Hanna Gadsby's interview on being on the Autism Spectrum is something to be watched. So many girls/women are not diagnosed as being Aspergers or on the Autism Spectrum because they can camouflage easier than boys. Their literacy levels are usually higher, and other differences to boys/men.
As it is Autism Awareness Month I have decided to share my story. It will probably be a long post but I am known for writing a tome when passionate about a subject. SO here goes...
I identify as Asperger Syndrome (high-functioning Autism) and have so for many years. I remember I was in a Wollongong University lecture on Educating Children with Special Needs as part of my Bachelor of Education.
A slide was put up showing some of the key features of someone with Autism. I put my hand up and said that I identified with all of the traits listed. I was told that if I was on the Autism Spectrum then I 'wouldn't be here', a university student. I felt shocked and dismayed and thought 'she must know better than me, she's a tenured lecturer', and dropped the subject.
Growing up I always had problems with social occasions such as camp, parties, peer interaction. I was seen as 'Odd' and fixated on my own scholarly interests.
For a time that was Mathematics and my peers in primary school and some secondary school could find me working on Math puzzles in my Maths book like people now do Sudoku. I would write out all the main fractions (eg. 1/2, 1/3, 1/4) by long division and obsess over reading several books a day, sometimes reading whilst walking to school - which once led to my head crashing into the front of a Mac truck!
When I started University I struggled - a LOT. I was put into groups to work on assignments and I was more an independent worker and struggled with not being taken advantage of, or bullied into doing things that didn't sit well with me.
I had difficulty with organisation (time spent on each subject, timetables, assignments) in primary, secondary and tertiary level and often had to cram for assignments the night before they were due. I'd also fixate on my mistakes, often becoming depressed if I didn't get a high mark. This wasn't helped by an adult close to me belittling me if I didn't get 100% - even when I got 98% on a test that the second highest score was 60% and the rest failed - I was still told that I 'should have got 100%.
I would retreat into my books and often ignored life that was going on around me. In class, I would finish my work fast and then stare out the window or into space, in my own little world. I didn't make a lot of effort with my classmates and they just didn't understand me or what made me tick. I had moved so many times that I didn't bother making investments in friendships as it led to heartbreak when I did.
I remember a meltdown at a year 6 farewell party. I wanted to put the streamers (paper ribbon decorations) in a certain pattern and I was overruled. I said 'nobody likes me' and burst into tears. I was told it wasn't true but I felt rejected on a regular basis and distanced myself from my peers on a daily basis. When I acted naturally I was teased and when I went to Highschool I carried a briefcase in Year 7, convincing my mum to let me have one. I don't know why I wanted one but I persisted despite the calluses I developed on my fingers.
In high school, I ignored attention from boys. They were like aliens to me and there were only two boys that I ever had a crush on but never let them know - on purpose. I didn't develop until my early 20s and had very low self-esteem and just decided to focus on school work, my family and my future.
Even when I was 18 I was oblivious of the boys who later told me that they had a crush on me. I was friends with more boys than girls at times and wasn't really a 'girly girl', and to be honest, though most of my peers were shallow and not that interesting. I wasn't going through puberty and experiencing the heightened hormones and sex drive so I didn't experience the same feelings as they did. I had the body of a 10-year-old when I was 13, of an underdeveloped 12-year-old when I was 13-20
I had a best friend who lived next to me and with my difficult home life, I didn't want others to see what I was living with day to day. I had three good friends who knew a little of what was going on but the rest were oblivious. They would see me break down and cry now and then, but I wasn't allowed to say why.
You didn't talk about what went on at home. Family life was private and I just seemed odder. Some girls tried to work out what was going on but I just went quiet and they soon gave up. I confided in my best friend, much to her credit she was empathetic and was a great confidant. I'll always be thankful for her friendship. It meant more than she can ever know. I probably would have committed suicide if it hadn't been for her. Life was pretty hard and lonely and I didn't know why I was so different.
I remember having my behaviour 'corrected'. When stressed I couldn't keep eye contact and was disciplined out of that trait for the most part. I remember looking the person straight in the eyes and biting the inside of my cheeks to stop from crying or saying anything or it would just get worse. I was told be 'be normal' and not stand out. I was like a square peg in a round hole - I just didn't fit in.
When I was a substitute teacher I was often put in the most difficult classes. I would get a phone call in the morning asking me if I wanted to work at XYZ school in a set class. Usually, this was an IM class (mild intellectual disability) which included children with Autism, Aspergers. ADHD, low IQ students, and those struggling due to low levels of literacy and/or numeracy.
