I am an adult who is on the autism Spectrum. I was diagnosed with autism when I was 3 years old and I have had 30 years experience of living with this condition. From what I know about living with autism, it has its ups and downs. First, I will tell you about the gifts I feel I have because I have autism. Then, I will tell you about the challenges of living with autism.
Eight gifts of living with autism
1. Outstanding memory and memorization skills. I can remember lots of things that have happened in my life, especially from my childhood. When I was 9 years old, I could memorize all sorts of things — state capitals, flags from other countries and the names of all the presidents of the United States. I also have the ability to memorize other people’s birthdays, songs artists have sung over the past 57 years (the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll) and lots of things that have happened in my family. If you tell me a date, I can usually remember everything that happened that day. I can memorize just about anything!
2. My five senses. Even though I have problems with sensory overload, I can easily pick up on sounds, smells, touch, sight and taste a lot quicker than most people. For example, I can hear a train whistle many miles away that no one else can hear.
3. A positive attitude. When you have a disability like autism, you can decide if you’re going to view it as it being the glass half empty or half full. Personally, I chose to view living with autism as a glass half full experience. I love my life and wouldn’t change anything about being autistic.
4. Achieving my own set of milestones and accomplishments. I might not have gone to college after I graduated from high school, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t continue my post-secondary education. Instead of going to college I went to a post-graduate/transition class where I remained until I exited from the program when I was 21. I then went from there to working in the community. Throughout life I’ve had my own set of milestones and accomplishments I have achieved. I feel I can accomplish anything I set my mind to.
5. Artistic talents. I am good at a lot of things — dancing, drawing, writing, choreography, singing, etc. I guess you could say that I have a lot of artistic talents.
6. Good sense of humor. I love to laugh, I love funny jokes, TV shows, cartoons, all of these things make me laugh. I especially enjoy The Three Stooges and “Seinfeld.” I also like to write stories about people misbehaving.
7. Observation abilities. Whenever I enter my room I can immediately tell if a book was taken from my bookshelf. I can easily notice something different in a person’s appearance like if they got their hair cut or if they are wearing a new outfit.
8. Unique interests and fixations. Throughout life I have been fixated with/interested in so many things such as geography, all kinds of music and American history.
Eight challenges of living with autism
1. Missing out on typical childhood experiences. There are things I wish I could’ve done differently when I was younger. I wish I participated in more extracurricular and school activities, like musicals. I remember being fearful about new experiences and usually preferred to stay home. I just wanted to do the things that made me happy at home.
2. Lack of ability to communicate. When I was younger, it was very difficult to communicate with other people. I couldn’t tell them what I wanted or what I was feeling. When I was teased at school, I couldn’t find the words to communicate with my parents about it. Even today it can be a struggle to communicate at times.
3. Outbursts of anger. When I was younger and one of my belongings was missing, I would get very upset about it and cry. I often thought whatever item of mine that was missing would never get found. Certain things like changes in my daily schedule, dealing with frustration or not getting my own way makes me angry and upset. I still have problems controlling my anger at times, too.
4. Sleep problems. When I was little, I would have problems falling asleep at night and it was usually after 1 in the morning when I would settle down and fall asleep. It wasn’t unusual for me to only get four hours of sleep a night. Not only was it hard for me to make it through the day, but it was hard for my parents as well. Even today I have a hard time falling asleep at times.
5. Difficulty making friends and maintaining friendships. I had a hard time making friends when I was younger. I also remember how painful it was not to be invited to the sleepovers and birthday parties of my classmates, neighbors and family friends. I often felt sad, depressed and left-out. Even today it can be hard to make friends and maintain appropriate social skills.
6. Bullying and teasing. Throughout my life I’ve been a victim of bullying. People didn’t understand me and teased me for being different. I got upset and my feelings were easily hurt when people were mean to me. When I was in middle school, I remember a group of girls made fun of me because of the way I danced. Those girls would never tell me their real names. I couldn’t understand why the girls were so mean to me.
7. Hypersensitivity, fears and anxiety. When I was little I wouldn’t wear certain clothes, nor did I ever want to eat certain foods. All kinds of noises bother my ears — fire drills, the whistling of the tea kettle and the tone of people’s voices, especially people who had loud voices. I worry about stories I read in the news/media. These things make me anxious about all the bad things that are going on in the world.
8. Misunderstanding autism. One of the worst things about having autism is not how I am affected by my disability. It is rather society’s negative myths, prejudices, attitudes and the way people misunderstand those with autism that is the real problem.
That concludes the list of the gifts and challenges of living with autism. Sometimes I like being autistic and sometimes I don’t. I believe we can learn a lot from people with autism by listening to what they have to say about their experiences of living with autism, and asking how we can better understand them and meet their needs.
Rebecca Hasman is a volunteer at Community Arts Connection, a day service provided by the Arc of Monroe, and an active member of the Self-Advocacy Group with the Arc.