This is part 1 of a 3-part series on seeing our autism in a positive light
Finding out I’m autistic has made a profound impact on me. It not only gave me a framework to understand myself, but it ultimately improved my perception of myself and the world. I now live a much more aware and happier life. Let me share some of my journey to adopting a more positive view on autism and my capabilities.
Judging the outsider
Before I found out about being autistic over a decade ago, I would compare my own proclivities and social competence with others’, and judge myself for being different. Not just for being different, but for what I perceived to be inadequacies, such as the apparent lack of intuition when it came to social interactions and relating to other people. I had friends, and yet I still felt like an outsider.
Certain experiences really solidified those feelings, such as being picked last during gym class. One time, when I was around 10 years old, my classmates were playing a soccer game together, and I asked if I could join them. They said, “Sure”. And then, a kid I considered to be my friend and one of his friends proceeded to kick the ball towards my face as hard as they could. They hit me in the face several times, which immediately started burning fiercely from the impact of the rubber ball on my skin. I quickly walked away to the other side of the school ground so no one would see my tears—ashamed that my classmates would see me cry and deemed me pathetic. I just wanted to be alone.
None of my classmates were willing or courageous enough to protest their actions, so on some level, I must have concluded I deserved it. Or even if I didn’t, it would have solidified the idea that I was an outsider.
And this wasn’t just delusional thinking or a lack of confidence. People actually seemed to like me, and yet there was still something objectionable about me—in their minds, as well as my own. And it’s difficult not to think that way as a kid, because the people in the movies I saw, and the characters in the many books I read, just seemed to behave and think significantly differently from me. My classmates would have noticed some of that, too.
And the difficult and puzzling thing for me was that there was seemingly no one else like me. This begged the question of whether I was simply very individualistic, or if there was something “wrong” with me. The two probably aren’t mutually exclusive, but it’s clear my classmates weren’t able to appreciate my idiosyncrasies. And to be fair, I was too young for that as well.
As I got older though, I actually developed a sense of pride in being different and being my own person. But the feeling of being alien stayed with me for years.
A framework for understanding
Years later, when I was 19, I found a website that featured a long list of traits and descriptions of Asperger’s syndrome (this was before the various autism subclassifications got merged under the ASD umbrella). And to my utter shock, the whole page described me amazingly accurately! It was an almost magical experience, because for some reason I never imagined there could be a description of me. And as you can imagine, it was an immensely validating experience, because this was the first time in almost two decades(!) that I felt someone (or something) actually understood me. It filled me with so much hope.
The fact that there was a name attributed to this list of traits was wonderful to me as well, because it meant I could now start researching what autism is, and discover more about who I am. And the more self-awareness I develop, the more control I can exert over my life and my emotions.
For example, as a teenager, I would sometimes lose my temper, have verbal outbursts, and exhaust myself so severely in my attempts to be understood and validated, that ultimately I would give up the fight and go to my room to be alone, so I wouldn’t have to talk any longer. It would take me at least half an hour for the negative feelings to go away, and for the will to talk to come back. “Cooling down” is what I called it. This would occur with some frequency, and so my mother often described me as a “difficult teenager”. I’m sure I was, but it wasn’t a constructive statement. It just made me feel invalidated with a hint of shame. And sure, my hormones would have played a significant role in my behaviors—as they would in any teenager. But what I later learned is that those outbursts were meltdowns; and the subsequent exhaustion where it became almost difficult to talk, those were shutdowns.
Had I known about these concepts (and others) sooner, I might have been able to exert more control over my life at the time; I could have practiced mindfulness to promote (self-)awareness, and to better process my feelings. That’s what I did do a decade later, which helped tremendously. Can you just imagine the amount of anxiety, desperation, lack of control, and suffering I could have prevented if I found out about autism years sooner, and started working on my mental health and spirituality sooner? To be clear, I’m not lamenting the time lost or the hardships I endured, but I just want to emphasize the importance of having a framework to understand yourself, your past, and where you are working towards. And had my mother known about meltdowns and autism, she would have been able to understand me better, and perhaps respond with compassion rather than judgment.
When I found out I’m autistic, my negative experiences were no longer personal failures, but simply challenges that I had in common with many other people with similar neurological wiring. Challenges that I could overcome in principle. No longer were they evidence for my inferiority and deficits, but opportunities to grow, to learn, and to take control.
