April the 2nd 2017 is World Autism Awareness Day 2017!
Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how people perceive the world and interact with others.
Autistic people see, hear and feel the world differently to other people. If you are autistic, you are autistic for life; autism is not an illness or disease and cannot be ‘cured’. Often people feel being autistic is a fundamental aspect of their identity.
Autism is a spectrum condition. All autistic people share certain difficulties, but being autistic will affect them in different ways. Some autistic people also have learning disabilities, mental health issues or other conditions, meaning people need different levels of support. All people on the autism spectrum learn and develop. With the right sort of support, all can be helped to live a more fulfilling life of their own choosing.
All my life, I knew I was “different.” As a child, I was described as shy. I had “temper tantrums” frequently. I found it difficult to make friends, couldn’t make eye contact, found it hard to speak to others, and struggled with both social skills and communication skills — even confidence. I remember going through primary school with severe anxiety. As I went through each year, it became harder and harder to make friends. I remember feeling so different from my peers that I tried to change myself in order to be accepted. Eventually, as an 11-year-old, I was diagnosed with mental health difficulties. I let myself accept the reason I was so different was because of the difficulties associated with my mental illnesses.
That was until my mental health disability adviser turned to me one day during one of our meetings and mentioned the word “autism.” Of course, I had heard of autism. As a student who is training to be a special needs teacher, I have come across many children who have been diagnosed with autism. I have done academic research and even essays on the disorder. So when my disability adviser turned to me and mentioned the word in relation to myself, I paused for a second. In this stigmatised world, autism may be seen as something most often associated with children. Many of the children I had come across with autism faced challenges and most were nonverbal. Though I struggle with everyday tasks, I have always put this down to my mental health challenges.
Despite my doubts, my disability adviser handed me an AQ-10, an autism-spectrum quotient questionnaire, to fill in. I scored 10 out of 10. An autism referral is strongly suggested when a person scores six or above. Once she had my consent, she registered me for a referral with an autism assessment charity, and the journey began. I realised most of the behaviours I had put down to my mental illnesses were pretty consistent with those associated with autism spectrum disorder. Although I communicate, I have difficulty reading expressions or body language. Although I know you’re there, I cannot make eye contact. I am hyper-aware of my senses; I am either too stimulated or under-stimulated, which leads to repetitive movements known as stimming (rocking, hand-flapping, knee-bouncing) and meltdowns that last for hours. I like tactile objects and explore with my hands. I cannot deal with social gatherings or being outside of the house. I cannot ride public transport or leave the house effectively. People sometimes feel I am selfish or short-fused; I have meltdowns when I cannot deal with my emotions and struggle to understand when you are not OK. Time is a big thing for me. Routines and timetables are the centre of my life. I cannot hold down a job, despite being able to do it. Though it may not appear to be so, I struggle every single day.
Autism is a broad spectrum. On March the 22nd 2017 I was diagnosed with informal Autism and Attention Deficit Disorder. A final paper diagnosis assessment will be in the next few months. However, I feel already I have learned so much about myself through this that I had never learned before. I feel as though autism explains my life, and I am not ashamed of that.
Having a diagnosis of autism does not limit the possibility of being something amazing.
I may be different, but I am not less.