Content warning: this post contains some discussion of mental illness, self-harm and suicide.
I think the first time I realized I was different was when I was five years old in kindergarten class. I have always been a shy person, and that was all the more true when I was a child. I seldom spoke to anyone, and I didn’t really have any friends. While the other kids would play soccer or hopscotch outside, laughing and screaming as most five-year-old kids do, I would take my toy trains and line them all up in a row, or bring a book with me and hide under a tree reading. Eventually, my teachers started to take notice, and they became very concerned about my seemingly aberrant behavior. “Why do you act like this?” they would ask me. “Why don’t you play with the other kids? Why don’t you look people in the eye when they’re talking to you?” It didn’t take long for me to realize that all these questions were really asking the same thing: “Why can’t you act like everyone else?“
I am on the autism spectrum. While this should have been obvious to me at a young age, I didn’t realize this about myself until this year, at age 30. Autism has affected every facet of my life, from jobs to relationships to personal interests and how I see the world. And I wanted to talk about it because, to be honest, I feel alone in this a lot of the time, and I just wanted to explain what I go through and hope that someone out there understands.
Autism is kind of hard to explain, because it affects everyone who has it in different ways. Basically, it is a neurological condition that affects the way people interact with others and perceive the world around them. Autistic people generally have difficulty with social interactions, hypersensitivity to physical stimuli (such as light, sound, and touch), a more literal way of thinking, an intense passion for specific interests or hobbies, and repetitive behaviors which help us calm down and regulate our emotions. I don’t like to call autism a disorder because in my mind, none of these things are inherently bad. They merely illustrate that our minds are different, and no less valid, than the minds of non-autistic people.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle I face as an autistic person is social interaction. I have social anxiety, and just being in a crowded space with many unfamiliar people can easily send me into a panic. I have trouble making eye contact with others (a very common issue for autistic people), and I’ve honestly never been able to understand why. I tend to be socially awkward because I have a hard time processing what people are saying: if people talk too fast, or if there are many people talking over each other, the words all blend together and it just sounds like white noise to me. I also tend to take things literally and can’t understand when someone is being sarcastic or speaking in metaphor. Even the act of going out can be difficult for me, as I tend to be so sensitive to light and sound that many hangouts, like bars or clubs, can be completely overwhelming.
This is not to say I don’t like other people. I love being with people who understand me, like my mother or some of my close friends. In fact, I am often the person my friends turn to when they need help or advice with something, because I love being able to lend an ear and am always willing to listen. There’s an ugly misconception that autistic people lack empathy, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. Many autistic people are the kindest, most empathic people you’ll ever meet, but we experience empathy in different ways than neurotypical people do.
I feel emotions viscerally and feel like I have a bond with all living things. If I turn on the news and there is something terrible happening on the other side of the world, I feel it as if it were happening to my best friend. Sometimes I’ve become inconsolably upset just because I saw a dead bird or animal on the side of the road. I care deeply about human rights and have attended many rallies and political protests speaking out for the rights of immigrants, refugees, and the LGBTQ+ community. The problem I have is that I tend to think that everyone else sees the world the same way as me, which becomes a problem if, say, someone else has different political or religious views than I do, or even different hobbies and interests. I’ve gotten better at this over time, and worked really hard to try to see things from other people’s point of view, but I still struggle with this a lot, because there are a lot of things about people that I just don’t understand.
But autism is really not as doom and gloom as people make it out to be. In many ways, it’s helped me become a more motivated, passionate, and kinder person. Autistic people tend to have a few specific interests which they focus on intensely. Some of my special interests include music, anime (and animation as a whole), and academic subjects like psychology and history. My interest in music gave me the inspiration and drive to learn to play five different instruments, sing, and write my own songs. When I was in high school, while all the other kids were drinking and partying, I would hide in my basement and stay up all night playing my guitar or keyboard. I collected music voraciously, listening to every song in The Beatles’ back catalogue and pouring over the liner notes of my favorite albums. It’s because of this passion for music and art that’s made it possible for me to record an album and play shows around the United States. Music, for me, is a way to express how I’m feeling and communicate with people in a way that anyone will understand.
Honestly, the thing that sucks about autism is not being autistic, but the way society treats people with autism. I was bullied as a child and abused by members of my family, who couldn’t understand why I didn’t fit in the neurotypical mold that they did. I have been in and out of the mental health system since I was 15, constantly given diagnoses – Bipolar Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, Paranoid Schizophrenia – that didn’t fit me at all and only made the stigma worse. I’ve had so many different therapists and been on so many different medications that I can’t even remember them all, and none of them really worked. I’ve been fired from jobs, dumped and cheated on, and disowned by members of my family, all because people would rather not have me around than try to understand me.
It made me depressed. It made me hate myself. It trapped me in a cycle of drinking and drug addiction that I am just now getting out of. It drove me to self-harm and suicide attempts and given me scars that will never go away.
But I feel like now, after 30 years, after changing my name and my gender and moving across the country several times, I feel like I’m finally understanding myself a little bit better. I’m realizing all the things I hated about myself – my social awkwardness, my constant fidgeting, my tendency to get super invested in things and then burn out – they’re all just parts of me that come from the same place as the things I like, like my passion, empathy and love for life. I still wouldn’t say I love myself, but I’ve learned to accept myself a bit better.
There is no cure for my autism, but I don’t think there needs to be. What we need is a cure for intolerance, for bigotry, for stigma. We need people to understand that everyone is different and special and wonderful in their own way. We need more compassion and empathy for those who are struggling and don’t fit in to the norms of society. And we need autistic people, because we understand this better than anyone else. Thank you for coming to my Ted Talk.