Even though I knew no other autistic people at the time except for one, I suddenly felt less alone, and less deficient. I felt that, in many ways, I was different and prone to be misunderstood, rather than fundamentally flawed or broken. And with this newfound framework, when someone misconstrues my behaviors, I could now begin to explain them, rather than accept their perceptions and internalize their judgments.
Not deficits, but trade-offs
When I found out more about my autism, I understood that I’m not socially incompetent (per se), but differently-abled. I had judged myself for years on the things I wasn’t able to do as well as the people around me, and I didn’t think of the things I excelled at—such as drawing, and coming up with imaginative stories—as anything special.
Over the years, I came to reject the idea that we have inherent deficiencies. Sure, there are things I can improve on, and there may be things I will never be able to do the same way other people are able to. And that is okay. The things I’m less good at do not define me—or in any case, I choose not to over-identify with them. Allowing myself to focus on the things I can’t do or am not good at is necessarily going to lead to frustration and suffering, and it isn’t going to contribute positively to my life.
But it’s good to consider why I’m less good at certain things that come naturally—or more easily—to others (such as social interaction), and why I experience certain advantages in other areas that are less common to others. That’s because my brain is specialized in certain ways! My brain spent more time developing certain neural circuits at the expense of others, so there is a trade-off. And given that trade-off, I am more likely going to spend more time on those things I find I’m good at. It’s the combination of a passionate drive, a singular focus, as well as intrinsic abilities that ultimately leads to spending a disproportionate amount of time researching a particular thing, and mastering a particular skill.
For a moment, I want to discuss a strong case of those trade-offs I just mentioned. Savant syndrome is an interesting neurotype to look at, because that’s where we see particularly drastic trade-offs (and it should be noted that 10–28.5% of autistic people have savant syndrome, compared to 1% in the general population).Savant skills in autism: psychometric approaches and parental reportsThe savant syndrome: an extraordinary condition. A synopsis: past, present, future Savant syndrome is characterized by exceptional skills often related to memory, but also art, mathematics, and music.The savant syndrome: an extraordinary condition. A synopsis: past, present, future (Treffert, 2009) The psychiatrist and autism epidemiology and savant syndrome researcher, Darold Treffert, described people with savant syndrome as: “They appeared to me to be islands of genius in the sea of disability.”Conversations on Creativity with Darold Treffert, Part I: De | Psychology Today
Now, I’m not a genius, nor do I see myself as having a sea of disabilities. But I resonate a lot with that phrase, not only because I do have marked tradeoffs compared to neurotypical people, but because I feel it hints at another important point: people tend to see that “sea” (of disabilities), but don’t always recognize the “island”. And that makes some sense to me, because my “disability”—if you can call it that—is noticeable in my interactions with others, whereas the “island” tends to become more apparent when I’m doing my own thing at home, where only those close to me get to see that aspect of me.
So I think in general, people’s perception of autism tends to be based on the deficits they see in everyday situations and interactions, rather than the passionate drive, creativity, and innovative thinking we can show when we are in an environment that makes us feel secure and allows us to be ourselves. This is a very important point, because it plays a significant role in the public perception of autism as a condition of deficits on the one hand, and the more nuanced way many autistic people come to see themselves. Autism is not exclusively characterized by deficits, but by trade-offs.
Adopting a more positive perspective
So autism comes with certain strengths as well. Unfortunately, given that we tend to internalize other people’s misconceptions and judgments of ourselves, it may take some time to be able to acknowledge them, or cultivate them. I often see autistic people who claim they experience no advantages on account of their autism, but aren’t actually aware of the advantages that are common to autism, and which may apply to them.
The painful thing about this is that once we have become convinced that other people’s misconceptions are an accurate representation of who we are and what we are capable of, we start imposing those limitations onto ourselves, and even tend to become quite resistant to changing that perception. It can feel as if acknowledging our advantages is wishful thinking. You may think other people experience advantages due to their autism, but certainly not you. You’re most likely wrong, but it’s not your fault that you believe this. I did for the longest time.
The issue is that we only have a singular set of experiences, without an experiential frame of reference that we can compare it with. That often makes it quite difficult to see certain aspects of ourselves correctly. I was well into my 20s when I started discovering some significant things about myself. Others may start unraveling much later in life.
