Society must evolve to accept individuals who are “different.”
I started reading about Asperger’s and autism for a boyfriend whom I suspected of having a mild version of the syndrome.
I came to understand that Asperger’s and autism are essentially two names for the same thing. The only significant difference between the two syndromes is a child’s development before the age of 3—with Asperger’s not showing any difference from neurotypical children until a later age, whereas autistic children do. Today, the conflation of both Asperger’s and autism is commonly called “Autism Spectrum Disorders,” abbreviated as ASDs.
Any two people on the spectrum can be as different from each other as any other kind of people, really. You can have high-functioning autism, like my boyfriend, with normal or even higher than normal intelligence. (And, no, not everyone with Asperger’s has Rainman super powers; that’s an obnoxious assumption.)
Reading about ASDs became an eye-opening experience for me. I found many parallels between my own life and some of the case studies I read. In some instances it was eery how I had to read a clear description of something in a book (for example, the sensory overload autists experience) to realize that was exactly how things felt to me. It was the first time in my life I was able to put words to things that have caused me so much trouble.
In my school life, the thing that was most detrimental to me was that I was intellectually gifted. Because this was not recognized, my giftedness became a handicap. Since I was constantly under-challenged, I stopped even “switching on” my brain, and I spent my school years severely depressed. I eventually dropped out of high school.
I’ve since learned that teachers did not recognize my intelligence because of my ASD, most likely. Because I came across as “odd,” I didn’t correspond to the typical image of the “smart kid.” My ASD both caused and masked by giftedness.
After diagnosing myself, I went to a psychologist to get a formal diagnosis. She attested that I did not need further assistance, since I seemed to be going about my life just fine. I work half-time, I manage.
Still, the diagnosis has had an impact on my life.
Firstly, the understanding that I have a form of autism has given me a grid through which to read my past life experiences. In some way, my life has been a series of failures.
Since I was a child I always felt “odd,” and as an adult it was often incomprehensible to me how other people “did it.” At work I repeatedly failed to handle the stress or to work under pressure. Socially, I almost never felt I could fit in with any group, even if I wanted to. This mostly had to do with people judging me for small things, and not giving me the time to actually get to know me.
Female Aspergers and autists are often not diagnosed because they learn how to hide their condition better than most boys and men. Society judges boys and men less than girls and women for their exterior appearance, as well as for “character quirks,” so women often try harder to cover it up. This makes it easier for men with ASDs to act in ways that corresponds to their own needs.
For most of my life, I have tried to socialize beyond my capacities. It took me a decade of being an adult to fully acknowledge and make peace with my need for a lot of mental rest after going out. In the past I often castigated myself for not being able to socialize like other people my age did. Others expected this from me, and a lot of people just wouldn’t accept me if I didn’t.
My diagnosis gave me one thing, though: self-acceptance. It finally allowed me to give myself a break, and to stop trying to adopt societal standards that never really made sense to me anyway. So I’ve stopped putting myself in social situations that I know I can’t handle.
But society must evolve to accept individuals who are “different.”
Some classical writers like Virginia Woolf or Franz Kafka are suspected of at least having had autistic traits. Still today, these writers are widely admired decades after their death. Many anecdotes about Franz Kafka and Virginia Woolf suggest that they often felt socially inept. I am pretty sure that many of the people who speak admiringly of Franz Kafka’s oeuvre at dinner parties would have ignored or ridiculed him if he was sitting at the table right next to them.
Where I live, it has come into fashion for people to say they have ADHD, wearing the label as if it was an accessory that gives them “an edge.” These are people who successfully finished their studies, and often manage to keep a job they love. I find this ironic. It shows a complete lack of understanding that people who truly have one condition or another have serious problems tackling life, and on top of that are often perceived as “weirdos,” which only adds to their suffering.
Autism activists campaign for the realization that autists have “a different perception,” and are not “handicapped.”
Despite the bullying I have sometimes had to confront, I have learned to embrace some of the strong sides that come with autism as I experience it, such as my keen attention to detail and my need for mental stimulation.
As one autist wrote about the never-ending rejections at job interviews when trying to get a position that she found mentally stimulating, “On paper I have a disability; to most people, in practice, I’m just weird.”
Iris Bendtsen just got a publishing contract for her first book. She blogs about her own idiosyncratic forms of traveling and, sometimes, traveling and feminism on one blog, while her main blog Middle Eastern Tales focuses on topics like migration and political resistance.