Melissa, a young woman living with Asperger’s, talks about her experiences with her autism and about how self-acceptance is a source of huge inner strength for autistic people and their families.
Recently, a colleague brought me into his office to discuss a brief. Having volunteered some observations, he paused and said, almost as an aside, “You know, you have settled in so well here.”
“Oh!” I responded, both abashed and genuinely taken aback, “uh, thanks!”
“No, I mean it,” he insisted, “like a duck to water. You just fit in right from the get-go, I’ve never known anyone to get the hang of things so quickly.”
I was overjoyed by this seemingly small compliment – after all, it’s not often I receive one which doesn’t feel like the lip service to which we flattery-philic Irish are so accustomed. It really got me thinking and I turned it around in my head for the rest of that day:
“Can it be true? This contradicts everything I’ve always been led to believe about Aspies – aren’t we supposed to suck at change?”
Then, it hit me. Of course it’s true: it’s what I’ve been doing all my life. By now, I’m the queen of assimilation – I observe a culture, be it that of a country, community or workplace – and adapt myself accordingly such that nobody should ever suspect me as a blow-in who does not belong. Imitation is inherent to the human condition and a strategy to which all of us, neurotypical or otherwise, naturally incline. However, this ‘sixth sense,’ at least in my experience, is often heightened in Aspies. As a result, I daresay I’ve become quite the expert at taking environment-specific behavioural norms I have observed and appropriating these for the purposes of my own integration into this community.
We Aspies, like it or not, must constantly make compromises, be they small or large, in order to comply with the unspoken gold standard of so-called “normality” in a world which is not always necessarily willing to accommodate us and all our idiosyncrasies. Nobody wants their individuality stamped out by expectations of conformity to social norms and a certain amount of quirkiness can even be endearing, but only within reason. Aspies know this only too well – I know, for example, that I cannot crane my neck absent-mindedly around a room while someone tries to make small talk with me and that sometimes, white lies must prevail over my natural inclination towards honesty if in the interest of protecting someone’s feelings. Moreover, what’s okay and what’s not varies greatly from scenario to scenario and Aspies’ heightened awareness of this fact, be it through resource or self-taught absorption, allows us to notice these subtleties and nuances of human behaviour that neurotypicals might take for granted.
I spent much of my childhood and particularly my adolescence in denial over being autistic. I didn’t want to know anything about it. All I did know was that whatever it was, I had it and it was supposedly to blame for my social anguish, hence meriting nothing more than an emphatic shunning from my mind. Should the dreaded word “autism” somehow slither its way into an everyday dialogue, I’d try to find that sweet spot of appearing indifferent to this word, which in reality had so radically, life-alteringly shaken the core of my very existence, without falling for the classic mistake of overcompensation. They must not know, not even a hint. Must. Be. Normal. I was essentially acting out a role and while I look back on those years with a hint of sadness that I felt I had to stifle my true self from the outside world, I now appreciate that this poised little act, in its own simple way, showed a resilience and adaptability which can only stand to me in my professional and social life going forward.
It’s realisations such as these that cause me to ponder the unique assets (or “superpowers”!) we have to offer the world. Together, we are a vibrant, exciting and extraordinary community with a cornucopia of unique insight to impart. It is precisely because we see the world through such a different lens that we have the potential to be a breath of fresh air in an age so fast-moving as our own. This, I believe, is what autism should be about – I would love not only for those on the spectrum themselves, but also for society as a whole to more emphatically appreciate the spectrum for its perks rather than its drawbacks, embracing it as a unique ability rather than a burdensome disability (even if I must concede that it can all too often feel like the latter).
Though almost sixteen years after my diagnosis, I am still coming to terms with what this all means in relation to how I shall lead my life, I am learning to love my Aspiedom, and I invite everyone on this same journey to love it with me!