High Functioning Autism

At my office, autism has been on our minds a lot since the release of Love on the Spectrum, Season 2. My friend and I can’t stop discussing it and how much we genuinely love the people on the show. However, it is somewhat hard for me to discuss from a neutral position. If you’ve read a lot of my posts, you may already know that I believe I am on the spectrum. I’ve mentioned this to my work friend, but he seemed to shrug it off as if I was mistaken. I’m one of the many people that are just starting to be diagnosed later in life who “don’t look autistic.” My friend sees the way I behave and how well I manage interactions and daily responsibilities and assumes I couldn’t possibly be autistic.

But that’s part of the problem. It’s why so many people like me go undiagnosed for so long. Autism Spectrum Disorders are just that. They’re on a spectrum. Many people with high functioning autism, formerly known as Asperger’s, are able to fly under the radar for most, if not all of their lives, especially when these individuals happen to be women. People assume we function just the same as everyone else, but no one can see or hear what goes on inside my head. Even though I am able to appear “normal,” no one knows what immense effort that takes. How much time and energy I have to invest in learning the correct social etiquette for different situations, how awkward and anxious I can be when caught off guard or placed in an unfamiliar social environment. The only reason I am able to mask my struggles so well is because I am also extremely intelligent. Even though I don’t have the natural intuition for social cues, I have worked tirelessly to teach myself throughout my life.

Autism is still a fairly new disorder, and I have faith that we will be able to understand it better as time goes on. We have already made a lot of progress. However, I find it frustrating, given my experience with autism, that it is used as an explanation for a lot of the struggles for people who are autistic and low-functioning. In my opinion, their autism isn’t necessarily what is making it so difficult for them to function in society. It plays a part, but I think there are a lot of cooccurring disorders that are also playing a role, as well as the difficulties faced by those with general intellectual disabilities and low intelligence. If you have an IQ below 70 you are going to have a lot of struggles, regardless of whether you’re autistic or not. I don’t think it’s accurate or fair to pin it all on autism, especially given that there are so many people that function so much better with the same disorder.

I think this misunderstanding and/or misdiagnosis does a lot of damage to the general public’s understanding of autism. My friend at work actually mentioned a potential “cure” for autism. I know he meant well, but I was still slightly offended. I don’t want my autism to be “cured.” I value my differences. Autism is an important part of who I am as a person. Would I be an atheist or a vegan if not for my autism allowing me to disregard social norms and societal expectations? I can’t say for sure, but I have to think it’s at least a possibility. It seems like a lot of the vegans I follow online sooner or later come out with an autism diagnosis. Of course correlation (especially anecdotal) doesn’t prove causation, but it’s an interesting theory I’ve been mulling over for awhile now.

I’ve heard a few autistic individuals refer to it as a superpower and I am inclined to agree with that description. They are certainly drawbacks and I often wish that I could “just be normal,” but if I had the choice, I doubt I would change myself to fit in better in the world. Society sees autism as a tragedy. How sad it must be to not understand these treasured social norms. But for those of us living with autism, we could care less about your social norms. You’re perplexed why we don’t understand, and we’re perplexed why you think they make sense.

I love myself for exactly who I am, autism and all. And I hope that the day comes where I can afford to be formally diagnosed. I also hope the day comes when I won’t have to fear disclosing my autism to others. I am simultaneously fearful that they will think there is something wrong with me, or that they may think I’m not really autistic. I am very selective with who I confide in about this conclusion I’ve come to. I haven’t even told my boyfriend about it. Honestly whenever I do get tested I think he should be as well. His older brother is definitely autistic, although undiagnosed, and autism does have a genetic component. God only knows if I’ll ever discuss this with him though for fear of offending him. I am equally fearful that he will look at me differently when I disclose my own autism.

The increasing number of people being diagnosed with autism and the sheer amount of it I see in my own life, leads me to believe that it is a valuable part of human evolution. And it’s nothing new. It’s just starting to be more understood and recognized. Autistic people are important. Our contributions are important. Our perspectives are important. I’m sure plenty of the eccentric, brilliant people that have made important contributions in the past would have been diagnosed as autistic if they were alive today. There is no “cure.” And there doesn’t need to be. I don’t think of it as a disorder at all. It’s just how some people are, and there is nothing inherently wrong with that.

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Autism Pros & Cons

I want to preface this by stating once again that I have not been formerly diagnosed. However as someone who identifies as being on the spectrum, I think there is a lot of misunderstanding surrounding this disorder. For the majority of my life, I really had no idea a lot of the things about me where signs of autism. I assumed that I couldn’t be autistic. After all, I was a relatively normal, functioning, contributing member of society. And autistic people are easily identifiable, highly dysfunctional, handicapped human beings aren’t they?

I think this is what most people tend to believe. I am ashamed to admit that it’s what I believed. Even with an education in psychology. Until one day I stumbled upon a video on YouTube about high functioning autism (formerly known as Asperger’s) in women. The video caught my eye because the thumbnail was of a young “normal” looking girl. I thought to myself, “I’ve got to see this. There is no way this girl is autistic. Is she just trying to get attention?”

