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Memories and images. Like a movie reel that constantly flows through my mind, the images are as clear as a shining piece of crystal. Every life experience is there, every breathing moment, guiding me, influencing every decision I make each day. Thinking in pictures. Not everyone thinks in pictures. This is something I only found out recently, when I was diagnosed with AS. It is also something that I can’t possibly even begin to comprehend. How can there be any other way to think? The gliding flow of images in my mind, some all the way to back to my infancy, just seem so….natural. Real. The only way to think.
I do realize that there are many people who aren’t on the spectrum who are also visual thinkers. But this post is directed towards the fact that most people on the spectrum are specialized in thinking visually. We are the engineers, the oddball science professors, the inventors, strolling through life under the radar, undiagnosed.
So then, what is it like to think in pictures? What other ways are there to think? Apparently, most people think in words, some think in numbers. These are impossible ways of thought to me. I love thinking in pictures. Because I never forget. I never forget the way a place looks, the way I felt at the time, the smells, or the way others looked. Thinking in pictures is a gift to me. Without it, I wouldn’t have this incredible way of not taking anything for granted. Without it, the emotions that guide me through life wouldn’t be nearly as prominent.
My earliest memories are of my infancy. There are times when I hear flickers of what I think is my actual birth, but those memories are so faint, that I can’t be sure if they are real. The reel in my mind of this particular memory is not actually visual, but it is in audio and touch. I hear my own crying, and I feel many hands around me, touching me.
After that, the memories become more visual, but they aren’t consistent. I have a very profound memory of my mom, gazing down into my crib in the downstairs bedroom, late at night, whispering to me that I was such a beautiful baby. The memory is so clear, so present, that I have tears in my eyes as I write this. Another memory that makes me feel tearful, is that of my grandmother, my Babcia. I guess I was in some sort of baby carrier, babbling, when she leans forward and tells me that babies talk to the angels. I believe she was completely correct in her statement, since she was such an angel to all of us.
Toddlerhood is more consistent in my mind, and so full of innocence and joy. Running with nothing on but a diaper, in my aunt’s beautiful backyard. I loved that yard, with it’s great, stunningly beautiful weeping willow, loved the way the willow branches would brush against my face in the wind, whispering to me. The swing that hung from the willow, the action of swinging and how it felt so soothing, so natural and real. The gorgeous swimming pool…and the sign, “No P in the Pool”. Surrounded by my loving family…I feel so lucky to have these memories so clearly. Blessed would be a better word.
I get a little older and the pictures become even clearer. So clear, actually, that as a teenager I used to talk to my mom about them. Both of us pondered whether I was remembering images from another life at first. But then we figured it out…I was remembering my aunt, babysitting me. The setting is Levittown, Golden Ridge section, I think. I might have to double check on that. But I remember there was a cool cemetery nearby, and I remember my aunt caring for me. Another loving family member, another precious memory.
But thinking in pictures isn’t all fun and goodness. I remember the bad things as well, and when you have an autism spectrum disorder, there are many things to fear. For me, that was anything unknown, anything with bright light, crowds, loud noise, anything that felt like an assailant to my fragile sensory system. I had night terrors. Terrible, terrible nightmares about these things. What I feared the most as a toddler, was bright light, falling, and water. My night terrors consisted of blinding light, and as I mentioned before, one of the sources was the pendant light in my upstairs bedroom. The bright fluorescent light terrified me, and in those dreams it would blind me, burn me, take away all of my vision of everything else. Everything I knew. To me, in those dreams, I was being kidnapped by the light, taken away from my family, the ones who protected me from all that was unknown, and therefore extremely frightening.
When I dreamed of water, I would drown. I could never escape the pull of the water, and would wake up screaming just before my lungs would fill with the dark and sinister water. It was the same with falling. I would wake up just before I would fall into what I pictured as the black hole I guess, a place of infinity, a place of which there was no return.
And every time, my mom would be there, holding me, cradling me, soothing me with her sweet words. Sometimes, she would get out some little books, and read to me until I became calm. Once, one of my night terrors occured on a night that it was snowing. It transformed my terror into something magical, as I gazed out the window at the big fluffy flakes swirling down from the sky, my mom holding me, and reading to me a story about a mouse.
It’s difficult, I think, to really describe how I think and perceive things. But this is a start for me, and I hope it has enabled some of you to understand the mind of a child with AS. The film reel continues to roll, each day recorded and filed away in my mind for perfect recall later. Memories of early childhood are a theme for some children with AS, as are sensory processing disorders, anxiety, and fear. All of which I feel contributed to my night terrors. This is just the beginning. As the reel continues to roll, these words will continue to flow from my fingers, as natural as the silent flow of water over the rocks of my beloved creek in Juniper Hill.

