Saturday, April 19, 2014

Down the Autism Rabbit-Hole and Back Out

It will probably not come as any kind of surprise to my readers that many of my friends, like myself, are Autistic. It may come as a surprise to some people that the majority of Autistics (or ‘Auties’ as I affectionately like to call us sometimes) bear no resemblance to Dustin Hoffman in ‘Rain Man’ whatsoever.

Recently a conversation took place on my personal Facebook wall. It involved discussion about various feelings and behaviors, and whether or not they were autistic in nature. At one point in this conversation a dear friend of mine who is an adult that does not yet have an official diagnosis of an Autism Spectrum Disorder began questioning himself. His last comment on the thread before I read it pulled at my heart metaphorically and inspired this entry.

i'm falling down the 'am-i-really-autistic'
rabbit hole again, somebody pull me out
.”
- Name Withheld, Facebook

The hurdles of getting a diagnosis as an adult are seldom worth jumping unless you need an on-paper diagnosis for school or work related accommodations, to qualify for disability-related benefits, or simply for your own peace of mind. Adult testing is mostly based on self-reporting and can be incredibly expensive. To date, most insurance companies will not cover it. As such, it’s very common for spectrum adults to either be self-diagnosed or diagnosed without specific testing by a physician, psychiatrist, or therapist.

Most of the information on autism is geared towards the parents of (most often male) autistic children; there is very little out there for adults, particularly female adults. The result of this lack of information and resources has been that many autistic adults stumble around in the dark blindly, trying to find their place in the world. I reject everything about Autism $peaks including the blue puzzle piece, but I find the more general rainbow jigsaw to be an accurate representation of autistic life—and not in the way most people probably think. I am not a puzzle to be solved, and I am not a puzzle piece that doesn’t fit. Rather, my spectrum diagnosis was a piece of me that linked a whole bunch of things about my personality together. Suddenly I ceased being a weirdo, a freak, quirky, moody, and anti-social. Suddenly, I was normal—just my own brand of it.

"I am not 'retarded.'
I'm just as special as anyone else,
maybe even a little bit more.
People who call me that are ignorant
fools or retarded themselves."

- Luke, The Story Of Luke (2012)

For many adults, the initial recognition of their autism can be a relief; however it can also be a source of pain, confusion, and constant questioning of one’s identity. Many spectrum adults, including me, find themselves at the start of their journey over-analyzing every feeling and reaction they’ve ever had. They desperately dig through their childhood memories, looking for autism or looking for experiences that ‘prove’ they are not autistic, depending how they feel about being autistic. 

This panicked rifling through your mind can cause incredible amounts of stress, depression, panic, guilt, fear, and can even induce PTSD if the individual was raised in an environment where they were punished verbally or physically for autistic behaviors. They might struggle with not feeling “autistic enough”, especially if their conversations about autism mostly take place with NTs (NeuroTypicals: non-autistics) or if they have few to no conversations about autism at all. Their behaviors may not match up with the behaviors of other autistic people they read about or know, and they may question the entire state of their being based on that point.

And into the rabbit-hole we go, and we can only hope that someone who cares will reach a hand down and help us climb out before we fall in too deeply.

And so this is my hand, reaching out to anyone who is gazing into that abyss and afraid they will slip. This is my hand, with all the love in the world and every inch of my soul, reaching out to hold onto you—whoever you may be—and help you glimpse the light even if just for a moment. Because sometimes that’s all you need; one moment of someone caring enough to reach out. I’m reaching for you, my autistic brethren. You are not alone.

This guy's walking down a street when he falls in a hole.
The walls are so steep, he can't get out.
A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up,
"Hey you, can you help me out?"
The doctor writes a prescription,
throws it down in the hole and moves on.
Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up
"Father, I'm down in this hole, can you help me out?"
The priest writes out a prayer,
throws it down in the hole and moves on.
Then a friend walks by.
"Hey Joe, it's me, can you help me out?"
And the friend jumps in the hole.
Our guy says, "Are you stupid? Now we're both down here."
The friend says "Yeah, but I've been
down here before, and I know the way out."
- Leo McGarry, The West Wing (2000)


Please take this to heart.


NOBODY gets to define autism beyond the diagnostic criteria except the autistic person themselves. (And while I will mention again how much I despise and am against everything autism $peaks stands for, their coverage of the DSM-5 criteria is a helpful little page and you can view it here, although be sure to note that the Autism Spectrum criteria is a bit further down the page.)

Talk to other adult autistics. If you don't find other autistic adults in varying numbers that share any given behavior with you, I will film myself eating my fancy black and pink fedora and post it on YouTube. I promise you that.

The major mistake that people in general make is thinking that autism is a box, and you can just put all the autistic people inside the box and they'll all fit nice and neat, filed away quietly. But in real life we are every bit as varied as anyone else. A popular comparison I see (and a major point of the conversation that sparked this entry) is the various forms of stimming, because we have been told over and over again that stimming is simply rocking or flapping your hands.

The truth is that "stimming" is any repetitive motion brought on by extreme emotion: both negative and positive.

I have good stims and bad stims. Some of them are even the same stims. I might rock to comfort myself in a period of anxiety; I might rock because I’m so excited about a new dinosaur documentary that I can't even contain myself. When I am stressed I gnaw the heck out of a pacifier. When I am happy I clench my teeth and stretch my head to one side slightly. When I am happy, sad, bored, lonely, excited, in physical pain, sleepy, grumpy, Dopey, or Doc--or pretty much any other emotion at all (meaning I do it constantly), I clench my toes and sometimes hands.

When I am happy, I tap or drum my hands on my thighs or knees in a somewhat random pattern; when I am agitated I tap my hands on my thighs or knees rhythmically. In my autism, happiness is chaotic in a wonderful sort of way that I can never put into words, and rhythm, routine, and patterns bring me immense comfort when I am upset. That doesn’t mean all autistics function the same way. It also doesn’t make me any less autistic that my good feelings are chaotic and messy and some other autistics may experience good feelings in the same rhythmic and predictable way that I experience bad feelings.

Don’t ever make the mistake—any of you—of questioning your self-identity simply because you experience something differently from someone else, or because a behavior, urge, or feeling of yours isn't written down in a textbook somewhere.

Ole Golly from 'Harriet the Spy' (1996) once said, “There are as many ways to live as there are people in this world.” Autism isn't any different. There’s as many different ways to "be autistic" as there are autistics. You are you and you are wonderful and unique and there's nobody else exactly like you and there never will be. But I can guarantee you there are thousands of people, if not more, that share any given behavior, feeling, or urge that you have; whether they are autistic or not.

And if that still isn't enough to convince my fellow auties of how awesome you are, then it's time for you to read this beautiful article and remember that you are super great, and autism can be and often is every bit as joyful and wonderful as it is frustrating and upsetting.

There is no right way to be autistic.

There is no "good" or "bad" autism.

There are no "good" or "bad" autistics.

There are just good and bad days. Good and bad feelings. Good and bad events.

Life, and how you survive it.


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