with curveballs, deadlines and last-minute priorities.
Working from home means I can control my environment - and that helps me focus. The rest of my house might look like a game of Jumanji, but my home office is ordered and organised and I can regulate everything.
I don’t need to worry about flashing colours or contrasts or competing radio stations or the hum of ambient noise. My space is distraction-free and a perfect setting for hyperfocus.
Hyperfocus is like being in the zone but way more intense. In a state of hyperfocus, I can complete huge tasks, repetitive or complex, in a single sitting. It’s one of the big positives of an Autistic brain.
Other positives include thoroughness, creativity, resilience and loyalty. Autistic people make great social partners if you give them a chance.
I also have phenomenal visual and memory skills … which can be a little annoying, too. Read on.
We like to feel part of
My home office set-up might sound lonely and isolated, and feed into one of the myths about Autism and Autistic people. It’s true that many of us struggle to understand people and/ or social situations, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want to be a part of. We do.
I’m constantly updating my understanding of neurotypical behaviours. It was late in life before I understood small talk for what it is: a tool people use to get a read on others. That’s fine, I get it now.
But for me, small talk means a lot of information flowing into a brain that’s constantly maxed out. Small talk can, at times, be too much for a brain that’s wired to ingest everything it sees and hears.
For example, if I pass a person whose shoes are untied, my default is to commit everything about those shoes to my long-term memory. Colour, shape, style – unless I’m on-guard, this info will stay with me indefinitely.
Every day I have to talk to my brain like it’s a six-year-old child to ensure I segment the information I naturally want to collect. I have to be on-guard to tie a logic filter around every piece of data that comes my way. I need to distinguish the info I know I’ll never use from the stuff that might be useful.
Small talk might send me into processing-overdrive but I’m still like anyone else in that I crave friendship and companionship. I want conversation and to feel connected, I simply need more time and processing power to decode and filter everything that’s going on.
Instead of small-talk, I’m more likely to leap into the big topics straight away and info-dump about my current special interest.
And my special interests are many. I’m still an obsessive reader and I’m still a mega sci-fi fan. I named my daughter after a Star Wars assassin.
Yes, I’m Autistic. I’m also a mum, a friend, an employee, a wife, a film fan. My Autism isn’t a burden. Like some of my peers, I prefer to think of it more as a superpower.
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