A blog by Brian Irwin, AsIAm Volunteer & Secondary School Speaker in the Cork Region
I wasn’t even supposed to be autistic. I was sent to an Occupational Therapist to have an assessment for Dysgraphia, a similar condition to Dyslexia that affects the way my brain communicates language to my hands, when I was nearing my 21st birthday.
At the time, I was repeating my Leaving Cert; my attempts to succeed in college had become the latest in a long line of failures for me. These failures were made all the more frustrating because I’d been following the advice given by my teachers, and working myself harder than all my peers, who were now swanning into their 2nd years of college while I was dragged backwards to the Leaving Cert.
It was like I was in a race competing against everyone I knew, and I was running as hard as I could, but not moving. Meanwhile, everyone else was jogging along at a leisurely pace and doing laps around me. I could not understand how I was putting in so much effort, so many sleepless nights and tears of frustration, only to come in dead last every time. I’ve never felt like more of a failure than I did during that year – I’d tried everything, and nothing worked. I didn’t work. I was broken.
There seemed to be only 2 possible answers: either I really wasn’t trying hard enough, and there was some depth I still had yet to plumb inside myself, or I was just doomed to failure forever. It was only through the support of my loving family and my sheer personal stubbornness that I trusted in the former and decided to repeat the Leaving, resolving that if I just really, truly tried, one last time, I could do better. And while I was repeating, the light came on.
A teacher in my repeat school recommended I get assessed for some form of learning disorder. Finally, someone had faith that I was actually trying! With this came the revelation of Dysgraphia, and with that a recommendation of an autism assessment as well; this actually took me nearly a year to come to terms with and agree to take the assessment.
Getting off the treadmill
Dysgraphia itself was such an upheaval (and a relief!), but a diagnosis of autism was a real game-changer. Would I still be me, if I found out I was autistic? Would people look at me strangely? Would people take me less seriously if they thought I was “special”?
In the end, however, it came down to logical resolution. You can’t slay the vampire if you don’t know its name, and you can’t deal with a problem if you don’t know what it is. I met with a clinical psychologist, I underwent the assessment, and came back with a classic case of Asperger’s Syndrome – high-functioning autism. This is a life-changer when you’re 21.
Immediately, the world around me shifted. I wasn’t lazy, like all my teachers had told me – I just had a hard time committing my thoughts to writing! I wasn’t anti-social – I just had trouble reading conversations and body language! I wasn’t weird – I was autistic!
These revelations turned my world upside down. By learning these things about myself, I was able to identify the reason I wasn’t getting anywhere, even when I was running as hard as I could. I had been on an invisible treadmill all my life – all the running in the world won’t get you anywhere unless you’ve got your feet on the ground.
My diagnosis allowed me to get off the treadmill and start running properly for the first time in my life.
Since I’ve been diagnosed, I’ve been able to accept that I have strengths as well as weaknesses. I still have trouble with things every now and then, but now that I know that I struggle with (for example) temperature regulation, I can deal with that and reduce my sensory stress by taking off a jumper or something. If I find myself struggling with new things like trying new foods, I can eat something I’m comfortable with beforehand so I know I don’t need to rely on things I might not like for my lunch! Life is so much easier now that I know I can get around it!
Being diagnosed with autism was the best thing that’s ever happened to me. It’s freed me from the old chains of “Can’t” and “Never”, and given me the tools to say “I think so” and “Yes I can” to my life and its challenges.
Since my diagnosis, I’ve gained a degree in Environmental Science from UCC, opened my social circle to include some wonderful friends and colleagues, and started my advocacy career with AsIAm. I’ve been happier in the past 5 years than I ever was in the 22 years previous.
I strongly believe that autism isn’t a curse, nor is it a blessing; it’s just part of who I am, and knowing how it affects me means knowing how I can get around it and not let it stand between me and what I want to achieve. I’ve learned a lot about myself since I was diagnosed, and it’s made me into a better person – the sort of competent, capable man I never thought I could be. I’m myself now, and I’ve never been happier.