Employment & ASD

This is another good article calling attention to the need for transitional services, or some type of early intervention when it comes to employment and autism spectrum disorders. I can’t even remember how many jobs I’ve actually had since I was 15. I never could understand why I had so many problems with employment, but now I know, and I’m really not alone. It took me years to train myself about social interactions and to find a job where I fit in. To me, it really is just like I’m an actor in a play. But others aren’t so lucky…and it saddens me that so many smart and hard-working people with ASDs cannot find a job, perhaps because of some silly (to me anyway) reason, such as insufficient eye contact during an interview.

Yes, I’ve been there. I know what it’s like. And it just isn’t fair….

Employment help often lacking for applicants facing difficulties with interviews, workplace interactions
Monday, July 12, 2010 02:50 AM BY RITA PRICE
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH

COURTNEY HERGESHEIMER | DISPATCH

Chelsea Ridenour, 23, an honors college grad, reads before a Franklin University accounting class. She has struggled to find and keep a job.
COURTNEY HERGESHEIMER | DISPATCH

Chelsea Ridenour had to leave one promising job because she was required to work on the help desk. As her father, Rick, said, she is “phone-phobic.”

Her resume attracted plenty of attention.

Hospitals, technology companies and a major research organization indicated that Chelsea Ridenour – computer and math whiz, summa cum laude graduate of Capital University – looked good on paper. Some called for interviews.

And then, suddenly, it didn’t seem to matter that she is intelligent and dependable and tenacious. Ridenour can communicate with a computer in six languages, but she can’t chat her way through a face-to-face meeting with a stranger.

“People try to be nice. They’re not deliberately not nice,” the Hilliard resident said. “They just don’t understand.”

Ridenour is among a rising population of young adults whose coming-of-age stories are at best complicated and oftentimes heartbreaking. They are grown-ups with Asperger’s syndrome and other autism disorders, conditions that society seems to handle best when boys and girls are young and in school.

But Ridenour is 23. What she needs is a job.

“My pitch always has been, ‘There’s a buyer for every house. Why don’t we find the buyers for these kids who want to work?'” said Tom Fish of the Ohio State University Nisonger Center, a support and research institute for people with developmental disabilities.

“The challenge with people on the (autism) spectrum, of course, is social interaction,” he said. “People look at these kids and say, ‘Be more social.’ Well, they can’t.”

Many young people with Asperger’s syndrome, or “high-functioning” forms of autism, emerge from years of struggle, bullying and isolation in high school only to find that the adult world can be even more difficult. According to the Ohio Center for Autism and Low Incidence, national studies have found that only 6 percent to 14 percent of adults with autism are competitively employed.

Yet many possess normal – and in a lot of cases, superior – intellectual abilities.

The surge in autism diagnoses – the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts the incidence at one in 110 American children – first was felt in education systems.

Now, families and government agencies are trying to chart the course to employment.

“We weren’t ready,” said Chris Filler, transition coordinator at the Ohio Center for Autism. “This wave of what used to be preschoolers with autism is moving on, and we’re really scrambling to meet that need.”

Families report frustration as they turn to agencies such as the Rehabilitation Services Commission of Ohio; its history is rooted in finding jobs for people with traditional disabilities: hearing loss, mobility problems and blindness, for example.

