Hi guys! So as you might already know, it's Autism Awareness Month. What you might also know is that I, Tom, have Aspergers' Syndrome, an Autism Spectrum Disorder. So this week, instead of curating a post from someone else about their illness or disability, I'm gonna be telling you all about mine! So without the usual introductory paragraph, since I'll assume you already know who I am, let's talk about being an Aspie!
(If you wanna know some more about me you can visit our 'About' page, or find me on Instagram @SpoonieTom)
Living with autism is strange. Or at least I imagine it would be if you’ve ever known any different. It’s the fine art of understanding the most complex things in the finest and most intricate detail, whilst also feeling as though you have no understanding at all of the world that you’re living in. At best, it’s utterly fascinating, at worst it’s the most isolating and alienating thing that you could possibly experience. But the truth of it is, I’m not sure I’d ever want to live without it.
In relativity, I got lucky. I was diagnosed with Aspergers’ Syndrome at around 4 years old, an extremely early diagnosis by most standards. I’ve heard of and know people who’ve fought for years to be diagnosed as an adult. I was also extremely lucky with how I was introduced to it as a concept. At this point my mum was an only parent, caring for me with the help of my grandparents. Even from an early age she was honest with me, explaining that my brain worked a little differently to other people’s, that I saw the world in different ways. In hindsight, this is probably what has allowed me to be so high functioning as I’ve grown up. Understanding why I was different, why I have quirks and why some things just don’t make sense sometimes have all allowed me to generally present as neurotypical.
Obviously, there are situations where there’s nothing I can do to avoid the fact that it’s there. In stressful situations I can become so overwhelmed that I just shut down, become non-verbal and often just burst into tears. There are times when I’ll misunderstand what someone means by something and say the wrong thing. I’ve upset more than my fair share of people like this. And sometimes I’ll just be unable to identify with someone’s emotions. If I can’t identify a logical reason for the way someone feels then I can find myself totally unable to comprehend their situation.
The worst of the condition really showed itself during my second year of university. I was doing a broadcast journalism degree, (a poor choice really considering how much I hate talking to strangers and using the phone) and a deadline for handing in a video news piece was approaching. All I had received from my leads was emails telling me that they couldn’t help me, and it got to the point where it just became too much. At that point, I ended up having to leave uni for 6 months. For 19 years I’d managed to deal with the anxiety that is innate in autism, but this was the moment when it became impossible to ignore. So I ended up on a pretty strong dose of tranquilisers and anti-depressants (the anti-depressants I’m still taking now), and with a course of CBT, the NHS’ favourite sticking plaster for mental health issues. But after a change of degree to one that involved less direct human interaction, I was able to graduate, then go on and do a masters the next year, and then join Spoonie Village and meet all of you wonderful people. I’m even starting my own little sideline in private tutoring, hoping to help out students who aren’t able to negotiate education with autism quite as smoothly as I was. It’s all about managing my condition, the same as any other illness or disability, taking time to myself when I need it, removing myself from difficult situations, planning things well in advance (okay, that one I’m not so great at…).
Most importantly though, there are aspects of being on the spectrum that aren’t talked about. The things that make it such a fascinating thing to live with. I love detail and learning, and as soon as I start to become interested in something I want to know everything I can about it. In the past this has gifted me with an almost expert level of knowledge in trains, guitars, coffee, cars, and a ton of different areas of history, and that’s not even an exhaustive list.
I also have a brain that works at lightspeed, all the time. In situations where I’m overwhelmed, this is literally the worst thing in the world. But in most other situations, it means that I’m able to process a substantial amount of information in the same time that it takes most people to only begin to get their heads around it. In all honesty it can make me look like a total smartass most of the time, and this was especially the case before I really understood it and couldn’t figure out why it was taking people so long to reach the same conclusions as me, but I’m grateful that it’s a gift that I have.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that actually, being on the spectrum isn’t a totally negative thing, for me at least. Of course, with it being a spectrum, there are infinite levels to which people can experience autism, and I recognise that I’m one of those fortunate enough to be able to work it into something that is equally as positive as it is a difficulty. Like I said at the start of this post, if I’m being totally honest, I’m not sure I’d ever want to live off of the spectrum. Having spent nearly 24 years living with it, I can’t help but feel that being neurotypical would really be quite dull in comparison.