Autism for me is very complex.
There are aspects of it which I hate and then there are aspects which I absolutely love. Some days I’m really proud of having ASD. Some days I just wish I could have it switched off.
My parents suspected I had autism when I was a teenager. They were watching a Six O’Clock News item about a suspected link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Many of the symptoms were completely me and I too had suffered a really bad reaction to the MMR vaccine (and for the record I believe my autism is genetics, not bad vaccines). It started a conversation between them that their rather reclusive, moody 14 year-old could be just what they’d described on TV. Like many people (myself included) made the assumption that Autism was something only boys got and that they had a more visible learning difficulty.
They brought the subject up with me many times and every time I would kick off big style! I honestly knew I was different, but I was so clueless that I didn’t believe that I could have something like Autism. For me I was in a normal school, I was intelligent, I had a few friends and that one day all the shyness I had would just vanish.
When I was 30 years old I’d had a string of very unsuccessful relationships. I seemed to find myself navigating towards women who really just didn’t have my best interests at heart. Many people were telling me that I was trying to hard or that I was mixing up signals. I found it very, very hard to distinguish whether someone wanted to be a friend or something more, so I kind of treated every meeting like a date. That didn’t go so well and I ended up heartbroken more than the average person. It was after a really bad relationship with someone who was really not good for me that I started looking up symptoms and traits of Autism.
It was the first time I really started to see that I had a lot of prejudices against the condition; probably because I was scared of admitting the truth. I learned that it was a spectrum and that it presents itself very differently in every person. It’s also very different for males and females.
I managed to find a simple quiz online which would indicate whether you could be on the spectrum. A score of 32 or over would suggest that you may need further investigation. I scored 48.
With quiz in hand I went off to visit my doctor and asked to be referred for an adult autism diagnosis. It was a simple meeting with two clinical psychologists who asked a variety of questions covering my childhood, teenage years, thought process and interests. At the end it was confirmed I had high functioning Autism, or what was more commonly referred to as Aspergers Syndrome.
Unfortunately, funding for autism isn’t a priority, especially for adults. When I left that room I had no further contact or treatment in regards to understanding my newly diagnosed condition or overcoming any difficulties I was facing. Everything I’ve learned about being on the spectrum has come from reading, experience and meeting others like me.
So what exactly are my own traits of ASD and how do they impact on my life?
I suck at socialising.
There I said it.
I love spending time with people. I love meeting new people and finding out about them and doing all those fun things that friends do. I’m also pretty good at holding a conversation and asking the right questions. I’m naturally inquizitive so I always want to know more! I’m also generally ok at reading people now and have worked really hard on depicting social clues (and not treating everything like a date!).
Where I fall down is maintaining social contact. I will admit right here that I don’t have a single close friend. I find the process of making friends really hard and then keeping that friendship going even harder. It’s not that I don’t want to have close friends. I have had them in the past and enjoyed having someone to confide in and talk to. There are just times when I become so self-absorbed that I kind of forget that they’re there, or that I don’t quite need them (in the best possible way). This can be hard for the other person and I understand when they stop asking to meet me.
I love my own company. In fact, I prefer my own company 9 times out of 10. I am pretty comfortable going into a restaurant on my own and ordering a meal. I people watch, write and draw whilst I eat and I find that I get a lot of social satisfaction from that. That other 1/10 occaion I do crave company, but I know its hard for both me and that other person when I become distant. I don’t mean to do it. It’s just like my mind becomes so consumed by so many other things that I overlook things like sending a text or arranging a meet up. It is something I do really want to get better at.
The biggest obstacle I find is that I don’t like certain types of social interaction. I don’t like going to pubs at night because of sensory problems (next heading) unless its somewhere out of the city with more of a relaxed setting. I also don’t like being in larger groups of people. I find it hard to follow multiple conversations and get very anxious with all of the noise on top. Its really hard getting invited out for food in groups. Sensory overload is the biggest reason for this.
Reading people and understanding their intentions can also be quite hard. I find some people easier to read than others. There are some people who I meet who I just can’t work out at all. It’s nothing they’ve done, its just the complexities of behaviour and personality not lining up with my understanding.
It is quite common for individuals on the spectrum to suffer from sensory issues. Its like a really lame superpower… super smell, super taste, super hearing etc. Some on the spectrum might have one, others might have them all. Unfortunately it can often be very uncomfortable and sometimes even painful to experience these senses.
