Hi folks, I have a bit of life news to share.
I spent a while thinking about how I wanted to say this, and that was only after spending an equally lengthy period deciding if I wanted to say it at all…
I guess the reason for my hesitation is an inherent fear of how some people respond to difference. Growing up as a transracial adoptee in a predominantly white rural town has given me ample experience of how unpleasantly those responses can manifest, and I am naturally reluctant to attract any more negative attention than strictly necessary.
Nevertheless, I cannot separate this newly recognised part of my identity from who I am any more than the ethnicity I was born with. It has always been with me, making me who I am, for better or for worse, and now that I know it, I can finally see and appreciate myself for the person I actually am.
I’ve used so many words to internally describe myself over the years, and none of them have been particularly flattering where my ability to function as a competent human being was concerned. I wondered over and over if my feelings of “oddness” and “otherness” were a natural result of my appearance, my cultural displacement, or even an undiagnosed personality disorder. One word, however, had never occurred to me until April of this year.
And having learned so much about that word since then, I can fully comprehend why I never would have thought of it for myself previously. My own misgivings were probably similar to those many people still have about Autism. The stereotypes that exist impose notions of the condition that do not adequately describe me. I’m neither a brilliant mind, or completely averse to forming social relationships. I can even make a bit of eye-contact when I need to, although fair warning, I’m probably looking at your mouth the most, so I’ll definitely notice if you have a bit of breakfast caught between your teeth.
As I’ve come to understand more thoroughly, the spectrum of Autism is not linear. Every person with ASD has their own combination of Autistic traits, although we all process the world differently to our neurotypical peers. And it’s important to emphasise that these traits can translate into unique strengths and innovative thought patterns, as well as pose significant burden on our personal resources where environments and situations are not within our scope to comfortably function in.
Many people with Autism learn to cope by masking, and I would wager I’m something of a pro at it. Far from shying away from social interaction, there was a time in my life when I would throw myself into the fray like a rabid warthog rampaging through a slumbering village in my enthusiastic efforts to gain acceptance, usually missing the social cues that informed me I was about as welcome as… well, a rabid warthog.
Painful as they often were, my failures still equated to lessons learned, and at age thirty-eight, I’ve mastered the art of acceptable social engagement to a level I regard as reasonable at the very least. I’m actually brilliant at over-regulation, and can suppress even my most fundamental bodily demands in order to be polite (spoiler alert: this is not a very good thing for me, or my bladder).
I have genuine friendships that I value immensely, I volunteer in two community service roles, and I regularly teach drawing workshops to children and young people – something I’m told I’m very good at, even though I’m rather prone to tripping over the whiteboard and dropping markers as I flail them about.
Ironically I can probably thank my long-time interest in manga for my having become as adept at interpreting emotions as I am. The art form systemises expressions into a readable visual language as well as any I’d wager, and I should also express gratitude to those likeable super-perky kawaii anime characters for teaching me how to act positive and upbeat in social environments (although I tended to take this too far when I was younger, and have gratefully nixed the “fan service” element of this behaviour model since then).
In short, I’ve learned how to behave when I’m around other people so as not to discomfort them. I don’t rock, I don’t chew things I shouldn’t, I don’t wave my hands erratically, or make noises, or repeat nonsensical sentences for comfort – at least not in public, or at least not in a way likely to attract notice. I hold these behaviours in until I’m at home, usually when I’m alone. I’ve only recently come to recognise all of these random flaps and fidgets for what they truly are - “self-stimulating behaviours”, yet you’ve probably never seen me do much more that wriggle from side to side (that's right, I’m a stimming ninja).
Alas, while age has increased my ability to “act normal” it has also diminished my energy to do so. My capacity for sallying fourth into situations I find bewildering and stressful (like parties or big conventions) has decreased considerably, especially now that I have quit drinking as a means of easing the attendant anxiety. I have days when even going to the supermarket feels as impossibly difficult as trekking to Mordor to cast The One Ring ring into the fires of Mount Doom.
This is why I am so grateful to finally know that I am Autistic. All of these years I have been pushing myself out of my comfort zone, and demoralising myself whenever I found it difficult. When crowds made me panic, when loud noises made me freeze, when innocuous smells made me physically ill, when overwhelm caused melt-downs, and shut-downs, I always blamed myself for being weak, and inadequate, and just pushed myself harder – usually until I collapsed into a long period of depression.
I’ve spent so long trying to just shove through all of my discomfort without realising there was a valid reason for it, and more importantly, that there were things I could do to counter it. Just recently my husband bought me a pair of headphones to wear when I go out into busy environments, and even that small concession has made my world a significantly more manageable place.
I’m also learning to say no. For as long as I can remember I have been a people pleaser. Being chronically anxious about maintaining relationships and afraid of rejection, it has felt tantamount to flinging elephant poo in somebody’s face to dare refuse them anything they ask of me. Now, not so much – it’s probably been downgraded to rabbit poo, which anyone who has a bunny can attest to being far less offensive. This change has given me more strength to turn things down when I know that I don’t have the spoons available.
But, I can still do plenty of stuff. Please don’t assume that because I’m Autistic I’m somehow less capable of caring about people, of leading a class, or being a great parent…
The thing is, I’m not useless. I am a competent human being, and I can do things – lots of things that I’m really proud of, but now I can work on managing my life to a schedule that works for me. Energy accounting is a strategy commonly employed by the Autistic community, and I am just starting to get a handle of the idea that I need to budget activities, paid for by the required recharge time. It’s new, but it’s helping me a lot, especially in the area of being kinder to myself.
I still have a lot to learn about my own condition, as well as the community to which I now belong. I’m not sure how involved I even want to be, because I enjoy my own company and find social expectations incredibly taxing. At this stage I’m still just figuring things out, but at least now I’m equipped with an accurate context through which to view every choice I’ll be making in the future.
I’m neurodiverse. I’m an artist, a woman, a mum, and an Autistic person, and that’s absolutely okay!
I hope that if you’re reading this you won’t have problem with that, but even if you do, ultimately it’s your issue, not mine.
Tsunami Hee Ja. Xo
PS. Yes, I have a formal diagnosis after being assessed by a psychologist and speech pathologist, but I also have awareness that being diagnosed is a privilege not everyone has access to, and recognise that self-diagnosis is totally valid too.