When that process of self-discovery ultimately starts, can greatly depend on the cultural understanding of the time. During my teens, autism wasn’t yet so publicly discussed as it is now, autistic people were not as visible, and quality information was even more sparse and incomplete than it is now. I think it was about 8 years after finding out I’m autistic—and about 3 years after my diagnosis—that I finally became familiar with concepts such as alexithymia, which played a crucial role in better understanding autism, and certain limitations it can impose on autistic advantages or traits—including our (affective) empathyThe Feeling of Me Feeling for You: Interoception, Alexithymia and Empathy in Autism (Mul et al., 2018) and our sociability.Alexithymia – not autism – is associated with frequency of social interactions in adults (Lerner et al., 2019)
Because it can be challenging to find out what autistic advantages you might experience, we decided to create a comprehensive list of autistic advantages and challenges. Admittedly the list is very incomplete (we have collected and researched a lot more items to add), but the point of the list is that it can provide an overview of the benefits (and challenges) we could be experiencing. Not everything on the list necessarily applies to every autistic person, but we only list aspects for which there is good scientific evidence that on average, autistic people do better (or worse) on those aspects. I encourage you to have a look, as you might just discover strengths you didn’t realize you had! In my experience, this can be quite empowering.
I also insist on focusing on what I CAN do rather than on what I can’t, because I found that what you focus on tends to amplify your experience. What I used to focus on heavily were my anxiety and my rumination. But the more I talked about this, the more it became the focus of my lived experience. On the one hand, it was a way to process my feelings; but on the other hand, it sustained my (negative) state of mind. If you focus on the positives in life and in yourself, however, over time this will become a natural tendency. I might write an article on how to go about that exactly, but just know that it can take a few weeks for the brain to restructure itself (called neuroplasticity) and incorporate lasting change. The more you practice positivity and shut down negativity and judgments as soon as possible, the more positive you will likely end up feeling.Eight weeks to a better brain (2011) | The Harvard GazetteLearning in the Fast Lane: New Insights into Neuroplasticity (Sagi et al., 2012) Note, however, that I’m not offering a magical cure for depression and suicidal ideation.
When I met Natalie, she was very surprised with how I described myself. I was very focused on my pervasive anxiety and other negative subjective experiences. But rather than those negative aspects, she saw the things I was capable of; she saw my creativity and my intellectual curiosity. She was captivated by my mind and my inquisitiveness. And the more she expressed what she saw in me, the easier it became for me to start seeing that, too. And frankly, I liked her description of me a lot more than my own. Her description of me was the kind of person I aspired to be. And the more I believed that description of myself, the more I became it.
Natalie urged me to look at myself in a more positive light, and helped me acknowledge my strengths, and to see the wondrous nature of my mind. I found by making that my predominant focus, I became empowered and more abled. And that constructive mindset played a significant role in improving my well-being, and in getting more in tune with who I am. I started living more authentically, and derived pleasure from it. No longer did I internalize and echo the judgments of others!
Well, that isn’t quite true. But I have greatly diminished my tendency to do so, and am much more aware of when I might still do it. I try to shut the negative thoughts down as fast as possible, and focus on the things I’m capable of. And this has ultimately lead to me identifying with my skills and talents, and distancing myself from the negative experiences I have. Now, a meltdown or a sensory overload is simply something physiological happening TO me, rather than a statement of my character.
The one you feed
Have you heard of the aphorism of the Two Wolves? It’s a story of a grandfather who explains his inner conflict to his grandson, using two wolves as a metaphor; one wolf signifies love, while the other one signifies hatred. The wisdom of the story is that it’s the wolf you feed that grows stronger. And while the social wolf in me may be comparatively weak, the other wolf—which symbolizes the advantages that can come with an autistic brain—has grown quite strong.
The thing is, what many people see—and what we ourselves end up seeing—is the wolf that is not being adequately fed, and clearly malnutritious. But in my experience, the smaller and weaker one wolf is, the stronger, more imposing, and wondrous the other wolf tends to be! You just have to start noticing it, and recognize its splendor.
And that is our central mission with Embrace Autism. Because yes, we do have our challenges—as do all people—but you may be surprised what you are capable of if you find a way to accept yourself, dare to live authentically, and genuinely enjoy doing whatever you choose to do. And what brings me pleasure, is to share this mindset, so that others may become empowered and see themselves more favorably, the same way I have!