County boards of developmental disabilities serve some adults with autism, but those with mild forms such as Asperger’s might not qualify for services and the waivers that pay for them. Yet their “social dyslexia,” as some describe the condition, can be crippling in the work world.

Ellen Ridenour, Chelsea’s mother, said the family sought help from the commission’s Bureau of Vocational Services in 2008 but found that their caseworker knew little about Asperger’s syndrome. Although Chelsea had recently graduated from college with a 3.9 grade-point average, her family was told that she was “not competitively employable.”

Others have reported similar experiences.

“I don’t think they have any idea yet of the challenges of Asperger’s,” said Nancy Beu, a North Side woman whose 28-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, went through many difficult evaluations and interviews before getting a job at a YMCA.

“They don’t do well with job interviews. That’s overwhelming for them. Some of the case managers think, ‘They’re not employable.’ Well, most of these young people have wonderful skills. Elizabeth always proves herself.”

The commission’s administrator, Michael Rench, met with some families and told them the agency is working to improve training and find better ways to help clients with autism.

“We recognize the frustration,” he said.

But, at the same time, the commission remains obligated to serve the most-significantly disabled first. “If they have a master’s degree and drive a car, it can be hard to determine how they qualify for our services,” Rench said.

The commission served 860 Ohioans with autism last year. Officials say 122 cases were “successfully closed,” meaning that the workers maintained competitive employment for at least 90 days.

Filler said that’s often not long enough for a young adult with autism to adjust. She worries that traditional time frames and limited budgets allow cases to be closed before the workers attain stability.

National employment studies have found that, among recent high-school graduates with disabilities, those with autism have the highest job-retention rates after more than a year, Filler said. But two to six months into the job, they fare the worst.

Brian Cloppert had the ability. What he needed was someone to help him find a groove, to put abstract concepts into concrete terms.

“He’s a very bright young man, has a lot of knowledge, skill and capability,” said Pat Batdorf, an on-the-job training specialist at the Franklin County Board of Developmental Disabilities who works with Cloppert. “It’s just a matter of connecting the dots.”

For three years, Cloppert, a 27-year-old who has Asperger’s syndrome, has worked as a supply coordinator at the Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital, where he handles inventory for four floors.

“Of all the jobs I’ve trained in 25 years, this is probably the most complicated,” Batdorf said. “But he’s doing great.”

Cloppert’s family agrees that he is fortunate to have long-term job coaching, which isn’t easy to come by. And not everyone who gets the help is happy to land jobs that seem below their abilities.

“We have one man who has a master’s degree, and right now, he’s doing some janitorial work,” said Claudia Ross, the board’s employment-services director. “He’s not happy, and we know it; but socially, he’s so unskilled.”

Filler and others see some solutions in earlier job planning – in middle school, not after high school or college – and by helping employers understand the strengths of many people with autism.

“Small-business owners,” Rench said, “can make adaptations quicker than a corporation. They’re more than willing to tolerate the quirkiness.”

Chelsea had to leave one promising job because she was required to work on the help desk. “If they’d let her do programming, she’d be great,” said her dad, Rick. “But the help desk? She’s phone-phobic.”

Mrs. Ridenour said she hopes the lessons learned by her family can help others understand that academic success isn’t enough of a base to build on. She wishes that Chelsea had had earlier work experience and support.

“We didn’t think we’d have to do all this,” Mrs. Ridenour said. “We thought employers would be looking for skills, not the ability to socialize around the water cooler.”

Chelsea recently learned that she is eligible, at least temporarily, for some job help from the developmental disabilities board, and she might try an internship for math- and science-skilled adults with disabilities.

She’s trying to forget the person who, after a strained conversation about employment, “decided that I didn’t really want a job.”

Nothing could be further from the truth.

For information and help, contact Aspirations, a social and vocational-support program for young adults with autism disorders. Visit the website atwww.aspirationsohio.org or call 614-292-4185.
rprice@dispatch.com

Congratulations, Ari!!! ~ Annette

June 22, 2010

After months of delay, the Senate unanimously confirmed Ari Ne’eman on Tuesday to become the first person with autism to serve on the National Council on Disability.

