Monday, April 30, 2012

Asperger's Illustrated to "I Wish I Didn't Have Asperger's": #AutismPositivity2012

I'm doing fine now, but I was in your place once.
I've been you before.

I was diagnosed what seems like a long time ago now on July 4th, 2009 at the age of 20. I turned 23 five days ago, and in that time span my outlook on my diagnosis has changed tenfold.

 When I was first diagnosed with Asperger's - and very high-functioning Asperger's, at that - I was relieved. There was a name for why I had trouble fitting in with people. It was really, really nice to know that it wasn't me, but that it was a difference in my brain that caused me trouble. Since I was diagnosed after my sophomore year in college, I'd been socialized my entire life like a neurotypical child, which was an unintentional blessing because it helped me actually learn how to talk to people (I frequently am told to this day that I "don't seem like I have Asperger's," but that's another issue that I'll discuss at a later time). Things seemed fairly nice then.

And then I went back to college.

I began to analyze every single social interaction I had. I became silent in class, afraid to speak up because I thought I sounded obnoxious. I second-guessed myself every time I said anything. I fell victim to the stigma of Asperger's, letting it remove any self-confidence that I had in myself. I knew many people saw autism and Asperger's as something bad. I began to see it as something that stopped me from living like a normal person, something that exposed me to judgment, particularly negative judgment. The fear of people being harsh and cruel like they were during my childhood came back up, and I began looking back on my life and remembering every single negative social experience I'd had in my childhood and connecting my Asperger's to it. Generally, it made me feel both vindicated and horrible about myself, which was a strange combination.

Then I had a professor my senior year of college who inspired me to start this blog. In her class, I opened up about having Asperger's to a group of people I didn't know well for the first time, and nobody passed judgment. They listened instead. I was stunned. It turns out adults are more accepting of certain things because they're less subject to the peer pressure of a school environment. Almost in tears, I resolved to start Asperger's Illustrated, combining my loves of cartooning and writing.

And you know what? The more I wrote, the better I felt.

I made friends with Asperger's online. I was able to better analyze and accept my own feelings and differences. I was expressing myself and talking about my struggles, which other people on the spectrum were able to relate to. I belonged somewhere. There was a community of people just like me.

It was around then that I started accepting myself again. I realized that Asperger's is a gift of mine - that it lets me be the insanely creative, intelligent person that I am. Because my brain is different, my creative output is through the roof. I'm an extremely gifted writer. I notice the things that other people don't. I'm literally able to find just about anything, which helps me in my career as an archivist. And let's not forget the photographic memory that goes along with having Asperger's, too - once I learn something, I don't forget it. Ever. It makes me an incredible sportswriter because I can recall statistics and little anecdotes with such ease. (For more on Asperger's and creativity, check out Aspienaut.)

If you have Asperger's, you're blessed, believe me. Talking to people is harder, yes, but the people that deserve to be in your life really won't care. They'll be good to you because they love you and care about you. Asking for help is just fine as an adult - or even as a kid. Asperger's also gives you the ability to see things differently than other people, so you notice different things, a great skill for those in the creative arts as well as in business, engineering, and all sorts of other fields. It's more and more of an asset than anything else - it's really not too detrimental.

So...what I'm really trying to tell you here is that it gets better, as stupid and cliche as that sounds. Explain things to your friends and family members so they become more aware and are able to support you, and if you need anything more, there's a whole community of us online here that you can turn to. We're here to make sure you make it and succeed no matter what - and believe me, succeed you will. If I can go to college four hours away from home, graduate successfully whilst writing two senior theses, become a sportswriter, and make plans to go to graduate school - in the busiest city in the world, New York - to become an archivist, there's no telling what you can do.

And remember, we're all in this together. I'm glad you have Asperger's.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Happy World Autism Awareness Day!

Today is World Autism Awareness Day - my second one on the spectrum (my diagnosis came on 7/4/09). Since my diagnosis, which is sneaking up on three years ago on me, I've discovered a wonderful community of advocates online - they advocate for themselves, their siblings, their children, their friends. It's truly beautiful.

When I got my diagnosis, I was relieved. I had a name for the reason I couldn't get along with people. People in my real life were fairly understanding, but there weren't too many of those people, so it was a quick adjustment. It was the bigger world I was worried about - would people like me be supported out there? You don't see autism and Asperger's in girls as often (although part of that is that girls tend to be missed). Would people be accommodating of me?

It turns out that they are nowadays. I'm able to go out in the real world, mention that I have Asperger's, and not be frowned upon or assumed to be incompetent. In fact, some people are even accommodating enough that they know to not touch me in certain ways and don't overload me with noise. It's wonderful.

Acceptance on the internet, however, is a whole different matter, as I wrote in this article some time back. There's a growing misinterpretation of Asperger's in particular in certain online circles, and that's something I constantly combat and fear. Then I started feeling around on Twitter...and found a huge network of autism and Asperger's support. I became friends with fellow Aspergians, shared blog posts back and forth, and was able to feel loved despite not ever actually meeting anyone in real life. Yet. I'd love to someday have an autism/Asperger's Twitter conference so we can all meet up.

I just wanted to say thank you today. I should be saying thank you every day, but today's a special day for us so I figured today would be the best time to write this post. It seems all convoluted and emotional, and I apologize for that, but I just had to let all of you know how much you mean to me.

Here are a few tips for the neurotypicals reading this on how you can better support people with ASDs today:
  • Don't buy into the fear machine. Autism is a lifelong condition, but it's also a gift - it does make living in the real world hard sometimes, but look at all the amazing things autistic people create and do. Don't tell us you want to give us a 'cure.' That would change who we are completely, and we don't want to be changed. We want to be accepted. (Also, most of us self-advocates would prefer that you gave money to an organization that isn't Autism Speaks since they tend to shout us out and use fear to take people's money.)
  • Make an effort to listen. Today's a day for us to be heard, but we'd really like it if you listened all the time and learned to understand us. We're not all that different from you - we're just socially different. Intellectually, we can keep up with you, but we just struggle socially, so be patient with us if we don't get how to interact right away. 
  • Be judgement-free. Before I was diagnosed, I was treated horribly by my peers, who just thought I was an annoying intellectual. I'm very sensitive to negative judgement as a result, and I imagine many other people with ASDs are, as well. We're very sensitive to the general emotional state of a room, so make sure you bring some calm energy into our interactions and be gentle with us. Don't judge, just listen.
We just want to be accepted like you are. That's all we ask for - acceptance and proper treatment. Today - and every day - we advocate to gain these things. Please help us even just a little bit by accepting us for who we are and celebrating differences.