Autistic: Living Life on the Spectrum #AtoZChallenge

Welcome to day one in the #AtoZChallenge, in which I’ll share a collection of miscellaneous musings. For my first post, I’d like to talk about a topic people who used to follow my A to Z posts on my old blog, are thoroughly familiar with, since I chose it for my theme in 2015 and 2017: autism.

I was first diagnosed with autism at the age of 20 in March of 2007. The clinician who diagnosed me, didn’t give me an Asperger’s Syndrome diagnosis, like my support staff at the time had wanted. I didn’t care, as I at the time already didn’t subscribe to the rigid subtypes of autism, be it Asperger’s, PDD-NOS or classic autism, or high-functioning and low-functioning autism for that matter. I believe autism is a spectrum condition presenting differently in every affected person.

Later, in December of 2007, I was diagnosed with Asperger’s after all. This remained my diagnosis, along with a few mental health conditions, until the summer of 2016. Then, my autism/Asperger’s diagnosis got taken away. The psychologist who changed my diagnosis, claimed that my premature birth and the brain bleed I suffered as an infant, preclude an autism diagnosis. As if those genetically wired to be autistic are somehow exempt from being born prematurely or suffering brain bleeds. I know that, because the exact cause of autism is still unknown, it may be hard to differentiate autism from the mental effects of brain injury. However, since said psychologist couldn’t diagnose me with acquired brain injury either, because I sustained the brain bleed before age one, I ended up with no diagnosis at all that could explain my social cognitive differences.

I sought an independent second opinion and, on May 1, 2017, was rediagnosed with autism spectrum disorder under DSM-5. I am diagnosed with level 1 ASD, which is the mildest kind. I am pretty sure that, if the psychologist had taken the opportunity to assess me in a more natural environment, I’d be diagnosed as level 2.

Autism is still diagnosed based on the presence of social communicative difficulties and repetitive behaviors and interests. As of the release of DSM-5 in 2013, sensory issues are finally part of the diagnostic criteria. In my opinion, they aren’t given nearly the amount of attention they deserve. Neither are executive functioning difficulties. This is a term which describes organizational skills. I scored high for ADHD on the initial screening tool, but couldn’t be further assessed for it. Though I’m pretty sure I have some ADHD-inattentive traits, they could just as easily be part of my autism.

Autism, like I said, presents with social communicative differences. These include, in my case, difficulty making and keeping friends, difficulty interpreting non-literal language and tone of voice. Of course, because I am blind, I cannot read body language. My conversations also tend to be one-sided, in which I’m either the listener or the talker.

The other criterion of autism is the presence of repetitive behaviors and interests. I engage in near-constant stereotypical, self-stimulatory movements (or “stimming”). My language can also be repetitive, but this is particularly clear when I’m overloaded. As for special interests, I don’t have a lifelong obsession, like Temple Grandin does with animal behavior. Rather, my interests, though they change often, can be obsessive in intensity and focus. For example, I used to have an obsession with calendar calculation (calculating what day of the week a certain date falls on).

My main autistic trait though is overload. This is also a common brain injury symptom. In that sense, I’m doubly blessed.. I tend to be both sensorially and cognitively very easily overloaded. This then causes me to stim more, use echolalia (repeat other people’s words) and may lead to meltdowns or shutdowns.

Something interesting about overload is that it rarely occurs when I’m engaging with my special interests. This may make you think I’m just lazy, but I’m not. For one thing, my special interests involve little offline interaction. For another, they are my special interests because I’m good at them.

I hope that through this post, you’ve gotten a little glimpse into my life with autism and learned something new. For those not aware, April is autism awareness month. I encourage you to read other blogs by autistic people. You will find that most have a kind of difficult relationship with autism awareness month. I, like them, prefer autism acceptance.

Dear Autism Parents: On Unconditional Acceptance

I just read an essay in What Every Autistic Girl Wishes Her Parents Knew and it touches home with me. In it, the author, Haley Moss, mainly describes how she feels parents need to ucnonditionally accept their autistic daughters. She particularly emphhasizes the need to support the girls’ special interests even if they’re not age-appropriate or girly. Boy, do I want to tell my parents this. It’s too late now, as I’m 32 and have half a lifetime of conditional love behind me already.

Moss herself too was encouraged to develop age- and gender-appropriate interests as a child. She recounts a fourth grade memory of being advised to trade her rare cards for Bratz dolls. I have no idea what they are, but I remember in fifth or sixth grade also being encouraged by my mother (in not so subtle ways) to trade my Barbie dolls for pop music CDs. After all, Barbie dolls may be girly but they’re not deemed appropirate for an eleven-year-old.