In December President Barack Obama nominated eight new members to the National Council on Disability, which makes recommendations to the president and Congress on disability issues. Early this year, all of the nominations were confirmed except that of Ne’eman, who has autism and is the founder of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network.

The reason: one or more members of the Senate placed an anonymous hold on the nomination, preventing the full Senate from considering it.

Speculation swirled about the reason for the hold, with some suggesting that Ne’eman’s sometimes divisive views on autism could have been behind the delay. In particular, Ne’eman’s belief that autism should not be cured, but instead should be accepted and accommodated has drawn ire from parents of some individuals who are more adversely affected by the disorder.

As secretively as the hold was placed, however, it was lifted Tuesday morning when Senators voted unanimously to confirm the post along with at least 63 other nominations.

“I’m very pleased to have been confirmed by the U.S. Senate and I look forward to taking my oath as a member of the National Council on Disability and to get down to work,” Ne’eman told Disability Scoop.

The confirmations come after news earlier this week that Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., secured the votes to change the Senate rules to bar holds from being placed anonymously.

Precisely explains how I hear – and talk. I always seem to say the wrong word, for example, instead of department, I’ll say apartment. There is supposedly treatment for APD, using Mozart music to develop those hearing pathways that I’m missing, but I haven’t gotten to try it yet. Anyway, good explanations in this article.

http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/04/26/little-known-disorder-can-take-a-toll-on-learning/?ref=health

Face blindness, or prosopagnosia, is said to affect many with developmental disorders, such as autism spectrum disorder and non-verbal learning disability, as well as those who have suffered from some forms of brain damage. Again, in view of the fact that I have both a non-verbal learning disability and ASD, it would appear that I really am a textbook case for all things ASD related. So what is face blindness?
The simplest way for me to explain it is to blend a little of what the experts say with a little of how I perceive it to affect me. For me, face blindness means that I have extreme difficulty recognizing people. And it doesn’t matter if you are a co-worker, a friend, a family member, or even my husband Dale, I simply will not recognize you right away and certainly not from a distance, even a short one. I also will not recognize your voice over the phone, for what I believe carries the same explanation. This is one reason that I thank god for cell phones and caller ID, so I know who’s calling. That, however, doesn’t lend me a hand when I call others, which makes me anxious, and unfortunately prevents me from making many phone calls, unless I know for sure who’s going to answer the phone.
From what I understand, my differently wired brain remembers people through a combination of factors, such as mannerisms, voice, and the way they interact with their environment, instead of solely on the visual processing of a person’s face. So until these things are observable for me, I don’t recognize you. And I’m not kidding when I say I don’t recognize anyone, even family. It’s not until a person gets close enough for me to hear, see, and study that they begin to look familiar to me. This process can take several minutes of close up interaction.
For those of my friends who wonder why I often ask them to meet me outside of a restaurant, and for those who wonder why I prefer email and texting over actual phone calls, you now have an answer to that question. It’s because it makes it easier for me to find you, recognize you without wandering aimlessly through a crowded bar, peering into faces and disturbing people. And it makes it that much easier on my anxiety levels as well. If I do have to find you in a crowded place with my anxiety at a record high, it will then turn on the auditory processing disorder, which will have the undesirable effect of making it difficult for me to understand what you’re saying as well. And when it comes to phone calls, I have only a voice to go on. No mannerisms, no interaction with the environment, and no expressions. Although eventually, I will recognize your voice, it won’t be until long into the discussion, with laughter being the trigger for my recognition. My suspicion is that laughter is musical, which is like heaven to me, and has always served to calm and soothe all of my senses.
I find it interesting that face blindness is often seen concurrently with abnormalities in EEG measurements (what you might think of as a brain scan). I too have what are considered abnormal, unchanging EEG measurements, consistent it would seem, with face blindness and (I believe) 30% of those on the autism spectrum. What I also find fascinating is that I have no trouble recognizing people in photos. The research seems to support that there is indeed an emotional aspect to face blindness. In other words, your photo is just a picture of you, a simple object, it’s not a living, breathing being, interacting with anything.
Face blindness played a somewhat distinct part in the finding of the pieces to my personal autism puzzle. How many times, as a teenager, had I walked past someone I knew in the mall (for example, boyfriend mentioned in earlier post)? How many times had I been labeled a bitch, or stuck-up by those I wasn’t even aware of, when they were trying to catch my attention? I always wondered why I could never find anyone I was looking for, recognize my friends on the phone, or why I continuously piss people off by failing to acknowledge them in Home Depot when they were three feet away from me. I don’t know how many times I heard through a third party that so and so said I was a cold, unfeeling bitch. And for the longest time, I thought I must be. I know better now, and I’m not afraid to tell others about any of it. And that’s why I’m here, writing. So that maybe, the next time you meet someone you know (from work maybe) and they walk right past you in the grocery store without saying hi, just maybe you’ll remember my story. Just maybe, instead of thinking, “What a royal asshole!,” you’ll give that person the benefit of a doubt. Instead, hopefully, you’ll cut her a break and think, “Hmmm…maybe she’s on the autism spectrum.” At which point you’ll walk up to her, and say, “Hi. I don’t think you saw me back there.” It would mean so much to me, and all of us spectrumites, if you did that!

