Monday, September 28, 2015

Married. Happy. Autistic.


     So much information about autism and the Autism Awareness Movement is geared toward young children. News flash: adults have autism, too. I'm one of them.

     "But you look so normal, and you're married! You can't have autism!" Exclamations like these always follow whenever I tell people that I'm autistic. It's true: I'm married, I had a career before I was diagnosed with a bone disease that ended it; I probably don't fit into your idea of what it means to be autistic, but it's something that affects me every moment of every day. 

     I think in layers and constantly have between three and five inner dialogues going on at once on different subjects, and my brain doesn't filter out stimuli like it does for the rest of the population. This means that I'm very easily overstimulated. For instance, if I'm grocery shopping and music is playing through the store's sound system, I hear and process every word said; my brain can't make it background noise. This, combined with the bright fluorescent lights and the constant levels of inner dialogue I have going on at any given time sometimes makes me overwhelmed and irritable. As a child, I'd have tantrums whenever I went out because I couldn't take being bombarded by the constant stimuli that my brain was processing instead of filtering.

     When I was a kid, I had a horrible speech impediment, and didn't make eye contact with people when conversing. My volume fluctuated inappropriately, and I spoke both with a lisp and far too quickly to be understood. After years of speech therapy and time working with therapists and psychiatrists to develop an inclination for eye contact, I began to seem more normal to other people.
     When I learned to speak properly, it quickly became evident that I was gifted. I was reading and writing at very advanced levels, and speaking with such a huge vocabulary that it alienated me from my peers. They called me things like "Spock" and "Dictionary", and whenever I tried to speak with them, they'd either stop me every few seconds to ask me what a word I'd said meant or their eyes would glaze over and they'd stop listening to me, not understanding what I was saying. It was around 5th grade that I learned to normalize my speech, forcing myself to limit my vocabulary and add "like"s and "umm"s into my vernacular like the other children did. I still find myself automatically translating things from the advanced, complex way I think into a simplified, modern way of speaking. 

     I often felt alien in school, and never had an interest in what other children were doing. While they were playing on the monkeybars and collecting Pokemon cards, I was memorizing poetry, reading endlessly on the Bolshevik Revolution and teaching myself basic Russian with the help of stacks of library books. I never wanted friends; I had so much going on in my mind at any given time that there simply wasn't room for friends, especially not ones with whom I had absolutely nothing in common. I was happiest when I was alone in my silent room with a stack of books, layers of thoughts swirling around colorfully in my head. I could sit quietly in an empty room and my mind would keep me happy and occupied for hours.

     Along with my Autism comes a learning disability in math as well as an inability to read maps. I can easily comprehend highly advanced abstract astronomic and micro concepts pertaining to things like quantum physics, I'm extremely intelligent and gifted when it comes to all things language, and am fluent in French, but I can't add or subtract even single-digit numbers to this day, despite years and years of flashcards and private tutoring. My obvious shortcomings in mathematics led to a lot of teasing as a child in school, even after I'd gone to the trouble of normalizing my speech and emulating my peers in other ways that felt foreign to me but were commonplace for everyone else.

     Now, I'm on medication that helps manage some of the unpleasant symptoms of my autism, like irritability, panic attacks, OCD and ADHD. To most people, I seem a bit quirky, idiosyncratic or eccentric, but overall "normal". No one guesses that I have autism unless they really get to know me, and, even then, it hasn't been a very big deal to anyone. 

     A few years ago, I was so worried about telling my then-boyfriend, now-husband, that I have autism. Our relationship was serious and we were living together at the time; he knew that I took medication for mental health problems but I'd never told him what my actual diagnoses are. In the end, it was he who mentioned it before I did. He'd found an article online about autism and thought it described me perfectly, and approached me with it. I admitted it to him then. Rather than being scared off by this news, he shrugged it off. "Having labels like 'autism' and 'ADHD' don't change who you are," he'd said, "they just describe you and help me to understand you better. Plus, I've already fallen in love with you." We were married in Vegas a few months later.

     There are so many different levels of autism. I'm considered high-functioning, though I struggle everyday to fit in to a world that isn't made with me and my needs in mind. So much literature on autism is geared only towards parents of small children with autism; those of us who are adults with it rarely get mentioned, but we exist. There's life after an autism diagnosis, and even though it presents a lot of unique challenges, it's possible to live a fulfilling and beautiful life with it. I don't see it as some horrible thing to be fixed; it's part of who I am. I love my colorful, vivid mind, intense imagination, fierce intellect and rather impressive inclination to excel in all language-related endeavors. If someone gave me the choice right now to take away my autism, I wouldn't do it. I'm happy. I'm perfect just the say I am; I don't need to change, the world just needs to expand its understanding and accept people with autism as unique individuals with just as many useful gifts as challenges. 

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