On the spectrum: A personal take on Autism

There comes a time when you find out that Santa Claus isn’t real, and that it’s just your parents slipping gifts under the tree and taking bites out of the cookies. That, for me, was exactly what it felt like when I found out I had Autism when I was ten years old.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m thankful my mom educated me about Autism early-on, and I was diagnosed when I was four. I’ve also gotten plenty of educational help, thanks to my mom’s initiative to get me on an Individual Education Program (IEP) plan. I just wasn’t prepared for what I was going to experience in my life following my realization.

I’ve discovered over countless Google searches that Autism is a “developmental disorder” that is usually divided into two sections: severe and high-functioning. Severely Autistic children may not appear different, but may make odd gestures. High-functioning Autism doesn’t tend to affect physical appearance, but tend to have social and behavioral problems. And believe me, I’ve had plenty of them.

Speech therapy was there for all of my elementary years, helping me slowly develop the skills that were needed to be somewhat “normal” ─ that is, somewhat like the other students at school who didn’t have Autism. I learned how to take part in a conversation, learned how to lose at a board game, and learned what it was like to function normally.

But my beloved speech therapist wasn’t there to help me out with the typical middle school bullying, the anxiety that overcame me in high school, and the thousands of socially awkward situations in between. “It’s a learning experience” sounds refreshing when it comes from your dad teaching you how to fix the car, not when you’ve literally told a stranger everything about yourself for the seventh time in the last year.

So when a friend looking to figure out how her Autism works asked how I coped I didn’t know what to say. I don’t “cope” in the conventional sense. Every week is a learning experience, with some lessons being vital and others being nonessential. I’m way too loud, and I don’t know when to shut up. I don’t understand boundaries. I’ll hug for the sake of hugging people, because I’m a giant hugger. (I apologize right now to everybody who was hugged unwillingly. All 5,000 of you. You know who you are.)

But more than my mistakes, I’ve had support. Support from family and friends who not only tolerate me, but love me. Support from the people who’ve admired my work and keep on encouraging me to do what I love. Support from the teachers and experts at school who cared for me along the way by helping me to grow up and be strong.

Even though Autism has been a hell of an experience to overcome, I would never wish for a different life. Autism is just as much a part of me as the glasses I wear for my astigmatism, or the braces that correct my teeth. And unlike the glasses and braces I wish I didn’t have, I’ve embraced my Autism despite all the embarrassing memories I recall. I remind myself everyday that, yes, I have Autism, and yes, I’m going to be alright.

April marks Autism Awareness Month, April 2 was International Autism Awareness Day. While you may not know anyone personally with the disorder, you probably know quite a few famous people with it: Albert Einstein, Mozart, Tim Burton, Andy Warhol, Dan Aykroyd, to mention a few.

I will never know what normalcy looks like, and that’s the point. But more than that, I just feel like we ought to do a better job of properly educating people, myself included, on what it’s like to have disorders, disabilities, or differences.

Or, as one person put it, “Be kind. it’s hard to be a person.”