“And I raise my head and stare, into the eyes of a stranger…” ~ Queensryche.

“I’ve always known that the mirror never lies.” This is the next line to one of the most tortured of Queensryche’s lyrics, although for me, while I do see a complete stranger gaze back at me from the mirror, it is indeed the mirror that reflects nothing to me but lies. It is contradicting, and downright mind numbing, to exist as two separate people, to not know whether what I am seeing is a lie, or whether it is merely a layer to another, deeply buried personality. Which one of us is real? The frightened, deeply saddened little girl with autism, or the self-confident, seemingly fearless woman who blends so well now into the neurotypical world, that only very few can detect my differences? I promised, weeks back, to discuss the mask I wear each day in order to fly under the radar of the label of strange, or the discovery of my autism. I promised to write about how the only time I am comfortable enough to strip away the mask, and be my REAL self, is when I am in foreign countries.
So this is tonight’s topic, providing that I can finish it before the pumpkin turns into a coach for me, and whisks me away from the laptop. I’ll start by talking about the mask I honed perfectly, probably starting from the age of 5, which is when I first came to realize that I was different from other people. And yes, I do remember all the way back to my toddler and infancy years, which is common with many on the autism spectrum. But until I went to school, I perceived no differences between myself and others, I was not subjected to torment by my peers, was not given any reason at all to change my appearance to others, there was no incentive for it. My family accepted me the way I was without question. Did it matter to them that I was speaking in full sentences before I could even walk? Did they care that I never made eye contact, or changed facial expressions, or spoke in a monotone? No, as my father once said, “We always knew you were special, and that was it.” Special, different even, but not wrong.
It wasn’t until I began kindergarten that I realized, in my mind, there was something very wrong with me. I had no desire to interact with other children, in fact, I found them quite annoying. They were loud, their movements were quick and frightening, and I rarely understood them. Every sense of mine was made raw in the presence of other children, my ears hurt, my eyes hurt, and my mind hurt. And I had no way of ever knowing how to communicate any of this properly. To me, I was behind a thick, impenetrable wall of glass. I could watch the others play, but I could never participate, never understand the social intricacies of child society. I was alone, and so I preferred it that way.
But this is not something positive, not once it has been observed by the other children. The lone child is marked immediately, from day one, and with no understanding, my own behaviors only reinforced the abuse I received on a daily basis. But I digress.
From that day forward, slowly, and I do mean ever so slowly (as I am STILL learning to this day), I learned to protect myself, to try to crack the complex social code that mystified me, and continues to elude my understanding in many ways today. It wasn’t until junior high that I really figured out that I needed to watch others closely, watch their interactions, listen to the way they talked to each other. It was purely a driven instinct of survival, because I felt that I was fragile, porcelain in structure, and that anymore rejection would completely and utterly destroy me. I became, in effect, an anthropologist on the down low, unobtrusively trying to discover what was normal, and wrestling with my perceived demon of what made me so bad and undeserving of friends.
