I’d love to say this article is for anyone out there who’s affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), but I’ve written it purely for myself. Lately, due to personal circumstances I’ve been feeling increasingly disabled and limited by my autism. This increasing feeling of limitation can act as a self-fulfilling prophecy (if you know you can’t do something, what’s the point in putting any effort in?) So, in order to think more positively I decided to set myself a challenge: find ten reasons why I love having autism. It was particularly difficult to find positives in the way I process sensory information, as for me sensory overload is by far the most disabling aspect of autism, and causes me a great deal of stress and anxiety. However, I managed to complete the challenge, and by doing so I hope I can encourage others to be more positive about ASD too. Here are ten reasons why I love having autism:
1) It helps me relate to the kids I work with
In addition to being self-employed, I also work part time at Bradford Autism Support, where I care for autistic children and speak at autism training sessions. It was meeting all these wonderful kids on the spectrum that eventually gave me the courage to “come out” as someone with Asperger’s Syndrome. My own experience of autism means it’s easier for me to relate to the children I care for than my neurotypical workmates, although I still struggle at times. It’s also been useful for autism training, because I can provide real life examples of the challenges related to ASD, instead of just offering dry theory that might be difficult for teachers and social workers to apply to a real human child.
2) I’ve bonded with my parents over it
I’ve really bonded with my parents over the challenges caused by having someone with ASD in the family. When I had a break down they worked tirelessly to understand why I had got to that point and bring me back from the edge. Since I find it difficult to socialise with people my own age, family time is probably more important to me than it is to most neurotypical women in their early twenties. I’m incredibly grateful to be part of a close knit family that communicates well, and the struggles we’ve encountered in the last few years have only made us closer.
3) It’s made me creative
My Asperger’s Syndrome means I view things differently, a unique perspective that can be very lonely, but has also driven me to make art. While other people my age are at a night club or a house party (a sensory environment that would be hell to me thanks to all the noise and flashing lights) I’m often in my bedroom making jewellery, reading, sewing, writing poetry or just watching tv. I’m not saying I never go out or that neurotypicals never stay in. But despite the maths genius stereotypes often associated with autism, many people with ASD are driven to be creative during their spare time. And that’s a wonderful thing.
4) My sensory issues help me to see the beauty in the every day
At the moment I see everything. Sometimes this is so confusing that my brain has to work at a million miles a minute trying to process all that visual information. As a result, it takes a long time to process visuals and can look as if I’m not paying attention what what’s around me. I see everything, and hear, smell, taste and feel everything. This can cause a great deal of anxiety, leading to panic attacks and sensory overload. But it can also help me notice the beautiful things around me that others miss. For example: at the moment I love the texture of rough stone walls. Whenever I’m out on my own I run my hands across them, and that sensation makes me really happy. I used to work with a teenager with nonverbal autism who had a similar love of air currents. He could sit in front of an electric fan for up to six hours, grinning as he savoured the sensation of cool air brushing past his face. The first time I witnessed this I remember feeling quite envious. Imagine if we could all find happiness in such simple pleasures…. I think the world would be a much nicer place.
5) My sensory issues have given me something to write about
Autism in general and sensory issues in particular have given me a lot to write about. I started writing fiction when I was seventeen (a gothic piece about a haunted house) and the fact that I am so over sensitive to light and sound meant I was able to pen vivid, multi-sensory descriptions. I went on to achieve a first class degree in creative writing and drama. I wish I had the time and energy to continue writing fiction (I know, I know, “no time” is a terribly clichéd excuse for not writing) but I think I put my sensory issues to good use through blogging and autism awareness training.
6) I’ve built a career out of it
When I finished university I was terrified. I had a good degree, but it wasn’t a particularly vocational subject and I was entering the world of work for the first time with little skill or experience, during the middle of a recession. My Mum had read a couple of my research papers on the theme of drama therapy and autism, and she suggested I apply for grant money to pursue this area further. That was how Seeing Double was formed. Since then I’ve pretty much built my career around having Asperger’s Syndrome. I write disability related poetry, deliver autism awareness training, run drama workshops for autistic kids… My focus on my own experience of autism could be deemed unethical, self-indulgent and narcissistic. But it makes me just enough money to scrape by, and more importantly, it makes me happy.
7) It’s made me aware of my own limitations
Okay, being aware of your own limitations might seem like a bad thing, especially in a culture where constant productivity is valued above all else. Heck, every time I switch on the tv I see half a dozen sports adverts encouraging viewers to eat nothing but Kale and push past their limits by jogging until they pass out from dehydration, because that’s the only way you’ll ever be a beautiful, valued member of society. But stop and think for a second. Try to imagine a world where nobody was aware of their physical or mental limitations. A world where people walked out into a street filled with traffic because they didn’t believe that being hit by a car could cause them any real damage. The human race would probably be wiped out pretty quickly. Having a lifelong disability means I’ve become very aware of what I can and can’t do, and which normal, everyday situations could send me into a meltdown. This self-awareness does have a negative impact on my mental health and self-esteem. But on the whole I think it’s a good thing. It’s what keeps me safe and alive.
8) It’s helped me find wonderful friends
Surprisingly enough, a condition defined as a ‘social awareness and communications disability’ has actually helped me befriend others. I still find socialising in big groups difficult, and would much rather have a small handful of close friends than a bunch of acquaintances who pretend to like each other. I still have to go off the grid every once in a while, not contacting anyone for a couple of weeks when things get too rough. But I’ve recently met others who are on the spectrum or struggle socially for various reasons, and we’ve bonded over being different. Old friendships have also been rekindled and strengthened by the revelation that people whom I’d previously thought were neurotypical are on the autism spectrum too. There is nothing more exciting than meeting someone who’s just as much of a wierdo as you are.
9) It’s helped me get a 1st at university
One major symptom of autism (particularly high functioning autism or Asperger’s) is having random, specific interests that you can focus on for hours; another symptom is a pathological need for routine. Both these aspects were very helpful to me at university because the higher you go up the academic ladder, the more narrow and specific your area of study becomes. For example, I took a joint honours course in creative writing and drama. In third year my drama assignments were focused entirely on using drama-therapy to work with autistic children. Because I was studying a small area of great interest I was able to focus for hours. Because I was able to focus for hours I got a 1st class degree. I’ve actually met more adults with autism and Asperger’s at university than I have in any other setting throughout my life. In my opinion university education is really suited to the way the Aspie brain works.
10) What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
It’s a terrible cliché, but it’s the truth. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. If you don’t believe me, imagine you’re a medieval blacksmith forging a sword. First you have to heat up the metal to a very high temperature, then you have to bash it with a heavy hammer over and over until it’s strong enough to use in battle. For a person to become strong enough to battle the world, they also need to encounter a bit of (metaphorical heat and bashing. I’m certainly not advocating violence. But countless meltdowns, anxiety attacks, sensory overload and the ongoing struggle to have my needs understood by the social services have been just as painful as being hit over the head with a hammer. And I believe these experiences have made me stronger.