But as I watched her video I was stunned. Only then at the age of 25 did it even cross my mind that I might be on the spectrum. The things this girl were describing were things I had experienced my entire life. At first I was afraid and repelled by the label, but also simultaneously excited and intrigued. Perhaps I had finally found an explanation for why I am the way I am.

Since that day I have been more aware of the behaviors I exhibit which may be due to being on the spectrum. While there are some that are definitely a hindrance, others I am quite happy to have. In the end I don’t think I’d “fix” myself even if I could. Let me explain why.

Cons:

I think most people are aware of the negatives that come with autism. There is a certain social ineptitude for one. I’ve struggled to learn how to fit in with other human beings my entire life. And while I think for the most part I am able to successfully camouflage myself, it is still a quite tiring part of each day. Things that come naturally and almost unconsciously for most people require a lot of thought and effort for me. This leaves me exhausted by social situations most of the time. Not to mention it created intense social anxiety for the majority of my life.

Another annoying downside is being highly sensitive. It is comforting to have an explanation finally to why I am so intensely bothered by the strangest little things. I still remember one day around the age of 4 being absolutely hysterical as my mom tried to put my socks and shoes on. I was VERY particular about the kinds of socks I would tolerate. If there was a pronounced seam along the toes I simply could not stand it. I was not a fussy child and was always well-behaved, but this discomfort would inevitably cause a massive meltdown much to my mother’s confusion.

Even now I have a strange fixation when it comes to the sensation of wet strands of hair. I just cannot handle the feeling of loose, wet strands coming off in the shower and sticking to my bare skin. I dread every moment of washing and brushing my wet hair. It always produces an intense physical revulsion.

Pros:

Despite the drawbacks however, there are a few core aspects of my personality that I believe I have autism to thank for. My lack of social skills has the benefit of also creating a more open and skeptical mind when it comes to accepted social norms. There are a lot of aspects of society (such as eating animals) that I am able to see from an unbiased perspective. I am able to view the world and social practices logically without any emotional attachment or social influence. This is something I have always been proud of. Many of my core values and high intelligence are things I believe I owe to autism.

I believe this is what contributes to my strong sense of justice as well. Black and white thinking certainly has it’s drawbacks, but I do appreciate that it has seemingly also given me the courage to live by my convictions. I generally don’t care much about the social stigma attached to something. I will do what I believe is right regardless. I am compelled to.

So in the end, I am grateful to be on the spectrum. I am grateful for the person these differences have allowed me to become. And I am so SO grateful to finally have a reason for why I have always felt so separate and unlike everyone else. It is a great comfort to know I am not alone. There are plenty of other people in the world just like me, with the same struggles and the same strengths.

Black & White Thinking

One of the things I’ve realized about myself after starting to suspect I am on the autistic spectrum is that I tend to have trouble seeing the gray areas of life. This hasn’t been an overall negative thing. In fact, I believe it is the reason that I am able to stand so firmly in my beliefs. A compliment someone gave me once that I’ve always particularly liked is that I “have the courage of my convictions.”

I think that this has contributed a lot to my decision 8 years ago to go vegan. I have seen a lot of other women, such as Greta Thunberg, who are not only vegan, but autistic as well. I would love to see some research into whether or not this is a trend. I believe the autistic brain may be more able to avoid cognitive dissonance in some ways. When I turn my mind toward a subject like animal agriculture, there is a very stark contrast between right and wrong. Once I had the information, I found it simply impossible to imagine continuing to participate in such a clear atrocity.

So in some ways I do feel my autistic traits (whether I would truly fit the diagnostic criteria or not) are some of my greatest strengths as an individual, things that I am quite proud of. However, understanding this tendency for black and white thinking has also allowed me to realize how I am hindered by it.

Like most aspects of autism, this becomes more of a problem when it comes to social situations. Human beings are one big gray area that despite my best efforts, I am still struggling to understand. It makes it quite difficult to form meaningful relationships with people when you are constantly viewing them as either all good or all bad. Either someone loves me or they hate me. I matter to someone or I mean completely nothing at all to them. See the problem? Neither of these perceptions is very often the reality. And even though I’ve come to recognize this, it doesn’t change the way I view the world.

I find myself constantly going around in mental circles when I am given contradictory signals from the people in my life. I just can’t seem to comprehend that both signals can be true and valid. Someone can be cold to you from time to time and still love you. Just because a person does something hurtful or inconsiderate towards you doesn’t mean that they think you’re worthless. I know that this is true because I can see these contradictions in myself. I have been terribly cruel to people that meant the world to me in the past. But that didn’t mean the feelings I had for them were a lie. Yet it’s hard enough for me to reconcile these strange scenarios within my own heart and mind, let alone deciphering them in someone else.

This seems to lead to rather rocky relationships with other people and even effect the way I view myself. It’s often hard for me to accept someone demonstrating negative behaviors can still be a good person. I also struggle immensely in that regard when it comes to my self image. Sometimes I love myself and feel like I am incredible. Other times I dwell only on my flaws and mistakes, thinking it impossible that any good exists within me at all. Exaltation or condemnation, there is no in between.

I truly hope it proves to be beneficial to have at least begun to realize when I am being influenced by this black and white thinking. Perhaps with practice I will be able to overcome the negative impact this has the potential to inflict on my future relationships.