Some touch sensations make me feel physically sick. For example, there is a type of budget beach towel that goes on sale in most stores. Its got a kind of shiny, velvet type texture. If I touch it its like a bolt of electricity going through my body and up to the back of my head. I get covered in goose bumps and feel like I need to gag. I don’t know why it happens but I can’t cope with the sensation of how it feels. I know someone who actually vomits when he is in a room with strobe lighting.
Sound is probably one of the most annoying daily issues I face. Every space has ambient sound that most people can’t hear or just tune out. The humming of Electricity in the walls, the creaking of a chair, the ticking of a clock, the cracks and whines of hot water pipes etc. I don’t tune these sounds out. Instead I can hear them all at the same time. On top of that I can hear all of the other sounds that go on in a room… people talking, pen tops being clicked, music on the radio, coffee makers being activated, the humming of the fridge. It becomes like a washing machine of sound in my mind and its overwhelming at times. I now walk pretty much everywhere listening to music on my ipod. It helps me to drown additional sound out and focus my anxiety.
But there are of course positives. My sense of smell is also really acute so I am pretty good at sourcing that delicious smell of freshly baked cake when I’m out and about!
Special Interests & Routine
Many people on the spectrum have fixed interests or topics they follow passionately. I myself have a fair few. As a creative person a lot of my interests are in design and creating. I love the idea of making something that didn’t once exist, even if its just a sketch or building something out of Lego (which I love!). I get such a rush of excitement from learning new design skills or trying out a new technique. I think that’s why I love innovating in business. Its an addcition which makes me happy.
I also get addicted to TV Shows and will begin collecting memorabilia, watching or reading every cast interview etc. I’m on a Bates Motel kick at the minute.
Routine is very important to me. That’s not to say I can’t be spontaneous. I love just deciding to go out or to do some new activity. But it has to be within the realms of my comfort zone. This week for example I have been recovering from surgery. I have been feeling pretty poorly and I’ve not been able to work or do any of the things I usually like to do. By day two I was very anxious and withdrawn. I just couldn’t cope with the idea that I just had to sit at home on the sofa. My whole routine went out the window and I just couldn’t cope at all. It’s even worse when I have to do something out of my routine comfort zone. For example if someone invites me out to lunch or I have to travel somewhere far for work.
My mam will be the best one to tell you about my literal thinking. She will often say ‘People think in curves, Emma thinks in straight lines’. I find this quite funny, especially because I can be quite creative with problem solving. But if my mam tells me to put some potatoes in a pan… well that’s exactly what I will do… put whole, unpeeled potatoes in a dry pan. I think she just needs to be more specific!
This can sometimes cause problems where trying to work people out or understanding a conversation. I’m pretty rubbish at understanding the punch lines of jokes. In fact me laughing 10 minutes later when I have finally worked it out ends up with more laughter than the joke itself.
I once had a really unfortunate incident when I worked briefly for a company who owned a tropical fish tank. This was pre-diagnosis days. My new boss was leaving early and asked me to “go around and turn off all the plugs”. So I did. Every one of them. Including the tropical fish tank (apologies to the two fish that died!).
For me, instructions need to be specific!
One of the biggest misconceptions about Autism is that we are all savants, like Rain Man. There are most definately individuals like that, but there are many more who aren’t. I myself am pretty awful with Maths in general. I have dyscalculia (the numbers version of dyslexia) so there is no way I can do astronomical sums in my head.
IQ level can also be mixed on the spectrum. I myself have a higher than average IQ, but I can’t spell, or add up numbers. I am pretty good at remembering uselss information and currently hold the record for the most BBC Pointless answers in my family!
It is quite normal for those on the spectrum to excel at their special subject (which could be maths, or engineering or World of War Craft). I think I excel at design and art… And pub quizzes… And Where’s Wally.
These are just some of the core traits I deal with on a day-to-day basis. Communication is my biggest difficulty, but having ASD can also be really beneficial. Seeing the world differently means that we can offer different types of solutions to problems. I think that’s why I’ve excelled in a creative business, because I’m good at thinking outside of the box.
I hope that has covered some of the questions of what Autism is and what it is not. If you have any specific questions then of course drop me a message.