I loved working with these children and often the other teachers were shocked how well I was managing class discipline and creating active learning and enjoyment within the classroom. I was a very enthusiastic, engaging and inspiring teacher that children loved spending time with. It physically and emotionally drained me but I loved teaching and used Educational Games as motivation and rewards. SILENT BALL was one of the favourite games and was simple as a blown up balloon and two rules:
1. Don't make a noise
2. Don't let the balloon hit the ground.
Teachers would pop their heads in the room because it was SO QUIET and the kids loved other games such as TIMETABLE SHOOTOUT and STEPPING STONE game.
At University I did meet some people with similar traits to me. Many of them were boys that played Dungeons and Dragons and had fixated on personal interests (Geometry, Archeology, Language, Space, etc) and I really found them interesting.
At a friend's encouragement, I joined the Gaming Guild and took part in a convention at another University and felt that I had found my tribe. Most were on the spectrum or just highly intelligent and had amazing skills of creativity and problem solving when it came to AD&D and similar games.
As a child and young adult, I had difficulty telling when someone was lying to me, or telling a joke without telling me it was a joke. I'd get confused when people got angry when I talked incessantly about a topic of interest that they didn't have. Unbeknownst to me, their eyes would glaze over and sometimes sign until they gave up being patient and kind and would say that they were busy and had to go.
I didn't give the correct facial responses. Sometimes if someone told me a sad story I would accidentally smile - which as you can understand made them upset. It was involuntary and after a while, I would beat myself up for it when I saw their discomfort at my strange response.
It wasn't until a friend described Aspergers and that he identified as one that I really researched it and had an A-HA moment and realised that I, in fact, was someone with Aspergers Syndrome and that wasn't a bad thing.
Basically, Asperger Syndrome is named after a man called Hans Asperger, an Austrian paediatrician who saw similar traits to his own in children that he came into contact with through his job. He saw that they were high functioning autistic and that there was a spectrum, with some people being at one end of the spectrum (low functioning) and others at the other end (high functioning). People not on the spectrum are known as 'Neurotypicals' as people on the spectrum are Neurologically Atypical.
All autistic people share certain difficulties, but being autistic will affect them in different ways. Some people with Asperger syndrome also have mental health issues or other conditions, meaning people need different levels and types of support.
I used to suffer from Clinical Depression, and now take medication for mood stabilisation. Part of it was the chronic illness (Panhypopituitarism, Chronic Fatigue) and pain (Congenital Talipes - Club Feet post-operations) plus the stigma of being 'an odd duck' in a pond full of swans.
I have never tried to kill myself but I did have dark thoughts and some days didn't want to get out of bed and would fake being sick so I could stay home from school, usually after a bad experience the previous day.
When I get stressed my body shuts down due to the Adrenal Insufficiency I was born with. I wasn't diagnosed until I was 13 and then had to learn Endocrinology to be better able to manage my disease. I would get painful migraines on a regular basis, come home and cry that the children were too noisy and get into bed and cover my eyes and try to rest. I was exhausted every day of school thanks to Chronic Fatigue and just miserable a lot of the time. I would often pretend to be a happy child but wore a mask hiding most of my sadness and self-loathing.
At University and since I have sought out mental health specialists and have spent some time in mental health wards at hospitals after a mental breakdown happened. Yes, that is a huge thing to admit but I want to be honest.
Admission usually resulted from being severely stressed over an incident or mentally and physically exhausted. Sometimes it was after someone tried to suicide or self-harm. One time it was because I failed Mathematics course in my Bachelor of Education.
You would be surprised just how MANY people in those mental health wards displayed Autistic traits. I was able to help a great many of them accept themselves and learn to be happy in their own skin.
I see a psychiatrist and psychologist plus have many friends and some family members to confide to and seek advice. I write a private journal where I work through thought processes or write about an event or situation to de-stress and reduce tension. Looking back over past helps me to put things into perspective. Something I was ranting and raving over in my 20s was trivial and I totally overreacted.
After re-reading my journal entries and reading self-help books and websites I have learned not to 'sweat the small stuff' and try to breathe deeply, clear my mind and find a non-harmful way of reducing my stress and frustration. Note - I will soon be getting a punching bag to help with this. I already have boxing gloves and boxing pads but no one to practice with so a punching bag sounds like a plan.
If you know someone on the Autism Spectrum please show them empathy and understand that they can't think like you although they can move along the spectrum as I did. I learned to camouflage, keep eye contact when stressed, learn conflict resolution skills and to stand up for what I believe in. I am still a work in progress but most people don't class me as on the spectrum, just a little eccentric 😃
Thanks for reading and 'live long and prosper'