By junior high, I had a better grip on what was expected of me as a girl, and I tried as hard as I could to fit in. The anxiety was almost paralyzing, but I worked through it, devising various methods that seemed to work. For example, the lunch line was the most terrifying and dreaded part of the school day for me. My first experience with the lunchroom sent me into a full-blown panic attack, one that I was determined never to expose to my peers. I had come from a catholic elementary school with no cafeteria to prepare me for the onslaught of the senses that I was to be introduced to. Have you ever watched the HBO movie “Temple Grandin?” Remember the scene where she goes through the cafeteria line, only to be reduced into complete meltdown mode? That was me, although I hid mine better. The noisiness, the burning fluorescent lights, the kids pushing, the annoyed cafeteria women, no one to help me to pick something simple to eat. I left the line, and only rarely did I return, and that was when I was with a friend who could act as a calming inducer to me. Yes, I did manage to make a few friends in those dark years. I devised a system, which was as simple as not eating. The anxiety actually overrode my hunger, my need to eat. And when the stomach pains came, I yanked out a bottle of extra strength aspirin and downed a few. Did I understand that aspirin was not intended to quell pangs of hunger? Did I know it was harsh on the stomach and liver? No. Remember, many people on the higher end of the autism spectrum may be gifted IQ wise, but we are years behind our peers mentally and emotionally. Naive. Innocent. Whatever you want to call it, there it is.
While this wasn’t really a way to understand social norms, it hid my glaringly obvious anxiety from those I felt would try to hurt me. It hid my vulnerabilities. Or at least I felt that it did. And it was the very beginning of the complexity that is the mask.
By high school, I had learned that there were things you didn’t say, that you weren’t supposed to speak your mind, and it was accepted, even expected, to tell white lies. Friend: “Does my hair look nice today?” Me: “That rat’s nest? Hell no. You need to fix that!” Acceptable? NOT! Instead, “Why it looks gorgeous, of course!” Better, right?
So on and on, the glass wall still there, as thick as ever, but now, this time, no one but me is noticing it as often.
My most progress did not come, sadly, until the age of 28, when two acquaintances told me that they didn’t trust a word I said. “What the hell does that mean? I never lie, it doesn’t even cross my mind to lie to anyone about anything!” After all, I had to train myself to tell white lies for god’s sake. “Well, you never make eye contact,” they said, “That’s what liars do.” Again, I was blown away. Next came, “Why do you clench your fists all the time? Are you gonna go crazy on us?” So I realized then, that I was doing something seriously wrong with my body language, bordering on that of the criminally insane. And making no eye contact appeared to be an insult of some sort. I knew then, that I would never, in a million years, be able to get a good job and support myself, something I badly wanted to do. To prove them ALL wrong, to show them that I was not as worthless as I allowed them to make me feel. That may have been the most influential two instances in my life.
I fervently began to immerse myself in the “Anthropology Project,” as I call it, determined to out best their snide remarks. I read about body language, what was expected, and how hopelessly unnatural it was going to be for me. I began to force myself to make eye contact (yes, at age 28), it scared the hell out of me, overwhelmed me with the other person, made me sick to my stomach, made it hard for me to hear and understand what the other person was saying, but I knew it was the only way. Now, if only I could determine the right sequence of eye contact. How much was too much, how long was too long? Where do I look when I’m not looking at the other person? I read somewhere that it was 50/50, so I estimated and began experimenting. Normal body posture for me? Stiff, fists clenched with anxiety. All wrong, right? So I learned to consciously relax my body. (I’m still not great at this because just a few weeks ago I needed a vaccination and the nurse told me that my arm was not relaxed enough. I laughed quietly to myself, knowing that if she had seen me years ago, my arm would have had the stiffness of a Victoria’s Secret lingerie mannequin.)