The negative effects of one such incident, like Moss experienced, can be undone by a greater occurrence of open acceptance of the autistic’s special interests. For example, Moss’ paretns eventually affirmed her interest in video games. In this respect, I felt generally okay about my interests in fifth and sixth grade, because, though my mother did not support my playing with Barbie dolls, my father did support my drawing maps.

As a general rule though, I have commonly felt only conditionally accepted by my parents. This is reflected in constant victim-blaming when I was bullied. They were at least somewhat consistent in that, in that at least my father spoke negatively about the intellectually disabled girl whom I bullied too. Of course, he set an example of ableism by doing this as much as my parents did by victim-blaming me.

When I went into college to major in applied psychology, I still got my parents’ reluctant approval. After all, though my major wasn’t that well-liked by them and my college wasn’t as prestigious as they had wanted for me, it still was college. Since having experienced my breakdown in 2007, it’s pretty clear my parents are not there for me anymore. That’s sad, but it’s true.

The saddest part about What Every Autistic Girl Wishes Her Parents Knew is, unfortunately, that those parents who most need to hear the messages in it, will not read it. My parents don’t even think I’m autistic despite my having been officially diagnosed half a dozen times. Other parents may’ve gotten the diagnosis but choose to join the likes of Autism Speaks and shout “You are not like my child!” at every autistic adult trying to educate them about acceptance. That’s so sad. However, if some parents are helped by this blog post or by the book in showing unconditional acceptance to their children, that’s already good.

#TakeTheMaskOff: My Experience of Masking

Two weeks ago, the #TakeTheMaskOff campaign for autism accetpance started. I posted an article for it on my main blog, but already then I was thinking of relaunching this blog, for which the original purpose was to be able to be completely honest about my experience. That is, after all, what taking the mask off means. As such, I thought that I’d share this article here too. Like I said, the campaign is aimed at acceptance for the autistic community, but it is also relevant to the trauma survivor community. After all, many people, including myslef, mask the reality of their survivorship. So let me share.

Today, rather late, I found out about the #TakeTheMaskOff campaign designed to promote autism acceptance and awareness of the effects of masking. I really want to participate, so even though it’s incredibly hot here, I’m writing a post.

The campaign consists of six consecutive weekly themes about which participants blog, vlog or post on other social media. The first weekly theme is “What is masking?”

Masking, put simply, is pretending to be something you’re not. This can be done either consciously or uncnsciously. Many autistic adults have learned to mask so well it’s almost second nature. We’re also encouraged to mask on a daily basis when people judge us about being autistic. Then when we mask successfully, we’re told we don’t look autistic.

For example, I’m often told that I don’t appear autistic. After all, when I hold a conversation, I appear pretty “normal”. I am told I can hold down a reciprocal conversation that doesn’t sound stereotyped or like I’m scripting. I ask people about their interests, for example. Now that it’s been extremely hot here for a few weeks already, I have even mastered some smalltalk about the weather.

This obviously (to me) does not mean I’m not autistic. Autism, despite what many people think, is not about social niceties. Autism is not the same as a lack of interest in others. Besides, I have 32 years of experience being told how selfish I am for not appearing to show an interest in others. So instead of showing a genuine interest in the people and topics I’m genuinely interested in, I learned to appear to be interested in whatever and whoever I am supposed to be interested in. In other words, I learned to mask my autistic curiosity.

For example, I was eleven when my mother told me I might be institutionalized if I didn’t become more age-appropriate. My having too many toys and dolls, according to her, contributed to my challenging behavior and I was to get rid of them. Instead, I was supposed to develop an interest in music. I wasn’t all that sophisticated at the time, so rather then developing a genuine-appearing interest in music, I hung Backstreet Boys posters on my wall.

Similarly, I was encouraged to wear jeans rather than sweatpants even though jeans were a sensory nightmare to me. It was assumed that I wore sweatpants because I didn’t care about my appearance – which is partly true – or because I, being blind, didn’t know that my peers were wearing jeans.

Masking can become so internalized, apparently natural, that you no longer notice you’re doing it. For instance, I wear jeans without a problem now.

It is easy to assume that, because the autistic person no longer notices that they’re masking, it must not be affecting them. This often leads to the assumption that, if someone doesn’t appear autistic and isn’t acting out, they must not be autistic after all. Then people go on to assume that, if said neurotypical-appearing person does act out, it must be “manipulativeness”.

I am, however, definitely masking when I wear jeans, or listen to my husband’s favorite radio station in the car, or engage in smalltalk about the weather or someone’s upcoming vacation. It isn’t always a negative thing, but it is still masking.