On the Spectrum
Growing up as a female with autism
April Spectrum, a 28-year-old youth coach in Colorado, spends her nights working at a rehabilitation organization for children and teens with criminal backgrounds. She lives with her boyfriend and their two fur babies, a poodle and a bulldog.
But growing up, April struggled socially. “I was really depressed. As a kid, I didn’t fit in and I didn’t understand why. By the time I was 8, I gave up on having friends.”
“Social anxiety kicked in. You tend to develop it when you have a lot of failed interaction. I used big words that other kids my age didn’t know. For example, this is a funny story. When I was in the third grade, I had just learned the word intercourse from a Sherlock Holmes book. I assumed it was a synonym with discourse. I mistakenly bragged about having intercourse with the most hated boy in our class. I was mortified.”
When April was 19, she discovered an online study about autism run by scientists from MIT. She remembers one of the questions very vividly. “How long could you go without seeing your friends?” Responses varied from 1–3 hours, 1–3 days, 1–3 months, and 1–3 years. April’s response? 1–3 years.
After she took the survey, MIT contacted her and asked for her biological gender. They asked if she would like to participate in a three-month long study, where scientists would study her behavior and her interactions on a daily basis. The study offered her food, housing, and a stipend of money for spending.
“I told my parents about the study and they flipped out. There was a rumor at the time that autism was caused by bad parenting.”
April accepted the results of the survey as an autism diagnosis — and decided to tell her parents. “At the time, I still lived at home, completely dependent on parents, and I’d never had a job. I was probably socially and emotionally at the level of a 12-year-old, but I had been capable of completing college coursework since I was 10. I told my parents about the study and they flipped out. There was a rumor at the time that autism was caused by bad parenting. They also thought it was a condition only men experienced. From that moment forward, anything I did that they considered to be too nerdy or too dramatic was me just pretending to have autism.”
April’s parents have still not accepted her autism diagnosis, and it has strained their relationship. “I think it stems from when I was younger. When I was 10, my mom was worried because I got diagnosed with depression. I would get in trouble when I was sad. She said I was just trying to get attention. I wasn’t allowed to show any sign of sadness.”
But for April, the autism diagnosis helped her understand other issues she had faced growing up. “I also found out that even depression is linked to autism. I have certain ticks that weren’t ‘normal’ like scratching until I bled. Knowing why I did that helped me figure out a different way to satisfy that need. I use psychological comfort versus physical comfort. Now, I address the need directly and figure out how to solve what I’m stressing over.”
April knew that she had to see someone. “I kept thinking… this just isn’t me anymore.”
Even though April was convinced by the MIT survey that she had autism, she still did not see a doctor. Instead, she initially turned to a four-legged friend for support. “I finally moved out of my parents’ house three years ago. I knew that this change brought with it a lot of anxiety, so I decided that getting a puppy would help me cope with all my newfound freedom. A couple of days later, I had to get my wisdom teeth out. I took more pain medication, and began hallucinating. I had experienced severe depression in the past… I had even had suicidal ideation before. This time was different. The only thing that stopped me from committing suicide that day was my new puppy. I was hallucinating so badly I was seeing three of her. I knew I had to stay alive so that she would be taken care of.”
After this experience, April knew that she had to see someone. “I kept thinking… this just isn’t me anymore.” She searched Psychology Today’s directory of therapists and decided to give one a call. But when the phone started to ring, she hung up, overcome with uncertainty. “The therapist called me back even after I hung up. After my first visit, I was officially diagnosed with symptoms of autism, specifically Asperger’s.”
Being informed — and seeing a therapist — has helped April to handle situations that previously would have caused her trouble. “I am able to make accommodations for myself now so that other people don’t have to. I’m also able to plan ahead for things that I know will cause me anxiety or panic.”
“One person who I told in confidence even asked if I was dangerous.”
Even so, April gets mixed reactions when she tells people about her condition. “Those that are close to me react positively. I had a roommate that was very rude to me; she even abused my puppy, which at that time had become my service dog. I also have a landlord that’s trying to kick me out of my apartment because she found out about my condition. One person who I told in confidence even asked if I was dangerous.”
April has found sources of support outside of her dog and therapist, even if it sometimes doesn’t come from the most obvious places. “I’ve done a lot of research on my condition, and one thing I found out is that gender dysphoria is more common in autistic people. What’s funny is that I’ve found so much more acceptance among people who are LGBT… or those who don’t fit in with the social norms in other ways. It makes it easier for people like me in the world because we don’t have to be so afraid of being different,” she remarks.
April wants those who are diagnosed with autism to know that: “The best thing that’s going to help you is to set up a safe space to go to when you’re overwhelmed. It’s going to be tempting to research everything at first. You’re also going to be hyperaware of your hypersensitivity. When I can’t handle the world, my safe place is where I go. Make sure yours has food, water, and something to hug like a pillow or stuffed animal. Plan for when you have those panic attacks.”
April has one other important suggestion for people living with autism: “Also, cat memes are great — I feel like they’re little animals with autism,” she laughs.
By Ashley Spencer, Writer’s Ink