I learned never to clench my fists, especially since, if TSA decides to utilize body language analysis through security, I’m pretty much screwed. I’m already an anxious and sensory overstimulated mess going through security as it is, I don’t need them whisking me away into the interrogation room on top of that. I found other ways to cover up my missing social cues. The monotone of my voice? If I force myself to smile when I talk, it lessens the non-expressiveness of my voice considerably. I still sound like a robot when I create my own voicemail, but at least no one accuses me of sounding angry and irritated when speaking to me over the phone anymore.
Conversational skills were tougher. Small talk? I still don’t get it. So again, I listened to others. What does someone say to the question, “How are you?” It rarely is ever the truth, right? A simple “Good, thanks,” will do, maybe even, “Good, how about you?” I thought people really wanted to know, but of course not, it seems closely woven into that “white lie” thing to me.
So each day that I leave the house, I pull on the “I’m NORMAL” mask, maybe a better description would be a costume. Yeah, a far-fetched, outlandish and goofy looking costume. I like that. Or maybe I’m Catwoman. I have enough cats to qualify for that. So as I drive in the car, I remain the autistic me, blank expression, probably more relaxed than before, and usually singing to the music I play, which calms me and prepares me for the superman move. You know where this is going…that’s when I pull on my superhero non-autistic personality costume in the car before I get out of it. The smile comes on, the voice takes on a lighter note, maybe an expression to go with the smile, the relaxed body posture, and the eye contact. It certainly feels superhuman to me, and after all, I’ve got all the super senses to go with it. So there, I’ve taken myself from scarily weird to superhuman within one discussion. Something only a person on the autism spectrum could do, I assure you.
What I’ve noticed about myself, that has completely changed the way I regard the mask these days is the way I feel when I’m traveling. Specifically, foreign countries. That mask dissolves completely, and I feel no need to drag it out of my huge bag of “normal people tricks.” I feel free, free to be myself, and for whatever reason, when that happens, the autistic side of me vanishes into thin air, like a ghostly apparition. I am happy, free from anxiety, free from the concern of what others will think of me. I am, for once in my life, really and truly that person who gazes at me from the mirror. I am whole, healed, one person, the great wall of glass naught but a distant and disturbing nightmare of the past.
I have my theories as to why this occurs. For one, I have no day-to-day drudgery to turn on my anxiety button. And two, which I think is the most influential, is the perception that I am accepted. If I do anything that does happen to be unaccepted, it will be written off as “Well, she’s a foreigner, she doesn’t know any better.” If my auditory processing disorder kicks in and I can’t understand someone, I don’t get the “she must be retarded” vibe. I get a slower, more carefully repeated wording. An explanation I understand the second time around, without feeling as if the other person believes that I’m merely not listening. A forgiveness, again, maybe because I’m foreign.
The key here is that I feel acceptance, and where I find unquestioned acceptance is where I will be freed forever from the stigma of my past, and you can only imagine how delightful that is for me. I have come to realize that the life of a permanent wanderer will yield me the greatest fulfillment in my life, the most healthiest I could ever hope for. So with this analysis, I have begun to research the Peace Corps, the completion of which, I might add, I have dreamed of since the age of 9. Never before would I have had the courage to make that leap.
And it is to those out there, who were the most cruel to me, that I can now thank. Thank you, however you made me feel about myself then, you have shaped me into a undefeatable, unfathomably strong person who is no longer afraid to attain my dreams. Because of your cruelty, I will never, ever, be that lost, scared and crying little autistic girl in the corner of the playground ever again.
Namaste to you all, each and every one.

