I’ve felt different from other people for as long as I can remember. As a little girl, I had some quirks: I didn’t really play with other kids a lot, and I much preferred the company of myself or my twin sister. I was quiet and clumsy, and I was always away with the fairies. I was frightened easily, and I insisted that we all watch The Little Mermaid at the same time every single day after lunch. My parents took me to get assessed, and I was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder aged 6.
I’ve always known that I’m different, but don’t get me wrong: not in a bad way. This is a huge misconception about autistic people and people with disabilities in general. People tend to assume that we all desperately wish to be “normal”. But here’s the thing: what is normal, anyway? Everyone is kind of weird. Everyone has flaws and everyone has strengths. For me, autism is just one aspect of what makes me, me. Sure, it touches on every single part of my life, and definitely has coloured my experience of the world, but that’s not such a bad thing. I remember when I was in primary school, the resource teachers used to spend a lot of time talking to the children with special needs about self-esteem: what it means, and how to build it.
Maybe this helped the other kids, but I just found it confusing. My self-esteem was fine- maybe I was even a little too confident! Was I supposed to feel bad about myself- was I doing it wrong? What were they trying to tell me?
Though I’ve always felt comfortable within myself about my autism, I haven’t always spoken about it so openly. In secondary school, I only told a few close friends. I remember being on the news in Transition Year for a SciFest project I did about autism, and panicking about people finding out I’m autistic. It’s something I’ve always found difficult to explain. I’ve never been ashamed to be autistic, but I have been ashamed of the misconceptions around it. Opening up about autism, for me, felt like I was opening up myself to have to constantly clarify and explain myself in the face of outdated stereotypes. I felt embarrassed to put a name on my condition because then people would already have this pre-conceived view of what I’m “supposed” to be like before they even get to know me.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve learned that I was really just further contributing to the stigma I was trying to escape. The only way to fight back against misconceptions is to actively challenge them. The only way to have myself be understood is to talk about autism. A huge thing that bothers me about the conversation around autism is its constant focus on deficits. The discussion tends to sound quite medical, focusing on all the things we supposedly can’t do. And, okay, I do find some things difficult. Even tiny changes to a plan make me panic, and I dread small talk.
But autism has a lot of positives for me. Because I have been told my whole life that communication is something I’m inherently bad at, I’ve spent a lot of time practicing my communication skills, and now I’d say that communication is one of my strongest assets. I have great attention to detail. I’m an excellent researcher, a skill I’ve acquired through researching my various special interests over the years. Some people think autistic people can’t have a sense of humour, but in reality, the opposite is often true. It takes us a little longer to understand things like sarcasm, but once we get it, we really get it. I’m a hugely empathetic person- sometimes I have so many feelings I don’t know what to do with them all. This empathy has translated into a passion for social justice, as well as a love for exploring emotions through art.
All this to say, autism is a spectrum. It affects everyone differently and affects each individual differently throughout their life. Just like neurotypical people, autistic people can always grow and learn. And just because we do might things differently or at a different pace, doesn’t mean we’re wrong.
Any so-called “negative” characteristics of autism aren’t really caused by autism itself. They’re caused by the world around me- a world that expects me to maintain eye contact and follow pointless social rules. A world that expects me to make changes to routine in my stride and to just put up with overwhelming sensory stimuli. But it doesn’t have to be like this. If everyone just tries to be a little bit more accepting, we are one step closer to a truly inclusive society.
Maybe learning more about autism has made you think that you might be on the spectrum yourself. That’s completely okay, and your feelings are valid. The Shona Project is not qualified to give specific advice around seeking a diagnosis, but if you suspect you might be autistic or if you want to learn more about the spectrum, we’d highly recommend checking out our friends at AsIAm. Their website has information to point you in the right direction! ✨