Someone asked me recently how I knew I was autistic and not just suffering from Social Anxiety. In retrospect, the question coming from someone with a degree in the mental health field seemed a bit like the interrogative form of “but you don’t look autistic,” but not too long ago I was completely uneducated about Autism too. Back then I had the same question about myself. I am not the only one late to the Autism party, and I am surely not the only one who has wondered that same question about either themselves or a loved one.
Stay with me here– think back to 8th grade math when your teacher first introduced you to the logic statement. It goes something like this: All zebras have stripes. Lions do not have stripes, therefore lions are not zebras. This may be way off track to some people, but trying to explain Social Anxiety and its relevance to Autism is sort of like the logic statement. All autistics have Social Anxiety and a sensory processing disorder. Socially anxious people do not have a sensory processing disorder; therefore socially anxious people are not autistic. People can experience the negative effects of social anxiety, but not have any problems processing sensory input, however, people with Autism have what I like to call the Autism trifecta which not only includes the social challenges, but also communication difficulties and repetitive behavior.
I was diagnosed with several things over the first twenty-three years of my life. I was told I had Depression, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, ADHD tendencies, and at one point was considered for Bipolar Disorder. The problem with being diagnosed with those other disorders is that none of them individually addressed all the symptoms I was experiencing. I would be prescribed medications to help with what the doctor thought I had, but it only made it worse. Autism is associated with a hypersensitivity to medication, and often the prescribed medications gave me side effects worse than the thing they were treating. It is like if you try to carry too many groceries at once. You drop one item and as you go to pick that item up another falls out of your other hand. You can address parts of the problem one at a time, but that doesn’t solve the real dilemma that you are just trying to juggle way too many things at once. Similarly, you can address one or two symptoms at once, but it won’t fix the source of the problem just delay the treatment of the main disorder.
Autism is a hidden picture puzzle. I was focused so intently on the individual details that I missed the big picture that was hidden in plain sight. It took me twenty-three years to start searching with all my symptoms, and then it was painfully obvious what the problem had always been. Once the correct diagnosis is made then the process to learn and understand the disorder can begin. It was a huge relief to finally get the answers I needed to begin working on understanding how Autism was effecting how I was living. I am sure I am not the only one who also felt that relief. However, I have noticed that many neurotypical people I have contact with don’t understand that relief. In fact they often have a lot of sadness or guilt when they hear me talk about my Autism even if I am trying to express it in a positive way. I do understand why people may feel that way, but I also want them to know it isn’t always necessary.
I don’t want people to feel sorry for me or take pity on me. I have never known or understood what it is like to be neurotypical, and I won’t miss not being a part of it as I get older. I may not have had the same happy memories as a kid that didn’t have Autism, but I am not incapable of making my own happiness and memories. I do want your support when I am struggling in a world which wasn’t structured for someone with Autism, but I don’t want to be smothered with help and special treatment either. I want to do everything a neurotypical person can do, but I need to do it my way in a way that I understand. There are people out there who will need special help and consideration, or who feel an intense sadness after getting an Autism diagnosis. We all need to take care of those people with the sympathy and love they need to get through those feelings, but it will get better. Life will go on. Autism may make it difficult and confusing and overwhelming sometimes, but it doesn’t have to keep someone from experiencing happiness and joy.