I’m an Autistic adult whose passions are writing and advocating for others on the Autism Spectrum. I’ve been a mentor with I CAN since early 2014, so for five years now.
Autism is the lens through which my brain sees the world and projects into it. For me that lens is like a magnifying glass; it enlarges the tiniest details, and when calibrated just right, focuses my thoughts into a beam of pure concentration. My strengths are my resilience and my affinity with words. To me words almost have their own taste and texture, I can almost physically feel the way they flow together.
Growing up, I struggled to see my own strengths. As a young person, I was often shamed for being the way I am, but the truth is, the main person who told me I couldn’t do things was myself. I used to constantly underestimate myself and focus far too much on my struggles rather than my strengths. As a teenager I thought I would never be able to move out of home, or go to university, or have a job. I’ve now done all those things, thanks in large part to an incredible support network that believed in me a lot more than I believed in myself and pushed me to have a go and challenge my negative self-talk. It turns out I had it in me all along, I just didn’t know it.
A big part of my personal story is that in addition to being Autistic, I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), which is a common co-occurring condition among people on the spectrum. This actually poses far more challenges for me than my Autism. OCD can turn even the simplest of tasks into a terrifying ordeal. If I touch anything that has been touched by somebody else or has touched the ground, I am overwhelmed by the urge to wash my hands. If my pen falls on the floor, it’s like it has fallen into a pool of acid. I press pedestrian crossing buttons with my knee, I push door handles with the back of my hand, I hold my breath around people who are coughing or smoking. There was a time, when I was 18, when I could not leave my house because the world was just so full of frightening stimuli.
My approach to combating this has been a process of gradual controlled exposure. Every day I try to push myself just a little bit to confront my triggers. In this way, I have slowly improved to the point where I can now do things like shake people’s hands, get close enough to a bin to throw something in, or use a public bathroom, all things that were unthinkable to me ten years ago. Every day is a battle, and sometimes it seems like I’m not improving at all, but when I compare myself now to how I was in my late teens, I’ve come further than I ever dared to hope.
My friends, family, and colleagues all help to support and empower me by believing in me and thereby validating my sometimes shaky belief in myself. I’ve been able to build on this bedrock of acceptance and support in order to tackle the most debilitating aspects of my OCD and embrace my Autism. The I CAN Network has been pivotal in my journey. It provided me with a supportive group of Autistic peers for the first time in my life and helped me to see my Autism as something that could be a strength instead of just a liability. When I was a kid, I didn’t have access to older Autistic role models to tell me that I wasn’t broken and that things would get better. That would’ve made a world of difference for me, and so I want to provide that support for those growing up on the spectrum today. That to me is the essence of I CAN.
I’m very fortunate in that through my work with I CAN and other Autism advocacy groups, I am constantly surrounded by remarkable Autistics, and through our I CAN blog, Grapevine, I have the privilege of being able to share their stories. It is my sincere hope that this will help society to see a different side of Autism to what they’re used to seeing.
Autism is a core component of who we are, and as such casting it as a negative can lead us to feel like we are fundamentally broken. On the other hand, a positive outlook on Autism allows us to feel empowered and capable. A world that embraces Autism would be a world where we are not seen as diseased or defective versions of “normal” people, but as valid and valued versions of ourselves. Autism acceptance has grown in leaps and bounds within my lifetime, but we’re still a long way from complete inclusion. It’s a work in progress.
Until then, I think one of the most powerful things a person can do is be an example to others in how we treat those who are different, and challenge discrimination and misinformation when we see it.
To my mentees and other Autistic young people reading my story, remember to focus on your strengths; they will take where you need to go in life. There will be tough times, but you are stronger than you think you are, and eventually things will get better. Just because you can’t see the sunrise at midnight, doesn’t mean it’s not coming.