Recently, I lost a friend of mine. A friend who was just like me, similar in so many ways to me. She was once my co-worker, an incredibly compassionate veterinary technician, an intelligent, funny and yet tortured person. Julia, as I’ll call her, was like me in that she was wired differently from most people. She had a diagnosis of ADHD, which is so similar to autism spectrum disorder, the experts fail to draw any lines as to where one ends and the other begins.
Lately, her needless and accidental death, has me thinking deeply on the subject of my own differences and my own battles with myself. I had only really gotten to know Julia well after my own diagnosis, when I realized that we were close kin. Another of my kind!! Someone who perceived the world as strangely as I do, and shared all of my enthusiasm for the little things most people never take the time for. Things like the way the breeze whispers through the leaves on the trees, singing sweetly. Or the blessings of all forms of life, the way all life represents a manifestation of our creator and our awe inspiring universe.
We even had the same interests, or rather, obsessions. Animals, medicine, photography, reading, and music. Especially music. The manager of a local band, she had invited me out numerous times to see the band play. Sadly, I never made the time to see them or hang out with her.
I knew Julia carried pain, emotional pain, a huge burden. I could only assume that it had much to do with her struggles with ADHD, of growing up and living with the continuous challenges it presented to her. We never really talked much about the emotional aspect of it. I knew she was a heavy drinker, but I never questioned it because it wasn’t my place to do so. And knowing full well how easy it is to self-medicate oneself when faced with the loneliness that usually accompanies being different, I was non-judgemental.
Well, that heavy drinking led to her senseless death during that blizzard we had a few weeks ago. I had laughed that day, because her update on facebook had said, “Julia knows what it’s like to feel like a caged animal!” So did I. But perhaps the caged animal she was referring to that day had nothing to do with the weather. Perhaps, just maybe, that post had something to do with the cage of loneliness that those of us with AS and ADHD battle from the very day we are born. It was her last post.
I realize that I’ll always be different. I’ll never really fit in anywhere, which is one of the main reasons I like to travel so much. That is the only time in my life that I ever feel truly accepted by others, because my behaviors are excused as those of a foreigner. While I am happy to finally have a name and a solid explanation of who I am, I now realize that the unbreakable glass wall that has always separated me from the world that everyone else enjoys is always going to be there.
Sure, I have learned so much, blended in so well, that most people say they “Had no idea!!” that there was anything WRONG with me. Yes, I can care for myself independently, I maintain a few friendships, I work full-time. Currently, I believe the statistics say only 6% of people on the spectrum manage to lead independent lives. So I should be proud of this. Don’t get me wrong, I am proud of myself, and I cry sometimes when parents with kids on the spectrum tell me I’m a miracle to them.
But despite all this, the pain of my past, the pain of the continued challenges of plain, old, simple daily living (which are completely overwhelming at times to me) beat me back down into that dark place again. Will the barrage ever end for me?
When I was 15 years old, I started cutting myself. I did it in small, hidden places that no one would see, ashamed that anyone might find out how much of a freak I was. I did it everytime I was faced with emotional pain, like the loss of yet another friend for reasons I simply couldn’t understand, the way I just could never seem to fit in with anyone, especially girls, and at that age it’s so important to have friends who are girls! I did it when relationships with boyfriends failed, when I argued with my parents, when yet another kid at school said something nasty to me. I did it when I thought about how horrid my grade school years had been, how lonely I had been. I did it because it seemed like the right thing to do, it lessened that unbearable emotional pain, made it easier to deal with. After awhile, it didn’t matter to me where the cuts were, or how visible they were. It didn’t matter because it was the one sure thing that I could count on to soothe me.
I also turned to other methods of self-destruction, as they seemed to be an escape from the constant life of loneliness I led. Self-destruction, in my mind, would be the event that would finally release me from that cage of loneliness that surrounded me no matter which way I turned. The pain was always there, and it continues to exist today. No matter what I have done to prove to myself that all that mattered was myself, the pain of the world’s rejection persists, raw and bleeding. Most of my accomplishments were a result of my persistence to prove to myself that I didn’t need people, for anything.
So then, why is the pain still there? I used to tell people that the numerous scars on my arms were battle scars, a SURVIVOR’S battle scars. Lately though, I have been wondering. Are these scars the scars of a survivor? Or are these scars merely festering wounds, just little reminders that this is a battle that I will inevitably lose, just as Julia did?